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Jon Weisbrod / By JON WEISBROD 

The Owatonna football team completed its fourth and final day of summer camp for varsity and b-squad players on Wednesday afternoon. Though most of last season’s core returns, there are still a number of questions that need to be addressed once preseason practice begins in mid-August. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

OHS grad to direct Korean War film produced by Winter State Entertainment

OWATONNA — Winter State Entertainment, the production company operated by Owatonna’s Hamid and Camille Torabpour, is going to war, the Korean War.

Winter State has signed on to produce “A Bitter Front,” inspired by real events. Ryan Huang, who grew up in Owatonna, wrote the film and will direct it.

Huang edited a documentary on Sly and the Family Stone, another Winter State project, and “he did a fantastic job on that,” Hamid Torabpour said. “I’m a big fan.”

Since graduating from the University of Southern California’s film school, Huang has freelanced on editing projects, but the 50-plus hours of footage he received for the Sly and the Family Stone documentary was “daunting” to cut into a manageable length while maintaining coherent flow, Huang said. “Editing is definitely a thing I like to do on the side,” and he came away from this experience “with a lot more appreciation for the music of Sly and the Family Stone.”

Huang, a 2014 graduate of Owatonna High School, “has a work ethic to get things done,” and he’s “very detail-oriented,” Torabpour said. “He’s a brilliant writer and filmmaker.”

“A Bitter Front” will follow a combat surgeon deployed to a remote United Nations position in North Korea late in 1950, according to The Hollywood Reporter. In the Chosin Reservoir, outnumbered Marines face annihilation at the hands of thousands of Chinese soldiers, and it’s in this frigid, punishing, and unforgiving environment that the protagonist must treat numerous patients while trying to survive himself.

Characters are based on real individuals, and the 1950 Battle of Chosin is really “emblematic of the entire conflict,” Huang said. “I try to maintain as much historical accuracy as possible.”

“I’ve always been a history buff, especially military history,” and as Huang learned more about the Korean War, he was increasingly “surprised by how little attention it receives,” particularly in comparison with World War II, which preceded it, and the Vietnam War, which followed it, Huang said. And one doesn’t have to look far to see that conflict still has “geopolitical repercussions” today, with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un continuing to fire missiles on a regular basis to worldwide consternation.

Huang has spoken to Korean War veterans, which makes this project “personal” to him, he said. Unfortunately, “their sacrifices aren’t remembered as much” as those of veterans of others wars.

Consequently, “it’s time for a big-screen treatment to bring” the Korean War to audiences, he said. While there are “lots of good documentaries” about the Korean War, the reality is that “narrative films attract a mass audience.”

The goal is to begin prepping in October for a February 2020 shoot, with the vast preponderance of filming in this area, as south-central Minnesota will substitute for the Chosin Reservoir, Torabpour said. “We want to keep bringing good films here.”

Minnesota “is an untapped resource as a setting for films,” Huang said. “I’m excited to bring filmmaking to the Midwest.”

A Minnesota winter should serve superbly for the film’s setting in the Chosin Reservoir, where wind chills reached as low as 70 degrees below zero, Huang said. “It was a pretty terrible place.”

Huang’s debut feature, “The Root of Evil,” was named best student film at the 2014 Catalina Film Festival, according to THR. His short, “The Woman in the Mirror,” a biopic on street photographer Vivian Maier, screened at the 21st Sonoma International Film Festival, while his sci-fi drama, “Continuum,” co-directed by Justin Chien, won best short film honors at the 2018 Chinese American Film Festival.

Torabpour and Huang discussed this project around Thanksgiving of 2018, and, by Christmas, the latter delivered a script to the former, Torabpour said. “It was amazing.”

In fact, because of the strength of the script, Torabpour is confident the movie will attract an excellent cast, he said. “It’s going to be great.”

Huang is a graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, considered by many the finest film school in America. Distinguished alumni include Judd Apatow, Ryan Coogler, Ron Howard, George Lucas, Shonda Rimes, and Robert Zemeckis.

USC’s film school boasts “resources to set you up after graduation,” and “I’m still experiencing the benefits of it today,” Huang said. “You’re tied into this network of people you went there with,” and Huang’s team for films is comprised mostly of associates from USC, so “we form sort of this support group.”

Huang’s interest in filmmaking spiked as he entered high school, but “I just saw it as a hobby to do with friends after school,” he said. “I couldn’t conceive of more than that,” and becoming a doctor remained his main priority.

However, the reception for “The Root of Evil,” which he filmed with his classmates while in high school, proved to be a “life-changing experience,” he said. “I wanted to try what I was really passionate about,” and that led him to USC.

While his parents are from California, and he’d visited numerous times, “it seemed like such a different place from the Midwest,” but “I had to follow the film program of my dreams,” he said. That proved a judicious decision, as “I benefit just from my association” with the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Torabpour has found a kindred spirit in Huang — “we’re both sons of immigrants” — and, as a production company, “we love to give young filmmakers a chance,” Torabpour said. “This is a hard business to be in,” but “we’re trying to change the industry one film at a time and be good people while doing it.”

Community partners recognized for assistance to Steele Waseca Drug Court during picnic

OWATONNA — The Steele County Safe & Drug Free Coalition and Steele Waseca Drug Court celebrated several successes from the last year during a picnic on a pristine Wednesday afternoon.

This was the first year the two organizations combined their events, said Andi Gaffke, coordinator for the Coalition. The Coalition “empowers youth to choose chemical-free lifestyles,” and “some of our best volunteers come from the recovery community.”

Those individuals “really take it to heart,” Gaffke said. “We really appreciate them.”

This is the fifth year of Steele Waseca Drug Court, and “we work with” numerous “community partners,” said Nicole Grams, the program’s coordinator. Many of those entities were represented Wednesday, with some receiving awards, including members of Owatonna Community Education, who were honored for helping adults attain their GEDs, among other contributions.

Achieving a GED not only gives individuals “a leg up in the job market,” but boosts their self-confidence, as well, said Joseph Bueltel, assistant chief judge for the third judicial district. These community education staffers “work super-hard with our group.”

“I love my job,” said Angela Donlon, an Adult Basic Education teacher in Community Education. “I feel so lucky to be there every day and part of (their) journey.”

“The struggles are worth it,” Donlon added. It’s “overwhelming to watch the successes.”

Among those success stories is Shavon Hodges, a drug court graduate who achieved her GED with the help of instructors like Donlon and Kim Reyant, adult learning center site supervisor in Community Education.

Those individuals “have been the best thing that could ever happen to me,” Hodges said. Hodges had been trying to attain her GED since being incarcerated at age 18, but it “wouldn’t work,” because no one was willing to devote the time to provide her the assistance she needed.

However, the team in Community Education “never gave up on me,” and “I love you,” Hodges said. “Without you, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Hodges never thought she’d have a shot at college, but she’s now “trying,” she said. “If I can do it, (any of you) can do it.”

Another winner Wednesday was Howard Lestrud, who received the Community Partner Award.

Lestrud has covered almost every drug court graduation and written detailed stories about them for the Steele County Times, Bueltel said. Lestrud’s pieces “show what we do in drug court and why we do it.”

Drug court “graduates and those behind the scenes have done a fabulous job,” Lestrud said. “It’s been an inspirational experience for me to cover (them).”

Several drug court alums were in attendance at the picnic Wednesday, and “we like to see our graduates coming back,” Grams said. It shows those individuals are “continuing to live long, healthy lives” following their drug court experiences.

The Steele Waseca Drug Court, which has graduated more than 40 individuals since its inception, is a voluntary program created by the District Court that allows eligible defendants to reduce their prison or jail sentences in exchange for completing substance abuse treatment and meeting other conditions. The program uses a team approach to deliver evidence-based practices including rigorous treatment, intensive supervision, random and frequent drug and alcohol testing, court appearances, licensed mental-health service providers, and educational programming.

The Steele County Safe and Drug Free Coalition employs seven strategies to affect community change, according to Gaffke. The organization attempts to provide information, enhance skills with workshops, offer support — including to those trying to kick their addictions — increase access and reduce barriers, change consequences via incentives and disincentives, alter environments, and modify policies.

The Coalition will have a booth, “Hidden in Plain Site,” at the Steele County Free Fair, where they’ll educate adults on how to spot signs of substance abuse in youth, Gaffke said Wednesday. “You don’t need to be an expert” to notice signals and then “start a conversation.”

Jeffrey Jackson / By JEFFREY JACKSON 

Elliot Twins tenant Jonathan Martin picks the elements of the planned renovation that matter most to him on July 11, 2019. (Martin Moylan/MPR News)

Fair talks fire extinguishers, most common incidents at safety meeting

OWATONNA — Steele County’s biggest event of the year is only 12 days away, which means it’s really time to get serious.

Staff and volunteers of the Steele County Free Fair gathered in the Beer Garden on Tuesday evening for the annual safety meeting, highlighting some of the most common incidents that arise during fair week and picking one emergency preparedness theme to amplify. The theme rotates each year, with the 2019 safety theme centering on fires and fire extinguishers.

“We have a lot of hay and straw in all these buildings,” said Rick Ellingson, the safety director for the fair. “I’m honestly surprised that we haven’t had [a fire] before.”

Members of the Owatonna Fire Department presented the proper use of a fire extinguisher to those in attendance, stating that at the beginning of the fair each year they inspect all the extinguishers not only in the fair buildings but also in each and every food stand.

“We inspect the food booths to make sure that they have the appropriate extinguisher for what they’re working with,” said Ryan Seykora with the fire department, noting that different fires such as grease fires could require different extinguishers. For the most part, Seykora said that carbon dioxide extinguishers will be the most common ones found throughout the fairgrounds.

“This is a basic thing, but it’s something that not a lot of people have utilized or tried before,” Seykora said.

The firefighters shared the basic rules to using a fire extinguisher which can be summarized down to the acronym PASS: pull the tamper seal and pin, aim at the base of the fire, squeeze the lever, and sweep back and forth.

An electronic mock fire and extinguisher was used at the meeting to demonstrate the importance aim for the base of the fire. When aiming at the middle or top of the fire it can quickly get out of control, whereas aiming at the base of the fire can quickly snuff out the flames. Seykora said that a typical extinguisher is good for about 10 seconds while fighting a fire, but the general rule of thumb is to give one second per pound for an extinguisher.

The most important rules that Seykora gave the fair volunteers and staff were to always call the fire department even if a fire has been successfully knocked down and to always leave an exit between yourself and a fire.

“You always, always leave an escape route,” Seykora asserted. “Things are easily replaceable in the overall scheme of things. Your life is not.”

Ellingson and Steele County Sheriff Lon Thiele also presented during the safety meeting, touching on incidents that have occurred on the fairgrounds in the past and the most likely incidents that will occur again this year. Past incidents have including people tripping over cords, vandalism, persons falling off a ride after it has stopped, and weather. The most common incidents that the duo say are likely to occur again are calls for first aid and lost or separated children.

“There are a ton of different scenarios that can play out, but we have to take it one step at a time,” Thiele said. “At the end of the day, this is a fun event, and we are going to do our best to keep it family-friendly.”

Thiele reminded the public to take advantage of Operation Child ID located at the Sheriff’s Shack on the fairgrounds where a deputy will fingerprint the child and give ID tags for children to wear while at the fair. The sheriff also encourages all parents to take a photo of their child each time they come to the fair that will show not only the child’s face but also the outfit the child is wearing.

“It is also a good idea to take a picture of where you park and what you are parked by,” Thiele added, stating that car dings are too a common occurrence at the fair. “That way we will have a better chance at identifying what happened.”

Suspicious activity was also discussed during the meeting, whether it be related to intoxication, mental health, or even a suspicious package. In 2018, Thiele stated that there was an incident of a suspicious package at the fairgrounds during fair week, but that upon investigation it turned out to be nothing.

“If you see something, say something,” Ellingson said, stating that it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Thiele also stressed the zero-tolerance policy adopted at the fairgrounds, explaining that once a person is ejected from the fair that they are barred from returning the rest of the week. He said that if a person who has been banned from the fair does return to the grounds that they will be cited with disorderly conduct.

The Steele County Free Fair is Aug. 13-18.