The great French film director François Truffaut had a simple rule: If you want to know what a story’s really about, reflect on what’s changed by the end.
By that metric, the story of the Milwaukee Film Festival’s first decade—its 10th edition opens Thursday—has a classic Hollywood theme. It’s the story of ragtag movie enthusiasts who dream big, find their identity, put down roots and discover they aren’t so crazy and alone after all.
If you’re looking for a boyish leading man, you’ll find him in MFF’s Chief Executive Officer & Artistic Director Jonathan Jackson, who once programmed movies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Union Theater. At the beginning of our story Jackson famously presented films to audiences with movie-mad gusto, his cinephilia equaled only by his disinterest in tucking his shirt into his jeans. Now, though, Jackson is a dapper, confident exec who doesn’t look out of place on stage next to Mayor Tom Barrett. Sometimes he even wears a tie.
“We’ve been through a lot of obstacles,” Jackson said when introducing the inaugural Milwaukee Film Festival in 2009, an 11-day, two-venue event that rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the old Milwaukee International Film Festival.
Standing next to him was festival board chairman Chris Abele, who currently serves as the chief executive officer of Milwaukee County. Abele bragged that the festival was already larger in scale than the Chicago Film Festival.
“You think we grew fast before, watch what happens now,” Abele said, and his swagger has since proved prescient.
What’s fascinating is how expansion required contraction. At the start, MFF partnered with the Marcus and Landmark theater chains to find screens, which enabled the festival to stretch from Mequon to New Berlin, with the East Side’s majestic Landmark Oriental Theatre serving as its main hub. By 2012, though, MFF had lengthened to 15 days each fall and cut ties with Marcus to reduce its geographical footprint. The festival replaced the Marcus venues with neighborhood theaters closer to home and, for the first time, Jackson and company seemed to know exactly how to position the festival as a smaller, tighter Milwaukee brand, right when the city was striving to be a great 21st-century metropolis.
Now one of the largest film festivals in the United States—last year saw a record 84,000 attendees and 101 sellouts at five venues—MFF ranks among the city’s key cultural institutions, maintaining a year-long presence in the form of free monthly screenings for members, an educational outreach program for students and workshops, alliances and grants for area filmmakers.
Jackson’s boldest dream, though, wasn’t realized until this past summer. When Milwaukee Film, the festival’s parent nonprofit, acquired a 31-year lease to run the Oriental Theatre and took over daily operations from Landmark, the organization cemented its East Side roots and secured a path to long-term sustainability. After six weeks of renovation, the movie palace reopened in August with an ambitious rotation of independent movies, revivals and cult oddities.
That restless, zealous spirit has carried over into the festival’s 10-year birthday celebration, which will present six world premieres, one U.S. premiere and three new program categories. More than 300 films will screen over 15 days at five locations.
This year MFF will utilize all three screens at the Oriental Theatre and, in a startling move, eschew the historic Downer Theatre. Instead, the festival will christen the Jan Serr Studio Cinema, a “pop up cinema” that repurposes the top floor of the Kenilworth Square East building as a short-term, fully functional movie theater just around the corner from the Oriental.
“The new theater provides tremendous opportunity for the continued success and growth of the festival, particularly with its proximity to the Oriental Theatre and its location in the same building as our VR Gallery,” Jackson said in a news release.
For Washington County filmgoers, the closest venues remain the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill in Whitefish Bay and the Times Cinema in Washington Heights. The Avalon Theater in Bay View is another returning cinema.
The festival will kick off with “Science Fair,” a feel-good documentary about high schoolers competing in the International Science and Engineering Fair, and close with “Back at the Staircase,” a chamber drama about relatives stuck in the same cabin while coping with the hospitalization of the family matriarch. “Wild Nights with Emily,” a comedy starring Molly Shannon as Emily Dickinson, will serve as the fest’s centerpiece film. The directors of all three films are scheduled to attend.
Among the world premieres are “The First Patient,” Chip Duncan’s revealing documentary about first year medical students dissecting human cadavers, and “This Little Light,” which concerns a New Orleans freedom singer fired from her nonprofit job after marrying her wife. Several premieres have a regional flavor, including “Lake Michigan Monster,” a stylish, black-and-white comedy about a ship captain hunting for the title creature.
The world-famous Alloy Orchestra will return to Milwaukee to present live musical accompaniment for “A Page of Madness” (1926), a silent Japanese classic set inside an insane asylum. Other foreign highlights include new works by major filmmakers such as Pawel Pawlikowski, Asghar Farhadi, Lee Chang-dong and Hirokazu Kore-eda.
New program divisions include Das Kino, which spotlights German cinema; Teen Screen, which collects movies about modern adolescence selected by area teens; and GenreQueer, which showcases documentaries and features about LGBTQ+ issues.
The festival runs Thursday through Nov. 1. The full lineup and ticket information are online at mkefilm.org.