Milwaukee Film Festival 2017

If you’re thinking of beer every time you mention Milwaukee, you’re not the only one.

This city has a long history going back over 150 years and is covered with remnants of its industrial brewing past. Pabst, Schlitz, Miller. They were all part of the spine that has sustained this city. Times change. These days, there’s only one mega-brewery in town (MillerCoors LLC), but craft and small label brewing are booming. There’s a new vitality in the streets that embraces the past while claiming the future, and the Milwaukee Film Festival is part of that resurgence. A 15-day festival with ten years of programming in its rearview mirror, Milwaukee Film utilizes some of the city’s fantastic historic theaters while diving into the latest and greatest on the festival circuit.

Milwaukee is blessed to have many of its old movie houses in operation, and Milwaukee Film has wisely tapped into this resource. The festival centerpiece is the historic Oriental Theatre located downtown near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The unassuming neon marquee masks a gargantuan space that seats close to 2000 in three screening rooms and also serves as festival headquarters. The 90-year old cinema palace features ornate East Indian decor that is breathtaking in scope and beautifully maintained. Seeing your film in the main screening room (seating over 1000) is a truly awesome experience and one that every filmmaker should seek out. Of particular note, Milwaukee Film has taken out a long-term lease on the Oriental, and is planning a $10 million dollar renovation, thereby helping to cement the grand venue as the nexus of festival activity for years to come. Additionally, festival attendees can see films in four other vintage theatres that are a short drive away from each other throughout the greater Milwaukee area. Whether it’s the starry ceiling of the Avalon, or the neighborhood charm of the Times, these venues are one of the truly unique benefits of attending the festival.

Milwaukee’s historic Oriental Theatre, headquarters to the Milwaukee Film Festival. Photograph courtesy Landmark Theatres.

Festival programming for this year was densely packed and brimming with variety.  New works mixed with festival favorites and classic features. Harry Dean Stanton’s beautiful final turn in Lucky unspooled near a packed and dancing audience for the Talking Heads’ 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense. 2016 Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake shared the same venue with a secret screening of Anges Varda’s new documentary Faces Places. Festival categories explored Black and Latino cinema while celebrating the work of local filmmakers. From these resident ranks came this year’s feature award-winner The Blood is at The Doorstep from Milwaukee-based filmmaker Erik Ljung, which focuses on the tragic death of Dontre Hamilton and the community reaction.  Post-screening Q&As were in also in full effect with over 200 filmmakers in attendance to talk about their work.

Of the features and shorts I was able to take in (there were 297 screened this year), my favorites fell mostly into the documentary category. Starting the non-fiction parade was the funny and often revolting food doc Bugs—directed by Andreas Johnsen—which travels with a food scientist and a world-class chef as they explore the emerging industry of edible insect products. Also on the A-List was Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, a comprehensive review of the racial climate in Los Angeles that eventually exploded into the riots following the Rodney King trial. Directed by Oscar-winning Milwaukee son John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), the film interviews a host of eye-witnesses and participants, and helps peel back the layers of tension and complexity with an evenhanded approach. Last on the list was Matt Schrader’s Score: A Film Music Documentary, which dives into the fascinating sphere of film score composers. While offering tribute to some of the more notable movie maestros, it reveals a host of interesting anecdotes and opens a window on the creative process behind some of cinema’s most compelling music.

The Fox-Bay is one of five vintage theaters used by the Milwaukee Film Festival.

For those interested in events outside of the screening room, this year’s options were robust and diverse. Filmmaker workshops featured panel discussions on independent distribution and crowdfunding, while the after-party scene brewed up a DJ celebration of Prince (following a screening of Purple Rain) as well as a movie-themed bowling tournament held next door to the Oriental Theater. A new VR Gallery hosted seven viewing experiences for those interested in the bleeding edge of immersive storytelling. A few minutes away from festival HQ, the filmmaker lounge provided a large networking area where attendees could rest and enjoy catered food, sample local libations and participate in a host of filmmaker conversations and forums.

If you have a few hours to spare, I highly recommend spending some time exploring the city. If the weather is good, a walk in the downtown area will expose you to Milwaukee’s vast architectural and cultural heritage. Divided by rivers and layered with a rich mix of historic and modern structures, the city has an almost European feel to it. Amazing food is easy to find all over town (especially at the Milwaukee Public Market), and a walk along the Lake Michigan waterfront offers great views of the city and several of its festival venues and museums (its home Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival).

The future is bright for Milwaukee Film and the city it represents. The two-week festival saw a nine percent increase this year, seeing over 84,000 festival goers in attendance.  With its deep reservoir of well-curated cinema, commitment to filmmakers, and a movie palace as its exquisite anchor, Milwaukee Film is well on it’s way to becoming one of the top festivals in the Midwest. MM