Conversation: Critics Eric Beltmann and Shelly Sampon React to the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival

Film critic Eric Beltmann covers the 2016 Milwaukee Film FestivalThe eighth annual Milwaukee Film Festival, which closed Oct. 6, proved to be bigger than ever. Over 15 days, nearly 77,000 attendees—an 8% increase over 2015—binged on 283 films from 51 countries presented on six screens. Among them were Critic Speak contributor Eric Beltmann and The Cinemaphile blogger Shelly Sampon. They talk here about the festival’s expansion, seeing too many movies, and why a black-and-white French-language curio was the funniest movie of the festival.

Eric Beltmann: Not counting short films, Shelly, we saw 74 movies between us at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival. The remarkable thing is that I kept running into moviegoers who were easily outpacing us. There’s no question that the festival continues to engender a thriving a local film culture, but perhaps it has also created an ecosystem in which lunatics can flourish. Might we be a little mad? How do you survive the festival? More importantly, have you recovered yet?

Shelly Sampon: I ran into several of those marathon viewers as well, both in person and on social media. What continues to amaze me year after year, and you’re included in this group as well, Eric, are the number of people who see dozens upon dozens of films over the course of the two weeks while still maintaining their full time jobs! I definitely think we are a little mad for what we do, and truthfully I find that the number of films I’m able to digest and review each year diminishes. I watched 28 films this year (though I miscounted and thought I had actually seen 30, so that makes my face itch a bit) and though wished I could have seen more, I was okay with the slate I saw.

As far as recovering? I think I’ve pretty much recovered, though I did take a movie break for about two weeks! I finally broke the fast yesterday when I watched the documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” but even then I still had to remind myself that I was just watching “for fun” and didn’t need to sit down and review the film afterward. (For the record, it’s a really interesting film, particularly for us film geeks who have studied Truffaut’s book of the same title!) I’m curious, Eric, after seeing so many this year, did you have a “movie fast” after the festival?

Eric: I wish I could say that my first post-fest movie was “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” since the book-length interview belongs on any movie lover’s shelf and I’ve been eager to see the adaptation for more than a year. Alas, my first movie ended up being “The Birth of a Nation,” a movie that proved director Nate Parker still has a thing or two to learn from masters like, um, Hitchcock and Truffaut.

I took a break from watching movies for about a week, but only because I was writing about movies—it was a forced detox rather than a fast. For me, the challenge of the festival isn’t the glut of movies, it’s the relentless working, driving, and sleep-depriving. I have my survival schemes, including a trusted backpack that has traveled 13 festivals with me, but one thing I don’t have to pack is stamina. That’s just always in my pocket. Sure, I’m fatigued by Day 15, but give me one long nap and I’m ready to start catching more movies, especially the multiplex offerings that I missed while prepping for and covering the festival. In fact, my screening of “The Birth of a Nation” was quickly followed by “The Girl on the Train” and “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” (Who could have guessed that the Tim Burton movie would prove to be the least muddled?)

Shelly: One thing that really became apparent this year in particular were the number of people that read my reviews and wanted to know how they could see those films. Since most of them don’t receive a theatrical release, the best I can recommend is to keep checking Netflix. Do you find it frustrating, particularly when it comes to really good films, that it’s difficult to share our festival viewing experiences with people?

Eric: I’m not sure frustration is quite the right word, because while I love discussing my favorite movies from the festival, the real subject of those conversations is really enthusiasm for cinema in general, and that’s always transferable. For example, after being knocked out by “Cameraperson” at the festival, I described Kirsten Johnson’s visual essay to my high school students. My goals were to clarify that such movies exist, to model how passion for such movies has value, and to spark their own interest in works beyond the multiplex. If my students also end up specifically seeking out “Cameraperson,” that’s a bonus.

Besides, the vagaries of film distribution have always made it difficult for cinephiles to be on the same page. The digital age has improved access, sure, but even now filmgoers in the Midwest still have to wait years to see celebrated works from Cannes or Sundance or Toronto, and months to see movies released on the coasts, long after the national discourse about them has ebbed. For area film lovers, the delay following the Milwaukee Film Festival is much shorter. Since MFF is a regional festival—rather than host premieres, it curates movies already on the festival circuit—there’s usually a quick turnaround between the fest’s close and many titles appearing on streaming services like Netflix.

Of course, there’s a downside to the Milwaukee Film Festival being among the final stops for movies traveling the festival circuit: By the time MFF starts, many of the programmed titles have already popped up on streaming services. This year, that even included “Morris from America,” the closing night film, and “Five Nights in Maine,” another spotlight presentation. How do you feel about so many festival picks being available in advance? Does that affect how you schedule and prioritize screenings?

Shelly: I’m not going to lie, one of the first things I do after I get my program book each year is jump on to Netflix to see how many are available streaming or via DVD. The philosophy behind it is that I can fill those slots with “real” movies and watch the Netflix ones “whenever,” but sometimes it doesn’t work that way. I’ve watched films available on Netflix in theaters anyway for the experience, or because it fits well into a schedule. I’m often surprised (and maybe encouraged?) at the number of screenings that are nearly sold out even when the film is readily available in the comfort of one’s home.

One of my favorite things to do is to watch with someone a film that I’ve seen and really like, because in doing so, I’m watching that film for the first time through their eyes. For me, that feeling is—for lack of a better word—delicious. And nothing beats watching a film with an audience because experiencing cinematic moments with like-minded people is something you can’t replicate at home by yourself. I will never forget the experience of seeing “The House of the Devil” at the Milwaukee Film Festival in (I think?) 2009. It was a weeknight, and I was at the Marcus North Shore theater in Mequon that day for something like four films. “The House of the Devil” was the last screening of the night, at 10 p.m., and I was just not feeling it! I was tired, I had a 30-minute drive home ahead of me and most of all, it was a horror film and I‘m a total wuss when it comes to that genre. However, the film was so well done (and super scary!) that the audience of about 40 were really into it and reacting to the action on the screen, so we became this cohesive group and I ended up having an absolute blast. That reminds me—“The House of the Devil” should be on my Halloween watch list this year!

Tell me, were there any films during the 2016 festival where there was an “energy” in the audience and do you think it influenced your feelings and/or others’ feelings about those films?

Eric: In “Almost Sunrise,” a strong documentary that argues for distinguishing between PTSD and “moral injury,” there’s a passage in which a mother endures the funeral of her son. It’s a powerful, tough scene—almost too intimate—and behind me a woman began to noisily sob. Out of concern I turned around, only to discover that this filmgoer was, indeed, the same woman from the screen, suffering through her son’s funeral a second time. That startling fact made watching the scene nearly unbearable for me, and made it impossible to view the story through any prism other than empathy. Meanwhile, the film’s main subjects—two area veterans named Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson—were seated ten feet away from me. Since their emotional and psychological journeys, like open wounds, are dabbed and prodded throughout the movie, there was certainly a rare personal tension in the room; only a stone could have resisted being moved when they received a standing ovation at the film’s close.

Shelly: That sounds like an incredibly powerful moment during a very powerful film. I actually watched “Almost Sunrise” as a screener (the producer reached out to critics, much to my relief after not being able to see either showings at the festival) and felt its power even just watching it on my own.

Eric: In the case of “Almost Sunrise,” I think the energy at the screening helped the audience to rightly rally behind a significant film and deserving individuals. What’s more interesting, though, is how audience anticipation often morphs into a kind of delusion. It’s well-documented how filmgoers, after shelling out for tickets and babysitter, will work overtime to persuade themselves they had a good time at even the worst of movies, because that’s preferable to acknowledging they wasted a lot of time and money. I often sense a similar dynamic at film festivals, where middling movies are routinely declared masterpieces.

For example, I kept running into people who insisted “God Knows Where I Am” was their favorite documentary of the festival, but to my eyes Jedd and Todd Wider’s inquiry into the case of Linda Bishop, a homeless woman found dead in a vacant farmhouse, relies on slow, conventional strategies (talking heads, archival photos, relentless establishing shots of anonymous fields) that look like PBS when compared to the fest’s more ambitious nonfiction works. Think of “Cameraperson,” which adopts a sophisticated film grammar, or “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes,” which seems influenced by Frederick Wiseman, Albert and David Maysles, and, to an extent, Nikolaus Geyrhalter.

A scene from "The Prison in Twelve Landscapes"
A scene from “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes”

Director Brett Story aims to present in “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” a comprehensive portrait of the American prison-industrial complex by focusing on unusual details and ripple effects, usually far from the penitentiary grounds. (One vignette tours a small business in the Bronx that specializes in helping families create care packages for inmates that are guaranteed to pass inspection; another examines how the police department in St. Louis County, Missouri, operates a shakedown racket.) There’s poetry in Story’s peculiar aesthetic—a mix of rhythmic structure and fly-on-the-wall observation—and cumulative power in her off-the-beaten-path insights. By contrast, the assertions made in “God Knows Where I Am,” which blames the death of Linda Bishop on holes in the American social net, never thicken into a forceful argument. I couldn’t help but feel that the movie’s cheerleaders were lauding its goals rather than its achievements.

And then there’s “Liza, the Fox-Fairy,” a trifling black comedy from Hungary that inexplicably carried enthusiastic buzz throughout the festival. It follows a young caretaker whose acquaintances keep getting killed, thanks to the envious ghost of a ‘50s Japanese pop star. Sounds fun, I know—I was just as eager to see it as the next guy—but in the end all the laughter in the Downer Theatre sounded an awful lot like hundreds of people pretending not to notice that the movie is largely a flat, arch, clumsy mess. Its whimsy is witless. Or maybe the movie just wasn’t for me. Did you have any experiences like that, where your reaction was wildly out of step with the general reception?

Shelly: Your question reminds me of my friend Jay and a hilarious film experience I had with him.  Before we became friends more than a dozen years ago, his film experiences were limited to “Tommy Boy” and “Newsies,” which, of course, I set about correcting immediately!

Eric: Hey now, leave “Tommy Boy” alone!

Shelly: I’m sorry, I just can’t even with Chris Farley and company. I don’t consider that to be a film snob opinion, just a “good taste” opinion! Jay has come around a lot in the ensuing decade, but in 2007 we were walking out of a screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful “There Will Be Blood,” and I was literally bouncing to the door, I was so excited. Jay’s reaction was, “I don’t know, I didn’t like it at all.” A short time later he came to me to tell me that he had just read an article his favorite sportswriter wrote, gushing about the film, and Jay legitimately was bemoaning, “What’s wrong with me that I didn’t like this movie?!” I still tease him about that almost 10 years later.

Actually, I feel wildly out of step when I read some of your reviews! There are some films that you rave about and I think to myself, “Did I miss something?” One of those films for me this year was “The Demons.” I thought it was decent, but not great. I felt a definite disconnect from the film that could quite possibly be completely intentional. But while I thought the business with the lifeguard was interesting and compelling the rest of the film was just “okay” to me.

Eric: That’s fascinating, because I actually felt the lifeguard subplot was the film’s least successful thread. It’s strange how one movie can yield such disparate responses, but of course that’s precisely why art can achieve personal power. I responded deeply to “The Demons,” partially because it vividly recreated for me what it felt like to grow up in the ‘80s, including the socks, the shirts, the hair, and the way the Trans Am was a machine of almost mythical timbre. But mostly I was impressed by how those time-and-place vibes are used to expertly render interior states rather than narrative beats. I especially loved the uncommon portrayal of affectionate, supportive siblings. When 10-year-old Felix confesses that he’s afraid of contracting AIDS, his older sister brilliantly comforts him by asking him to dance with her to an infectious pop record—and before long their older brother joins in, and Myriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata” becomes the unforgettable adhesive that warmly bonds them. That sublime moment was probably my favorite fragment of the entire festival.

I know “The Demons” polarized audiences—I met several individuals who loathed it—but that couldn’t shake my belief that it’s a major work. That raises a question: How does having a lonely opinion affect your confidence as a critic?

Shelly: I almost always feel terrible when reviewing films from the Cream City Cinema slate of films, which are films made by Milwaukee area filmmakers. So often, they are frankly just not good and amateurish. However, when you’re watching them at the festival, you’re in an auditorium filled with supporters, family and friends of the filmmaker (and almost certainly the filmmaker themselves) and I really have to grapple with being truly objective (especially when I’m really pulling for the film to be good since the filmmakers probably attended the same film school I did!). This year I actually really enjoyed a few of the films, including the documentaries “There Are Jews Here” and “From Mass to the Mountain,” but “Christopher Darling,” a film about a misanthropic musician, earned one of my lowest ratings this year. After reading your pieces about the films you recommend, I’d like to hear about the films you just plain didn’t like.

Eric: Festival movies tend to be under-the-radar works that struggle to locate audiences, so I don’t enjoy kicking them when they’re down—I’m much more interested in discovering hidden gems—but I’ll say that the amateurish murder mystery “Carmin Tropical” was my least favorite movie, followed closely by “Embers,” a lifeless, nearly unwatchable sci-fi parable. I also strongly disliked “Men & Chicken,” a dim-witted comedy from Denmark that confuses nastiness with edginess. What about you? Which films left a bad taste in your mouth?

Shelly: I mentioned how much I disliked “Christopher Darling,” and there was a terrible film in the Black Lens program called “How to Tell You’re a Douchebag” that I could barely sit through. Like you, I really hate tearing down festival films because it takes a lot to get there, and these are films we should be championing, but boy, sometimes it just does not work out. Another film I was really disappointed in was part of the Spotlight presentations: “Five Nights in Maine,” starring David Oyelowo and Dianne Wiest. This film should have been a slam dunk for me because it was a drama that focuses on two (good) actors in an idyllic setting. Instead I found it to be really fragmented and just plain boring.

Switching gears, do you find that the expanded film categories of the festival are an improvement or detriment to its programming?

Eric: We discussed the problems of rigid categories last year, so I was pleased to see that MFF introduced some flexibility in 2016. Although I felt the inaugural United States of Cinema slate was weak, it’s a terrific and timely idea for a category and I’m eager to see what its future will hold. Equally wise was the decision to abandon the strict eight-films-per-strand rule; some categories had six, some had eight, some had more. That elasticity gives the festival the opportunity to make extra room for a rich supply of, say, music documentaries or to prune a slate of, say, anemic movies about food.

A scene from "Rara"
A scene from “Rara”

I had hoped to see more offerings in the new Cine Sin Fronteras category, which is dedicated to movies about the Latinx diaspora. But the one film I saw, the Chilean “Rara,” was excellent. It concerns a 12-year-old girl navigating her parents’ divorce within a middle-class existence, and there’s something radical in director Pepa San Martin’s decision to eschew big drama or sweeping social statements. Instead, it’s a refreshingly life-sized story, brimming with soft, authentic details about how families maneuver and how children are careful observers, internalizing the world from the margins.

Three of my favorite movies—“Rara,” “The Demons,” and “The Fits”—each perpetrated a childlike point-of-view with precision, which might say something about my preferences, but might also say something about the festival’s programmers or global cinema in general. Other common themes of the festival included PTSD, gender issues such as arranged marriages, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Middle Eastern despair. What kinds of recurring themes did you encounter?

Shelly: I saw a lot of documentaries this year, so there wasn’t one recurring theme that stood out for me, though like you I also saw a few films from a largely child’s eye perspective this year: “The Fits,” “The Demons” (which again, I didn’t love but thought was decent) and “Little Boxes,” a film about a family uprooting themselves from their urban comfort zone of Brooklyn to the suburbs of Washington state, among them.

Eric: Did you find yourself drawn to particular subject matter?

Shelly: I’m naturally drawn to classic films in my daily life and watch and read about them voraciously because there’s such a deep well to draw from. I do tend to eventually watch a lot of the non-pedantic looking new releases that come out thanks to a well-used Netflix streaming and DVD subscription, but if I’m looking for pure pleasure in something that is newly released I gravitate toward independent film dramas or “dramedies” that may not necessarily be elite cinema, but have decent stories, actors who don’t make $30 million per picture and were made for budgets under that figure.

That’s why I feel I missed an opportunity by not seeing more films in the United States of Cinema slate. The aforementioned “Little Boxes” was part of that program, and though I didn’t think it was amazing work, I still really enjoyed it. There were a few other films like “AWOL” and “Operator” that I thought looked worth a shot but I just couldn’t fit them in by the end. I always keep a list of films handy throughout the year because most of them do end up appearing on Netflix (though my white whale is still the 2010 Danish film “Nothing’s All Bad,” which still remains one of my favorite festival films of all time).

Eric: For the longest time, my white whale was Asghar Farhadi’s “About Elly,” which played the 2010 Milwaukee Film Festival. Despite an abiding interest in Iranian cinema, I missed it. My sense of loss only intensified after Farhadi subsequently proved himself a master with “A Separation” and “The Past.” After years of being unavailable in North America, “About Elly” was finally released on DVD in August 2015, and I speared that whale almost immediately!

Speaking of Iranian movies, this year I liked “Nahid,” a decent melodrama about a woman caught between an ex-husband, a new lover, and a legal system that seems designed to deny her a future. I’m always drawn to the Worldviews section—I enjoy keeping up with international talents—but for the most part this year’s slate didn’t knock me out, partially because many of the strongest titles were already available for home viewing. Both Jia Zhang-Ke’s “Mountains May Depart” and Grímur Hákonarson’s “Rams” might have made my best list if I hadn’t seen them in advance. I also skipped Matteo Garrone’s “Tale of Tales” because it arrived on DVD in early September; I’ll get around to viewing my copy soon.

For me, MFF’s best category this year was easily the Competition division. I saw all eight films, and each one was an intriguing work that swung for the fences. Six of them ranked among my favorites of the festival.

Shelly: I actually think the Competition slate this year was pretty strong. I saw several of the films (including the really bizarre and entertaining French film “Death by Death,” which I immediately recommended to several fellow cinephiles) and frankly would have been fine with any of them winning. But while I was fine with “The Fits” winning in that category, I can’t say the same of the documentary win for “Nuts!,” an animated film about the life of huckster J.R. Brinkley, which I found to be boring and grating.

A scene from "Kaili Blues"
A scene from “Kaili Blues”

Of all the films I saw at the festival there were a couple that have stayed with me, primarily the film that I feel should have beat “The Fits” in the Competition category, “Kaili Blues,” directed by Bi Gan.  It is a sweeping, beautiful film with a simple story and an unbelievable 40-minute continuous shot in the third act. I was wondering if you saw that film and what your thoughts were, because while I watched it, I thought more than once, “This film has Eric Beltmann written all over it.”

Eric: Well, you certainly have me pegged, Shelly. I saw “Kaili Blues” at the Times Cinema on the first full day of the festival, mostly because there was no way I was going to miss seeing that 40-minute shot on the big screen. While the rhythms and visuals of the movie are entrancing—long traveling shots become a motif; sometimes it feels like we are riding a guided Zoomobile sideways and up-and-down through the verdant, leveled places on screen—what has really stuck in my mind are the sounds, including the thunder bellowing through the alleys. “Kaili Blues” is a movie to get lost inside, and I may have made a mistake by not including it on my best list.

Sound was also integral to “Death by Death,” a brilliantly calibrated comedy inside of relentless and varied meditations on, um, dying. Think of the scene where the main character has a waiting room “shoot-out” with a little boy, or when the clicking of a grocery checkout morphs into the flat-lining of a heart monitor. In the hands of director Xavier Seron, the sound effects often go haywire, which is appropriate, since many of his sight gags are equally gonzo. Quick story: While I was queued for another movie, the audience for “Death by Death” started to spill out onto the sidewalk on Downer Avenue. “That director has issues,” I overheard one filmgoer say. Well, sure, that’s a valid response to a twisted black-and-white comedy overflowing with religious imagery that ends with a distraught man breastfeeding a kitten while wall lights produce a makeshift halo above his head. Then Seron himself exited the doors and sauntered right past me. I was about to relinquish my place in line to chase him down—I had a burning question—when he was quickly whisked away by festival personnel. My unanswered question? I wanted to know whether that kitten ought to be viewed as a reincarnation of the man’s mother. Thoughts, Shelly? We don’t always agree about films, but I suspect we both think “Death by Death” was the best comedy of the festival.

Shelly: When I wrote my capsule review for “Death by Death,” I mentioned that it was the film I would have wanted to make back when I was in film school, and that seriously could not be more true. Its crisp black-and-white cinematography was not only beautiful to look at but was also gritty at appropriate moments. The film’s main character Michel (brilliantly played by Jean-Jacques Rausin) on the surface was a loser and childlike, but he was too complex to be written off as a goofball. “Death by Death” had a number of absolutely absurd elements to it that evoked moments by some of my favorite filmmakers, including David Lynch. (During Michel’s dance in his underwear, I couldn’t stop thinking about Crispin Glover doing his weird moves with cockroaches in his trousers in “Wild At Heart” and the keyboard music playing while the three appliance store employees dance was somehow reminiscent of something out of David Fincher’s “Fight Club.”) You mentioned the final imagery of Michel breastfeeding a cat, and I literally said out loud, “What is happening?!,” but it was with a laugh and a huge smile on my face. “Death by Death” is going to be one of those films that I’m going to watch for in the future to not only own in my collection but to show other people as well.

I know we need to wrap up our conversation soon (the part of the festival I always dread, but I can look forward to our conversations throughout the year!), As far as final thoughts go, once again I feel like one of the luckiest people in the city to be able to experience a diverse slate of films and give my opinion on them because it is just plain fun.

Of course there are things that could be improved. One of the biggest is that we are granted more access to Spotlight presentations. I’ve brought this up before, but the other is that while it’s wonderful to have the number of people involved in the films we’re seeing attending the festival, I do miss having that one big star here to share their films and give a talkback. Two of my most memorable experiences involve the keynote celebrities the festival brought in. One was sitting in the same audience as John Landis and Mark Metcalf as we screened “Animal House” at the Oriental Theater and hearing no one laughing harder than Landis, and the other was watching Woody Allen’s amazing “Crimes and Misdemeanors” with Martin Landau, followed by a talkback with Festival Director Jonathan Jackson. It not only lends a kind of cache to the festival, but is also a great opportunity for film nerds like me to rub shoulders with people we’ve really looked up to all of our lives.

Well, like most people who like to share their opinions, I’ve gone on far too long. What are your final thoughts about the festival, Eric?

Eric: The lack of high-powered guests was noticeable this year, but perhaps that’s an inevitable consequence of the festival’s renewed commitment to regional themes. While there’s always a risk of giving too many feeble movies a pass merely for having local ties—I’m reminded of your feelings about the Cream City Cinema slate—I’d like to commend this year’s MFF for locating a number of terrific films, like “Almost Sunrise,” with Wisconsin connections. One of the best surprises of the festival was “Motley’s Law,” a spirited and thoughtful documentary about Kimberley Motley, a Milwaukee native who is the only American lawyer licensed to practice in Afghanistan. Motley makes for a commanding subject, cutting through the Afghan legal circus with her street smarts, a sardonic sense of humor, and a steady stream of Midwestern cussing. But the movie has one eye on the homefront, too: The bombings in Kabul are juxtaposed with Fourth of July fireworks, and there’s a lengthy passage devoted to how Motley’s husband is shot during a carjacking in Milwaukee. “I don’t want to live like I’m in a war zone—at least not in my free time,” Motley deadpans.

That line stung, given the ongoing Milwaukee tensions in the wake of Dontre Hamilton and, more recently, Sherman Park. To its credit, the festival has never shied away from topical controversies—among the Spotlight presentations this year was the documentary “Milwaukee 53206: A Community Serves Time”—but one thing missing this year were movies that directly engaged with the kind of demagoguery and polarization that has debased our current presidential election season. Maybe this is the right time to steer back to the screwy documentary “Nuts!,” which I liked a lot more than you did. While I enjoyed its visual invention and droll tone, what most appealed to me was the way it systematically revealed how, in the Twenties, “Doctor” J.R. Brinkley parlayed charlatanism into a media empire and then into political clout—in 2016, at least, that previously untold historical footnote seemed to possess allegorical power.