The ninth annual Milwaukee Film Festival, which closed Oct. 12, hosted a record-breaking 84,000 attendees, 101 sold-out screenings, and nearly 200 filmmakers and guests participating in talkbacks. The conversation continues below, as Critic Speak contributor Eric Beltmann and The Cinemaphile blogger Shelly Sampon discuss why “The Blood Is at the Doorstep” deserved its Audience Award for best feature, why too many other documentaries stumbled, and why Haley Lu Richardson’s dancing about architecture was among the festival highlights.
Eric Beltmann: Even though I caught more movies than ever before—my final tally was 50 features and 24 shorts—I still left the Milwaukee Film Festival lamenting what I missed. Chief among my regrets are Nanfu Wang’s “I Am Another You,” John Ridley’s “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992” and Julian Rosefeldt’s “Manifesto,” which I know you loved. The fact is that it’s impossible to see everything. There has to be a whittling down, and I always start with the 10 movies that are non-negotiable and then build a schedule around them. My preferences usually steer me first to the Competition section and new works by major international figures, but I try to indulge some hunches, too. If I’ve learned anything after 14 years of covering film festivals, it’s that the “sure thing” often isn’t and the uncharted work often proves to be the little movie that could. Once my plan is printed and taped inside my trusted notebook, every other screening no longer exists—otherwise I might go mad from fear of missing out. Shelly, how do you choose what to see? And do you think you made the right choices this year?
Shelly Sampon: Wow, 50 features and 24 shorts—that’s incredible! I managed 35 features this year, which actually was my highest in the last couple of years. I’ll admit to being a bit behind this year—I’m normally pretty organized and get my schedule together a couple of weeks early but I didn’t get a chance to set my schedule until a few days before the festival began. That’s one blessing with having a press pass—you don’t necessarily have to worry about capacity as long as you’re there with time to spare. Once I did get my stuff together it was business as usual; one of the several program guides I use was littered with post-it notes on every page with the marginalia of a deranged person and a general idea of what’s going to happen for the next two weeks.
You are a lot more intrepid than I am, and I try to avoid chaos as much as possible. I usually stick to theaters like the Fox-Bay, Avalon and Times Cinema (which is about two minutes from my house), so I do miss some of the spotlight and high-profile films that mainly screen at the Oriental and Downer Theatres. But I’m generally okay with that because there’s usually a lot of other films to see, and there’s always Netflix in the future. I had to laugh the other day when I was going through my exhaustive Netflix queue because at least 70% of the films on it were past festival films I either never got around to seeing or want to watch again.
Did I make the right choices this year? I definitely regret missing “Lucky.” That was a film I wanted to see even before the festival slate was announced. I also wish I had seen “I, Daniel Blake,” but I was really slowing down by the time that came around and decided to just watch it after the festival on Amazon. I do try to be a little more well-rounded and see films from each slate, but I only got around to one Cine Sin Fronteras film, “Divinas Divas,” which could just as easily have been in the Documentary Favorites program.
Eric: “Lucky” placed in my Top Five. “I, Daniel Blake” was also among the best films in the fest, but I saw it much earlier via Amazon, so it wasn’t part of my festival. Jonathan Jackson, MFF’s Artistic & Executive Director, has repeatedly argued that online availability doesn’t matter, and from a box-office standpoint he’s not wrong. After all, those screenings still sell well and there’s virtue in the communal, big screen experience. But in terms of branding, it matters a great deal. If there’s too much promiscuous product, MFF runs the risk of functioning as little more than a glorified Netflix. The inclusion of, say, “Aquarius” would have been very exciting last fall, but in 2017 it just felt like day-old donuts.
Shelly: Truthfully, there were only a couple of films that really excited me this year—I normally end each evening with a discussion with Chris, my better half, about the films I watched and this time with a few exceptions my answer to “How were they?” was invariably “Eh, they were okay.” I feel like this has been become a growing pattern for the past few years, whereas years ago I was excited about so many more films. I can still remember certain screenings from years past yet I honestly couldn’t name off the top of my head five films I watched last year.
I also couldn’t agree with you more about the availability of films on streaming services (or in some cases, already released on DVD) that are on MFF’s schedule. I’ll be honest—the first thing I do after tearing open the MFF program guide for a cursory look is to see if there are any films available on Netflix or Amazon Prime. One reason is to possibly frontload some films before the festival if possible (a pipe dream I never realize) and also to see if there’s anything I could watch at home and therefore free up a cinema slot. The experience is never the same, true, but if I were a ticket buyer I would definitely avail myself of those services. This year, I was able to find about 10 films available via Netflix and Amazon, though I only availed myself of one. “Aquarius” remains on my list, however!
Eric: “Aquarius” is fantastic. Its story of a strong woman who resists an insidious corporate takeover of her apartment complex carries subtle political power—it feels like both an X-ray of 2016 and a blueprint for how to remain vigilant against encroaching corruption and moral turpitude. At a time when each new day of American news has us reeling, “Aquarius” feels like a renewed call to action. I’m sure those who saw it at the festival were glad to have seen it on the big screen. It might be a modern classic.
Shelly: This year there were several classics that screened at the festival that I’d seen a million times (and I’m sorry, I love Prince’s music but “Purple Rain” is just not a good film and I wasn’t even tempted) but it was really just “Tampopo” that I wanted to see on the big screen despite the fact that I have a wonderful Criterion Collection copy in my collection.
As someone who has also attended the festival since its beginning, have you experienced a change in your overall perception of the festival—for better or worse?
Eric: While I wish MFF existed on the frontlines of global cinema—this year, I would have been excited for the chance to see new works from Andrey Zvyagintsev, Ruben Ostland, Lucrecia Martel, Chloé Zhao, Valeska Brisebach, Claire Denis, Léonor Serraille and Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias, all of which are generating buzz elsewhere—I’ve come to terms with the fact that Milwaukee simply doesn’t have the clout to compete with, say, Cannes or Locarno. Given its youth and its limitations, I think the Milwaukee Film Festival does a remarkable job. Among its peers on the regional festival circuit, MFF already ranks as one of the best in the country. When MFF expanded to 15 days in 2012, it became one of the longest of its kind, and it still feels totally justified.
Nine years in, festival operations have become dependably smooth (shows start on time, lines are well-managed, companion events are imaginative). Considering the sheer size of the fest, spread across five venues, that’s rather miraculous. The fine-tuning this year made a difference, too. For example, moving the pass holder line from the lounge to the sidewalk at the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill solved a logistical nightmare—in recent years, the lounge queue had become a free-for-all. This year, the pre-show content was thankfully slashed in half. Even the obligatory sponsor trailer found a beautiful way to hold the interest of frequent filmgoers, by having four versions of its mini-story about a woman who visits a tattoo parlor and catches the eye of the employees. It kept you guessing: Which soundtrack will we hear today? Will it be the color or black-and-white version? Will it have the girl-gets-boy ending, or the girl-gets-girl ending?
I know what you mean, though, about finding too many movies to be middling experiences. Let’s talk about the documentaries, which to my mind are too often judged based on their subject matter alone. For example, “Score: A Film Music Documentary” will reverberate with any movie lover, especially those who get goosebumps when they hear the 20th Century Fox fanfare. But it’s also a basic compendium of the usual touchstones in the history of film music. I had a blast, but learned almost nothing. And there’s no doubt that “Swim Team” tells a sweet story—it’s about a New Jersey family that forms a competitive swim club for autistic teens—but you can feel it straining for uplift from its first frames, and there’s an arbitrary quality to its conventional parade of talking-head interviews and underwater footage. As a work of cinema, it stays in the shallow end of the pool. How did you feel about the documentaries that you saw?
Shelly: This year, as in most recent years, I inadvertently gravitated to more documentaries than feature films, but for the most part I was underwhelmed. The first film I saw was “A Gray State,” directed by Erik Nelson. It’s about the aspiring filmmaker David Crowley and the tragic violence that befalls his family. I found it to be compelling, but scattered. I felt the same way about “ACORN and the Firestorm” and “Love and Saucers” as well, though in “Saucers’” defense the whole movie was a big WTF so I give it a little more leeway.
Eric: “Love and Saucers ” did have the festival’s best opening line: “When I was 17, I lost my virginity to a female extra-terrestrial. That’s all I can say about it.” I agree with you, though—the movie is just a minor portrait of a true believer who happens to be a natural storyteller. It doesn’t dig deep into the nature of belief or experience.
Shelly: Documentaries with local connections didn’t fare much better, with the downright boring “Manlife” about the rise and fall of the study of Lawsonomy and the amateurish (though full of genuine characters) “Roller Life” which turns its lens on the sport of roller derby in Milwaukee. The two films that stood out to me were the superb “Girl Unbound” about Pakistani squash champion Maria Toorpakai Wazir, who defies the Taliban and their death threats to follow her passion. I felt incredibly inspired by her work, and also by the life of Sonia Warshawski, the amazing subject of the film “Big Sonia,” directed by her granddaughter Leah. Sonia is a survivor on several fronts: she survived the concentration camps during the Holocaust and now defies the economy by running a thriving tailor shop started by her late husband. Several of my coworkers also saw this film and now are making it their mission to bring the film and Sonia and Leah to Milwaukee for an event here!
One thing I struggle with, both with feature and documentary films, but mainly with documentaries is being able to critically review a film without bringing too much emotion into it. This was the most challenging for me during “Big Sonia” where I wanted to rate it extremely high out of the gate but I needed to be sure it was on the film’s merits and not just because she is such a great and inspirational lady. Someone I was discussing this with recently was surprised that I wouldn’t rate a film based on the emotion it caused within me. Where do you stand on the role of emotion in film criticism, and were there any films that really got to you at the festival this year?
Eric: My view is simple: Movies aren’t math. While it’s important for critics to maintain some degree of critical perspective when evaluating works—in the age of internet crusaders, measured responses have become rare commodities—I’m unconvinced that objectivity is achievable nor particularly desirable. After all, the reason art matters is because it vibrates on a personal wavelength. That’s why a movie, album, poem or painting can become important facts in our lives. (I might lop off my pinky before giving up Linklater’s “Before Sunset,” Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” or Pollock’s “Lavender Mist.”) Cinema, of course, is a record of the human condition, so when critics deny their experiences, preferences and biases, they are denying the very things that qualify them to weigh the most human of all art forms.
Erik Ljung’s “The Blood Is at the Doorstep,” which follows Dontre Hamilton’s family for several years in the aftermath of his shooting by a Milwaukee police officer, somehow leaped over my critic’s moat. Normally I’m allergic to advocacy documentaries—too often they are flimsy agitprop masquerading as enlightenment—but “Doorstep” has such a street-level view that it presents as an act of shoe-leather journalism. To my eyes, it’s a chronicle of these times. Did my critical antennae go haywire because this story hits so close to home? Or did my proximity give me the proper tools to judge its merits? I’m not sure it matters very much. What matters—what I trust—is that my experience of watching that movie, in that room, with Dontre’s family sitting nearby, registered as the most moving experience of the festival.
My other favorite documentaries were more unorthodox, including “Rat Film,” which weirdly pinballs through Baltimore’s past and present to expose the sociopolitical roots of the city’s rodent infestation; “Motherland,” a fly-on-the-wall glimpse inside a ramshackle maternity ward in the Philippines; “The Challenge,” an otherworldly collage of desert leisure activities among the Qatari elite; “The Force,” a superbly edited look at the scandal-plagued Oakland Police Department; and “The Work,” which provides the voyeuristic thrill of seeing muscled men, prisoners in Folsom State Prison, break down as they endure intensive group catharsis—in its convulsing physicality, the movie’s closer to “The Exorcist” than Dr. Phil. For that one, the pre-show music at the Times Cinema was, naturally, Johnny Cash.
Shelly: I didn’t catch “The Work” but have friends that named it as one of the most impactful films they saw during the festival.
Eric: “The Work” dovetailed nicely with “Step to the Line,” one of the best short films that played in the Virtual Reality Gallery, which was free to the public. The 12-minute movie jack-knifes viewers right into the prison cells and rehabilitation rituals of California’s maximum-security penitentiaries. Both films broadened the festival’s seeming preoccupation with the subject of contemporary law enforcement. What did you see thematically this year that struck a chord? And, in light of MFF’s selection of “Blood Is at the Doorstep” as the Centerpiece Film, what are your thoughts about the festival’s perennial willingness to court controversy?
Shelly: It excites me that the festival is willing to court controversy, particularly with the hot button topic Hamilton’s killing was and continues to be in our community. I live about five minutes from the Sherman Park neighborhood, which was the scene of violence, looting and protests largely in response to that case and the handling of it. I’ve said it before, but I’ve been disappointed for a few years by the opening and closing night films (probably the most recent daring opener was “Blue Valentine”) so it’s good to see selections with some bite, especially ones that hit close to home.
A lot of the films I saw this year were female-centric, which was either a change of pace for me, or more noticeable based on our political and social climate right now. I mentioned earlier that I saw a couple of documentaries featuring strong women (“Roller Life,” “Girl Unbound,” “Bronx Gothic”) but there were also a few features that focused on different aspects of the role of women in various societies. In the superb “Sami Blood,” a young member of the indigenous Sami tribe in Sweden longs to break away from the stereotypes and lifestyle of her people and forge her own identity elsewhere. “Lipstick Under My Burkha” was an Indian film that weaved together four stories of women fighting against the expectations their culture puts on them, be it arranged marriage, the role of a wife and mother or the expected behavior of a youngish widow. I really liked this film, but was saddened by the reality and hopeless situations they were in simply because they are women. The subjugation of women is a hot topic right now (finally) and even though I found myself in a sort of news blackout during the festival the subject was clearly resonating within the programming choices.
Eric: I’m glad to hear you liked “Sami Blood” as much as I did. Lene Cecilia Sparrok gave one of the best leading performances in the festival, partly for those dagger eyes that conveyed both fear and confidence all at once.
Shelly: “Sami Blood” was truly a gem and I was so shocked to learn later that not only was this Sparrok’s first role, but her film sister is also her real-life sister, also a non-actress. Talk about natural talent.
Eric: The movie is very assured, too, much more so than “Lipstick Under My Burkha,” which I resisted due to its jarring shifts in tone and its confusion about how it wanted to define liberty and femininity. It’s curious, though, how I was more willing to forgive “The Divine Order, “ a similarly-themed film that was no less schematic. Set in 1971 Switzerland, the story is about a quiet housewife who becomes radicalized after her rural village refuses to support a national referendum on women’s suffrage. It’s a limited yet very entertaining and surprisingly sunny picture—in the way it borrows its rhythms from Hollywood, it’s like a Swiss “Hidden Figures.”
Shelly: I mentioned “Bronx Gothic” above, which is one of the few films I actively disliked during the festival, though not nearly as much as I hated “Lemon” which I ended up hating with a surprising amount of vitriol. I have to know: Were there films you just didn’t like this year?
Eric: There are always a few amateurish films that flounder due to inexperience or budget—this year, they included “The Feels,” “Dear Coward on the Moon” and “72 Hours: A Brooklyn Love Story?”—but there’s no excuse for Bob Byington’s eerily unfocused comedy “Infinity Baby.” In the not-so-distant future, a botched stem-cell experiment by Mitsubishi (don’t ask) leads to a crop of babies that never age. The joke is that none of the adults in the movie have grown up, either. The problem, though, is that nothing in “Infinity Baby” has matured—not the satire, not the comic timing, not the detached style. It’s all gimmick.
Shelly: I agree with you about some of the films being amateurish, especially “72 Hours” (I really couldn’t stand that one and it was one of the first films I saw at the festival). I’m so conflicted on “Infinity Baby” because I know it’s not a good film; it was so terribly disjointed and really was more about whichever Culkin that was and his horrifying misogyny than the baby itself. I actually get annoyed at how lame it was because there was something about it I kind of liked and I can’t put my finger on it.
Eric: It’s strange how we haven’t yet talked about “Columbus,” one of the best-received films of the festival. No critic wants to be part of a consensus, but the strength of writer-director Kogonada’s feature debut is undeniable. Anyone familiar with the Korean-American’s online visual essays that deconstruct cinema classics wouldn’t be surprised by how “Columbus” is a painstaking, cerebral mood piece animated by the spirits of Ozu and Kubrick. The story is about a Korean translator named Jin who travels to Columbus, Indiana because that’s where his elderly father, an architecture professor, has been hospitalized. John Cho stretches himself playing the circumspect Jin, but it’s his younger costar, Haley Lu Richardson, who proves revelatory. She plays Casey, a 19-year-old townie who sometimes works as a tour guide, informing visitors about the city’s modernist architecture. Serendipity brings Jin and Casey together and before long she’s showing him—and us—her favorite glass corridors and sunken communal rooms. Casey still marvels at the buildings she knows inside and out; she’s world-weary yet still prepared to give herself over to aesthetic ecstasy. Richardson makes her both awkward and graceful, both self-aware and a little lost, a working-class girl who might be too big for Columbus. It’s a great performance.
If you were the deciding vote for the festival’s best actress and actor, who would get the prizes?
Shelly: One film I did I love was “Columbus.” In fact, based on one viewing (and I know there will be a few more in my future) of Kogonada’s exquisite film, I want to plan a trip there to photograph the incredible architecture. I love your comparisons to Ozu and Kubrick—you are dead on. There is a visual coldness reminiscent of the set design of several Kubrick films, but the meticulous storytelling of an Ozu family drama.
While I appreciated Haley Lu Richardson’s natural performance in “Columbus,” I couldn’t answer CATE BLANCHETT fast enough in response to your question of who I would name as Best Actress in the festival. “Manifesto” is an amazing film in its own right, thanks to director/writer/artist Julian Rosefeldt’s pristine photography and unusual vision. But it’s Blanchett who is riveting from start to finish in a series of vignettes that see her in roles including newscaster, southern housewife and homeless man. Playing 13 characters in 12 vignettes, Blanchett delivers parts of or whole pieces of famous manifestos, written by Karl Marx, Lars Von Trier and Jim Jarmusch, among others. I’ve always known she’s a talented actress but she is achingly fantastic in “Manifesto,” which I’m recommending to everyone because I have such a love for it—but I know it’s not remotely for everyone, particularly if you’re looking for film with a plot.
I’m going to cop out on the Best Actor portion of the question because there honestly isn’t any one role that comes to mind as “amazing,” but I did think that Cory Hardict was engrossing in “Destined,” a kind of “Sliding Doors” type of movie where a pivotal moment in the life of a young juvenile delinquent in Detroit could send him in two different directions in life: He might be Rasheed, an up-and-coming architect, or Sheed, a drug kingpin. Though this kind of story has been done, I did find “Destined” fairly intriguing and a lot of it was due to Hardict’s strong and believable performance in both lead roles.
We should probably wrap this up soon, so I’ll ask you what I’ve asked in years past: What are your main hopes (and maybe a dream or two) for next year’s festival?
Eric: How about a chiropractor in every theater lobby? (My spine, apparently, does not share my enthusiasm for five movies in one day.) Right now MFF is re-aligning, too, and not just because its age will reach double digits next year. In July 2018, Milwaukee Film will inaugurate a 31-year-lease of the Oriental Theatre, replacing Landmark Theatres as the day-to-day operator of the movie palace that has been synonymous with the East Side since 1927. I’m excited about the promise that more exclusive programming—a mix of indie, international and revival fare—will return to the Oriental, but a little apprehensive about whether Milwaukee Film is perhaps putting too much faith in the year-long drawing power of such fare, especially as a revenue base. Still, I’ve long said that a thriving film culture can be cultivated, and locally no one is better positioned to do so than Milwaukee Film.
My main hopes for next year’s fest largely revolve around quality control. Acquiring the Oriental means MFF will instantly expand (Landmark only gave two of three screens to the festival), but I don’t want to see even more documentaries in the vein of PBS-style information dumps, or more foreign films at the end of their unexceptional runs on the festival circuit. Simply being nonfiction or subtitled doesn’t automatically confer value upon a movie. This year the features in the Rated K: For Kids division were also less adventurous than usual—the French animated “Mune: Guardian of the Moon” is maddeningly generic—so I’d love to see that strand rebound next year.
For the first time, I didn’t take my children to any of the Rated K programs. Instead, I took my 9-year-old son Keaton to the Spotlight screening of “The Lost World” (1925). It wasn’t his first silent movie, but it was his first time inside the Oriental Theatre and his first time seeing a movie with a live orchestra. (The boy also met his first filmmaker, Mark Borchardt, who warmly asked him a few questions while we stood together in line.) He’s already making plans to see next year’s silent presentation. To that end, I’m rooting for MFF to book a Buster Keaton comedy, perhaps “The General” or “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” Or maybe the 45-minute “Sherlock, Jr.,” paired with two of Keaton’s classic shorts.
Since this year’s sponsor trailer was such a hit, let me suggest that Milwaukee Film celebrates ten years by making all of the old trailers available online—I suspect I’m not the only one who would take pleasure in that stroll down memory lane.
Shelly: Not to relive the past, but what are one or two of your favorite screening memories over the years? I still love thinking about watching “Animal House” at the Oriental with John Hughes and Mark Metcalf laughing their asses off in the balcony during the whole screening.
Eric: That gets me thinking of the festival’s 30th-anniversary screening of 1984’s “Top Secret!,” which was widely disparaged upon release even though the 10-year-old me understood that the ZAZ comedy was obviously a masterpiece. The movie was introduced by Jerry Zucker, the co-director and Shorewood native. “We now think it might be our best movie just because of the breadth of it,” Zucker said, according to my notes, and the 10-year-old still deep inside of me beamed and felt completely validated. My wife Stacy and I howled all the way through the screening.
Shelly: Oh boy, I remember sitting in the Mill Road theater with my mom watching “Top Secret” and being thoroughly embarrassed during the ballet sequence with the—shall we say—inflated dance belts. That movie is an absolute gem and I’m pretty sure I find an excuse to quote it at least once a month.
Eric: My fondest festival memories, though, involve people rather than films, such as meeting Harold Ramis, Bud Selig, Alex Gibney and the officer who elicited Jeffrey Dahmer’s confession, or sitting right next to the kids featured in the 2009 documentary “Racing Dreams.” Those kids giggled from glee and embarrassment for the duration. Speaking of red faces, the following year opened with “Blue Valentine”—still the best opener in MFF’s history—and the two nuns next to me were not happy with the film’s frank content. (The MPAA originally slapped it with an NC-17 rating, which was changed upon appeal.) Four years ago I met a filmmaker from Tehran who was surprised to find a Wisconsinite who harbored an abiding interest in Iranian cinema. We’ve remained acquaintances, which points to one of the best things about the festival: Although much of it takes place in darkened silence, it still brings people together. It even brought you and me together.
Shelly: I was just telling a friend yesterday that I find myself growing more and more anti-social the older I get, yet I absolutely love to engage with people at the film festival (which is how we met!) because I feel like we’re all there supporting a common cause. Plus, most of the people there really had to seek out the film we’re watching, because it’s not like we’re seeing trailers for them ad nauseam at the googleplexes. There’s a kinship that I find comforting, and in fact there are several pass holders who are also patrons of the non-profit I work for, and if I run into them at events the MFF is always the first topic of conversation we discuss. Having said that, I can’t believe there were nuns just hanging out at “Blue Valentine.” That’s kind of epic.