Local, weird, darkly funny: ‘The One Who Watches’

Screenshot from "The One Who Watches," a film by husband/wife duo Nicholas Sunsdahl and Molly Josefson. The movie was shot in locations around Northeastern Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin.

Dr. Jesse (Jesse Whiting) is left wondering what to do next in “The One Who Watches,” a film by Duluth husband/wife duo Nicholas Sunsdahl and Molly Josefson. The movie was shot in locations around Northeastern Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin. (Screenshot)

A new short film, “The One Who Watches,” by Duluth filmmakers Nicholas Sunsdahl and Molly Josefson, made the following impressions on me, in this order: 1) the mix of Bemidji, Iron Range and Twin Ports settings and characters, 2) the abject film school weirdness, and 3) the dark, persistent humor, punctuated by one scene that made me laugh out loud.

“The One Who Watches” premiered last night to a sold-out Zinema 2 theater on Superior Street in Duluth . I wasn’t there, but this afternoon I did watch the movie at my desk while eating heat-ups for lunch.

The movie opens with old men at a small town cafe saying cliched small town old man things to camera. The acting is bad, but then again, are they acting? Hold that question in your mind, because that’ll be bubbling in your consciousness throughout the film. The central character is Dr. Jesse (Jesse Whiting), a new professor at this small town’s university. He’s writing a book that no one will ever read about the logic of mythology using a manual typewriter at the end of a dock. An empty canoe floats behind him. A plate of fine food sits barely eaten at the side of the card table. It’s that kind of movie.

We’re led to believe that this could be a horror flick. “Lake Windigo,” named for the cannibalistic monster of Indian lore, is supposed to hide secrets, according to the locals. What happens instead is something even more frightening. The professor learns that what awaits him is an ordinary, often mediocre life, as death leisurely pursues him in a canoe.

The hapless professor, utterly passive in all matters, is harangued into playing the lead in a community theater musical about the history of the area. The director, Jean, is an intense, cult leader-like figure often found staring at things happening in the movie with this look:

You might, for a time, share this look from the community theater director in "The One Who Watches" while watching the film.

You might, for a time, share this look from Jean (Sean Elmquist), the community theater director, in “The One Who Watches” while watching the film. I sure did. (Screenshot)

“Anyone can act,” says Jean at one point, convincing the professor to join his play. “Not everyone can run the lights, but anyone can act.”

“The One Who Watches” runs 49 minutes, and all 49 minutes are worth watching to get one scene. At one point Jean gives Dr. Jesse a vague character note that he plays a son of this region, but that he is conflicted between his family traditions and the wonton destruction of the environment. Without any lines or a script, Jesse is pushed out on stage where two singing lumberjack girls come out belting a campy number about the various kinds of trees you find in the forest. Whitings reactions as Dr. Jesse during this scene summarize how I often feel about life in my native North Woods. It doesn’t help that Dr. Jesse wears a brown blazer throughout the movie strikingly similar to one I wear all the time in my job … as a college teacher. What have I become?

It all builds to an esoteric conclusion, aided along the way by copious consumption of a blue drink that everyone calls “Blue Ox.” “The One Who Watches” is darkly funny and thoughtful, but mostly weird. You’ll note the authentic Northern Minnesota accents that clearly required no dialect coaching whatsoever.

My big takeaway is how a casual production like this could pull so much beauty and intrigue just from the settings in Bemidij, Virginia, MN, Duluth and Superior, Wisconsin. Dr. Jesse’s office scenes were clearly filmed in the drab, depressing office wing of the Holden Fine Arts Building at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, my alma mater. Truly, it’s a good example of how Northern Minnesota and the Twin Ports of Duluth and Superior are great places for making any kind of movie, as this genre-bending independent film shows.

“The One Who Watches,” directed by Sunsdahl, written and produced by Josefson and Sunsdahl, is available for streaming or purchase right now at Sunsdahl’s website. It will play again at Zinema in Duluth on Jan. 6, 2015 and in Minneapolis at Trylon Microcinema on Jan. 8.


  1. Lynniemarie says

    My take from the big screen preview – funny, weird, creepy and very entertaining! Would highly recommend. I’m guessing most will have some personal take from the plot. I love the authenticity of “acting”.

  2. As a life long Iron Ranger, I found “The One Who Watches” as a fantastic portrayal of quirky small town Minnesota. There were many unexpected laugh out loud moments. Worth everyone’s time to watch. I look forward to being the one who watches it a second time to catch what I missed the first time due to laughter.

  3. Best thing since pop-up-toast

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