2016 Milwaukee Film Festival: Eric Beltmann’s Top Five

Kirsten Johnson examines her career in documentary filmmaking in "Cameraperson," Eric Beltmann's favorite film of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival.
Kirsten Johnson examines her career in documentary filmmaking in “Cameraperson,” Eric Beltmann’s favorite film of the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival.

Each screening at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival began with a chuckle, as Alice Cooper reminded filmgoers that it’s actually pronounced “Mill-e-wah-que,” which is Algonquin for “the good land.”

That beloved sound bite from “Wayne’s World” was included in the festival’s sponsor trailer, which ran before every movie. It was a discordant choice, since this year’s trailer—think of it as an annual short film that thanks the festival’s major backers—otherwise used a timely election theme to celebrate the city’s arts-and-commerce scene: With Cooper’s rock standard “Elected” blaring on the soundtrack, Milwaukeeans headed to fictional polling places to pull the lever, presumably, for their favorite local philanthropists.

There was something felicitous about how the trailer weirdly fused corporate sponsorship with the 2016 election, a 1992 comedy, and a 1972 radio hit, especially since “Elected” exists as a sweeping reinvention of an earlier Cooper song. All those moving, repurposed parts coalesced to become a fitting emblem for this year’s event. After all, many of the best movies at the 15-day Milwaukee Film Festival, which ended Oct. 6, were acts of strange and exciting synthesis.

The Top Five

I’m still grooving on what Kirsten Johnson achieves in “Cameraperson,” which can be categorized as a documentary but is closer to a personal, poetic memoir. For two decades Johnson has labored as a camera operator on notable nonfiction projects (“Citizenfour,” “The Invisible War”), and here she mines her archive for marginalia that have unusual beauty, raw intimacy, or private resonance. By presenting these snippets sans context, Johnson is able to assign them new meanings and re-consider them as artifacts of her own travels and experiences.

Arranged as a rhythmic, cascading collage with no chronology, “Cameraperson” owes a debt to both Agnès Varda and Soviet montage. Subtle themes emerge out of the ether, including how choices are made to compose or censor pictures, and how the act of recording, of merely being present, always transforms a moment. (Most directors would edit out an ill-timed behind-the-camera sneeze, but for Johnson that sneeze becomes the shot’s main subject.) What’s fascinating, though, is how Johnson seems more interested in exploring how her attendance at scenes of human crisis—war, death, poverty—ultimately changed her. She demystifies the emotional building blocks of cinema, the tools of outward expression, only to turn inward.

It’s no surprise, then, that motherhood becomes a recurring motif, from a women’s clinic in Alabama to a suspenseful baby delivery in Nigeria to affectionate shots of Johnson’s own twins. At one point Johnson records a fellow filmmaker who has recently lost her mother to suicide. As the woman’s resentment begins to squall—she tosses file folders around the room in a white blizzard of sadness—Johnson’s camera, with perfect timing, captures a sheet of actual ice sliding from the roof past a window. Both women gasp, aware of how this unplanned moment quickly switched from mourning to serendipity to shared ecstasy about the power of metaphor. But then Johnson cuts to footage of her own ailing mother. It’s a clarifying juxtaposition, but it’s also a kind of wishful resurrection, since Johnson had previously revealed that her mother is now gone.

That’s a long way of saying that “Cameraperson” transcends resume—it’s no career retrospective—and instead aims to uncover the hidden ways that Johnson’s camera, an extension of her eye, continues to affect her. If there was a better, more searching movie at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival, I didn’t see it.

A scene from "Sand Storm"
A scene from “Sand Storm”

There’s a more contentious mother-and-daughter story in “Sand Storm,” an intricate power play set in a Bedouin village in southern Israel. At first Jalila, the mother, connives to arrest her daughter’s pursuit of modernity—college, cell phones, driving, a boyfriend from outside the tribe—but eventually she becomes an ally and plots her own circumspect mutiny against her husband, who has returned home with an entitled second wife. As played by Ruba Blal-Asfour, Jalila is a secret wolf trying to navigate the pointy rocks, dusty trails, and angular hills of the Negev Desert—metaphors for the chiseled patriarchy that has convinced generations of Bedouin women to consent to their own cages.

A scene from "Les Démons"
A scene from “Les Démons”

My favorite fiction film, though, was “Les Démons,” a supremely accomplished story of summer leisure and malaise among kids in ‘80s Montreal. With his controlled, elaborate formalism, it’s easy to see why Canadian director Philippe Lesage has earned comparisons to Michael Haneke. But he’s much less clinical, and in the way he prioritizes messy inner lives and shaggy vibes—if you grew up in the ‘80s, you’ll be transported back to the classroom where you blasted wads of wet paper into the ceiling tiles—Lesage is perhaps more like an eerie hybrid of Truffaut, Vigo and Linklater. Those artists crafted some of the cinema’s most perceptive forays into childhood, and Lesage is equally committed to charting what it means to be young, confused and fearful.

A scene from "The Fits"
A scene from “The Fits”

While there isn’t any paranormal activity in “Les Démons”—the malignant spirits of the title are purely psychological—there are, indeed, supernatural spasms in “The Fits,” another disorienting film about young people who harbor overwhelming feelings. Winner of the festival’s Herzfeld Competition Jury Award, the movie follows Toni, a Cincinnati tomboy drawn to both boxing and competitive dancing. It’s a focused study of bodies in perpetual motion and, when a mysterious contagion arrives, convulsion. As directed by Anna Rose Holmer, “The Fits” is an airy, lyrical coming-of-age story that confidently glides between the real and unreal to smartly riff on the antiquated conflation of female identity and hysteria.

Personal discovery is also at the center of Alex Myung’s “Arrival,” a wordless, 22-minute animated drama about a young man whose failure to be truthful with his mother increasingly interferes with his well-being. By blending gorgeous, hand-drawn visuals with a mature, frank story—imagine Gregg Araki directing a Studio Ghibli cartoon—Myung crafts a realistic vision of love and anguish that explodes into a kaleidoscopic release. I haven’t included a short film on a festival best list since 2004, but “Arrival” is a dazzling, deeply moving work. Those around me applauded and wept; I only had something in my eye, I swear.

Five Favorite Films at the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival

  1. Cameraperson / dir. Kirsten Johnson, USA
  2. Les Démons / dir. Philippe Lesage, Canada
  3. Sand Storm / dir. Elite Zexer, Israel
  4. Arrival / dir. Alex Myung, USA
  5. The Fits / dir. Anna Rose Holmer, USA