Notes from the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival

Eric Beltmann covers the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival.

“Hey, Teach, sit down and let me get you a pastry,” said Rachel Engel, one of the theater managers for the Milwaukee Film Festival, in an effort to soften the blow.

Technical glitches forced the cancellation of “Drug War,” Johnnie To’s latest Hong Kong action ballet. For To junkies like me, a film and literature teacher, it was a major disappointment. Still, it was a rare hiccup for a festival otherwise notable for its absence of hiccups. Despite loftier ambitions than ever before—more than 100 features and 130 shorts were presented over 15 days to record crowds—the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival, which closed October 10, was mostly a tight ship marked by order, efficiency, and immaculate digital projection.

Apart from a handful of 35mm archival prints, including “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the silent Soviet classic “Earth,” MFF finally went filmless, which surely helped preserve the screening timetable. The ease of digital cinema, rooted in downloads, hard drives, and Blu-rays, has obvious fiscal and practical rewards. For example, in an act of genius, the Fox-Bay venue occasionally opened a spillover auditorium to accommodate unexpectedly large crowds, projecting the same movie concurrently in both rooms without skipping a beat.

Yet it’s curious how no one batted an eye at the transition away from traditional celluloid, which is akin to not noticing painters have forever abandoned oils. In terms of the safeguarding of film art and history, this represents a sea change—but for most filmgoers, it barely registered as a ripple. Ten years ago, who would have guessed that the digital revolution would prove to be more like a rolling wave than a treacherous tsunami.

I’ve covered every major film festival in Milwaukee since 2003, and feel confident in reporting that this year’s edition was not just the best organized but also the best programmed, offering an unprecedented embarrassment of riches.

The Best

Of the 45 programs I managed to catch, I can’t decide whether the crown jewel was “The Act of Killing” or “Closed Curtain,” wildly dissimilar films that nevertheless share an improbability—neither should exist, considering the circumstances—and pose the same question: What happens to people who live in a culture built on lies and persecution?

A scene from Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary "The Act of Killing."
A scene from Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing.”

Flamboyant in its answer, and seven years in the making, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing” catches up with the executioners who purged Indonesia of an estimated one million alleged Communists after General Suharto’s anti-communist coup in 1965. Today, they remain powerful, revered elder statesmen of Indonesian society. At the film’s center is Anwar Congo, a former death squad leader who clearly still enjoys the spoils of war. Here is a film about murderers who prevailed, and, shockingly, are now keen to re-stage their crimes for Oppenheimer’s benefit, in elaborate skits complete with costumes, bloody makeup, and abominable clichés lifted from Hollywood gangster and war movies. It’s easy to picture Congo doing his best Alfonso Bedoya imitation: Qualms? We don’t need no stinkin’ qualms!

There’s a touch of ethical queasiness in the way Oppenheimer provides a forum for these unrepentant men to boast about evil—and I have lingering concerns about whether the film merely records their tone of flippant nostalgia or inadvertently participates in it—but their reenactments no doubt provide valuable insight into how these killers choose to imagine and remember their deeds. By contrast, survivors and victims’ families are less willing to speak about the genocide; their fearful silence communicates volumes about life inside a country where the killers’ version of history is widely corroborated by a complicit citizenry.

To explain his zeal for sadistic stagecraft, Anwar Congo says this history must be recorded for posterity (in fact, he insists that his young grandchildren watch the tapes), but eventually we begin to suspect that his real reason for making these mini-movies is to put some kind of barrier, some kind of artifice, between him and the facts of his past; he is a killer who may have evaded justice but not inner damage. In other words, “The Act of Killing” is about how the imagination can be misused to refract, replace, or deny reality so that coping becomes possible, for one man or an entire nation.

A scene from Jafar Panahi's "Closed Curtain."
A scene from Jafar Panahi’s “Closed Curtain.”

While “The Act of Killing” expands into an epic indictment of Indonesian culture, the Iranian “Closed Curtain” narrows and narrows until we are only within the mind of a single man—the director, Jafar Panahi, who received a notorious 20-year ban on filmmaking after making too many movies disapproving of his home country.

Panahi’s response has been to keep working, in the form of covert, cheap, quickly-shot home movies that miraculously rank among his finest achievements. “Closed Curtain,” the second film he’s managed to smuggle out of Iran, is richly allegorical: Eluding authorities, a screenwriter holes up inside a secluded beach house to work without interference. By blurring fact and fiction, reality and fantasy—eventually Panahi himself shows up—the movie pretzels into a surreal masterpiece about the psychological toll of official persecution.

It’s not a stretch to observe that Panahi resembles Anwar Congo, in the sense that each man’s private struggle is, ultimately, society’s shame. Plus, both men try to manage their interior suffering by making movies. For Congo, the process leads to a literal upchucking—it’s as if he’s trying to expel the poison of a lifetime’s buried guilt and denial. Unlike Congo, though, Panahi is consciously scraping at raw nerves; there’s no gap between his real condition and the way he perceives it. When one character in “Closed Curtain” says, “If things were okay with you, I wouldn’t be here,” it doubles for the audience, who are given the uncomfortable privilege of witnessing one of the greatest filmmakers alive plainly acknowledge that he might be disintegrating under the strain of tyranny.

Feature Films

Søren Malling stars in Tobias Lindholm's "A Hijacking."
Søren Malling stars in Tobias Lindholm’s “A Hijacking.”

Cracking under pressure is also the subject of “A Hijacking,” a claustrophobic, ultra-realistic procedural about Somali pirates taking a Danish cargo ship hostage. There are no action scenes—in fact, all violence occurs just out of frame—but there’s still abundant suspense, rooted in anxious negotiations, male bravado, and an implied socioeconomic tension between a CEO’s silver office and the rusting, increasingly frantic situation aboard the ship. As played by the excellent Søren Malling, the shipping company’s executive is by turns formidable in his negotiating skills, rattled by an unfamiliar loss of control, and sensitive to balancing the bottom line with a genuine concern for the well-being of his employees and their families. It’s a convincing portrait of an overconfident corporate master who is also a recognizable human being, and the film clears plenty of space to simply watch this man arrive at decisions. For director Tobias Lindholm, the most bracing drama is found by staring into a thought process rather than the barrel of a gun.

There are prolonged scenes of thinking, too, in the biopic “Hannah Arendt,” most memorably when the chain-smoking German-Jewish philosopher reclines on a couch to consider—no, to summon—a cerebral response to those outraged by her public characterization of Adolf Eichmann as a man to be understood. Conventional wisdom held that Eichmann, who helped engineer the Holocaust, was no more than a monster, but Arendt reasons that such cartoonish oversimplification is both unhelpful and dangerous. Arendt is obviously correct; after all, the fight against iniquity is better served by acknowledging the nuanced facts of the “banality of evil,” a phrase she coined. Her thesis remains relevant, of course, in the age of Abu Ghraib and Islamophobia, a political transference encouraged by director Margarethe von Trotta.

Unfortunately, von Trotta cannot match Arendt’s academic rigor. While the film goes a great distance to regard Eichmann, the same courtesy is not extended to Arendt’s critics, who are presented here as one-dimensional, sneering caricatures of anti-intellectualism. Too often von Trotta stages clunky, didactic scenes that are unwilling to reflect upon how Arendt’s ideas were introduced at a time when a traumatized planet was ill-prepared to ponder them. “Hannah Arendt” properly venerates the value of thinking deeply, but it’s suffused with a self-righteousness that verges on hypocrisy.

A scene from Ken Loach's "The Angels' Share."
A scene from Ken Loach’s “The Angels’ Share.”

A truer expression of Arendt’s viewpoint can be found in Ken Loach’s “The Angels’ Share,” which thinks about a marginalized class of undereducated, unemployed young adults in context of the economic forces arrayed against them. The story follows a remorseful father-to-be sentenced to community service in his old neighborhood, where prior resentments catch up with him. To his own surprise, he begins obsessing over the high-society craft of whisky-making, and by the time the movie converts from working-class drama to crackerjack heist comedy, you might take similar joy in the artisanal superiority on display. Loach hasn’t abandoned his usual social realism themes and generous characterizations, but here he’s working in his lightest, liveliest register.

Even when he’s aiming for hijinks, Loach creates a milieu that feels organic, lived-in, and persuasive. I wish I could say the same for “Blancanieves” and “Post Tenebras Lux,” two movies that are striking on the surface and yet exist as closed systems with limited rewards. The first is Pablo Berger’s silent, black-and-white reworking of the Snow White tale, set in a stylized world of bullfighting and circus dwarves; it’s as fun as “The Artist” and equally unnecessary. The second is an abstract, transgressive enigma from Mexican provocateur Carlos Reygadas that appears to be about a spiritually unsatisfied married couple but mainly aims to apply the principles of pure expressionism to the screen. Reygadas ruminates on the chasm between nature, in all of its grandeur and violence, and human life, in all of its beauty, fear, dangers, and dreams, but his misanthropy gives me the creeps. I’m hesitant to call these two movies poor—they are, after all, brimming with inspired imagery and, at least in Reygadas’ case, an excess of intellectual ambition ripe for unpacking—yet truly great films arouse contemplation about how they might expand our own lives. All “Blancanieves” and “Post Tenebras Lux” really get us thinking about is themselves.

Navel-gazing could have also torpedoed Olivier Assayas’ semi-autobiographical “Something in the Air.” Instead, his memories of the French counterculture—including perceptions about its varied, contradictory strains—are always given a sociopolitical context. The movie ambles through 1971 Paris, observing radical left-wingers whose dogmatic, youthful fire is both unsustainable and unsuitable for a complex era. Yet Assayas is less interested in critiquing naiveté than in capturing, with enormous detail and understanding, the vibe of a specific decade and generation.

Less successful at grooving on mood is David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” an overly mannered outlaw drama that unspools beneath dark, portentous Texas skies. Comparisons to Malick miss how Lowery settles for archetypes with inchoate motivations, and revels in wounded stoicism for its own sake. Still, he manages to evoke a pretty, poetic thread of American folklore.

Paul Eenhoorn stars as the title character in Chad Hartigan's "This is Martin Bonner."
Paul Eenhoorn stars as the title character in Chad Hartigan’s “This is Martin Bonner.”

Everything about my favorite American movie at the festival, “This Is Martin Bonner,” might seem small, but only if you consider a movie’s budget more important than its artistry. Director Chad Hartigan carefully sculpts an economical story about two dented men—Travis, an ex-convict, and Martin, his aging, divorced rehab counselor—who yearn to start life anew in Reno. The movie is deceptively effortless; in truth, there’s nothing simple nor easy about the way Hartigan burrows inside both men, noticing soft parallels and quietly conveying their existential tumult through precise cinematography, curious sound imagery, and the Nevada horizon. He’s aided immensely by lead actors Richmond Arquette and Paul Eenhoorn. Their close-ups, intense and emotional, often feel like earthquakes.

I also admired Cristian Mungiu’s somber “Beyond the Hills,” which tries to comprehend how religious panic led to a tragic Orthodox exorcism; “Wolf Children,” an allegorical, animated fairy tale about the ordeal of growing up different and the misgivings of parents; “Paradise: Hope,” the conclusion to Ulrich Seidl’s trilogy about forlorn women looking for happiness in all the wrong ways; and “Taking Chances,” which commits to a child’s point-of-view and takes it seriously, even after a 10-year-old learns that her father, a war zone doctor, has gone missing.

Worth mentioning are “Sightseers,” Ben Wheatley’s sardonic satire of genre violence and the long arm of Victorian cultural schizophrenia; “House with a Turret,” a World War II tale about Ukrainian refugees that communicates despondency through painterly, black-and-white imagery; “The Pirogue,” Moussa Touré’s emigrant death march about a Senegalese fishing raft braving the Atlantic that is both authentic and prosaic in equal measure; “Zarafa,” a traditionally drawn cartoon about an African boy who repeatedly foils slave traders; “Fanie Fourie’s Lobola,” a South African romantic comedy, if only for the two unusual lead performances; and “Almanya, Welcome to Germany,” which mostly ducks its theme of how ethnic assimilation affects identity yet still offers ample situational humor as an extended Turkish-German family journeys to their homeland.

Another German comedy opened the festival, but “Break Up Man” was a feeble preamble to MFF’s spotlight on German cinema. Since two of Hollywood’s worst tropes are at its center—there’s Paul, the corporate whiz who learns that, gee, life is more than making partner; and there’s Toto, the irritating oddball who, deep down, is lovable and wise—my teeth were on edge even before the Velveeta story became a convoy of cut-rate contrivances, puerile slapstick, and unbridled misogyny. (A hotel seduction frame-up was perhaps the most hateful scene in any film I saw at the festival—and remember, I saw “Post Tenebras Lux.”) If I could graffiti this picture, I’d paint horns on Toto and an oversize dunce cap on director/star Matthias Schweighöfer.

Equally meager were these features: “The Almost Man,” an almost comedy which proves Norwegians haven’t escaped the American penchant for sub-Apatow jokes about pee and porn; “Aayna Ka Bayna,” overheated nonsense about juvenile detention that, with its rickety plotting and ham-fisted dance numbers, earns a revival of the “looks like MTV” epithet; “Billy Club,” a locally-made, derivative slasher that might, at least, work as a swell home movie made by your pals; and “Tanta Agua” and “Once Upon a Time Veronica,” two tepid coming-of-age movies that, despite some virtue, suffer from an art-house orthodoxy—both are every bit as programmatic as the Hollywood formulas to which they purport to serve as alternatives. They feel like fourth-generation dubs of the proverbial “festival film.”


At a film festival, one way to gauge a nonfiction film is to ask whether it offers anything sharper or deeper than what could have been gleaned just by skimming its synopsis in the fest’s program guide. Even that low bar couldn’t be reached by “Mussels in Love,” “Narco Cultura,” “Fatal Assistance,” and “Google and the World Brain.” All four use unremarkable formats to put forward uncomplicated information about otherwise intriguing subjects—after watching them, I still have questions about mussel harvesting; the emergent underground music scene that glorifies border drug violence; the ineptitude that paralyzed relief efforts in Haiti; and the many ethical, legal, and technological quandaries related to Google’s plan to digitize every book ever printed.

In fact, most of the 20 nonfiction films I managed to catch at the festival were disappointments. But a handful were noteworthy, even if they didn’t all quite succeed in their aims.

Patrick Moote is the subject of the quasi-documentary "UnHung Hero."
Patrick Moote is the subject of “UnHung Hero.”

Although “UnHung Hero” is billed as a nonfiction comedy about Patrick Moote coming to terms with his, um, shortcomings—a hard task after his unfulfilled girlfriend rejects his marriage proposal in a famous viral video—there’s always a nagging sense that we’re being had. Moote, tellingly an aspiring actor, jets around the globe seeking harebrained enhancement therapies from different cultures and centuries and finally realizes, duh, that the only real remedy is acceptance. It’s hilarious, yes, but Korea and Papua New Guinea are a long way to go to avoid spending ten minutes with Google. Likable and smart, Moote is surely feigning his hunt for answers, and that insincerity is lengthened by the obvious fact that he’s only pretending to mull over the most extreme methods encountered during his odyssey. What emerges is not an earnest inquiry into the male psyche but an exhibitionist’s sideshow about putting the ol’ fruit basket through the wringer, wholly inadequate as documentary—and not just because nearly everything that transpires has conspicuously been scripted.

Legitimate searching could be found in “After Tiller,” about America’s four remaining late-term abortion providers. The movie is perhaps too gentle in its approach—it’s both too magnanimous towards protesters and too reticent about what really happens behind the operating room curtain—but it still feels like the right choice for a documentary that, more than anything else, values listening as a political act. Directors Lana Wilson and Martha Shane let the doctors share their convictions, anecdotes, and, yes, trepidations. We hear about the death threats made against them, and how, depending on a woman’s circumstances, they sometimes refuse to help. We also hear the distressing stories of their patients, listening as the doctors listen. “After Tiller” isn’t the final word about late-term abortion, but it sensitively brings a specific, human dimension to an issue that too often is discussed only in terms of moral absolutes. These are vital voices.

Slavoj Žižek takes viewers through "The Pervert's Guide to Ideology."
Slavoj Žižek takes viewers through “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.”

Speaking in a mannered, bravura Slovenian accent, the media theorist Slavoj Zižek talks all the way through “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology,” offering enthusiastic psychoanalytic readings of the hidden secrets inadvertently buried within movies by Kubrick, Scorsese, Ford, Wise, Frankenheimer, Antonioni, and many more. For Zižek, those secrets unveil a cultural tension; the term “ideology” here refers to a set of implicit attitudes that subconsciously course through Western culture even though they contradict our explicit beliefs. His left-field movie interpretations are often convincing (“Titanic” as vampire myth), sometimes eye-rolling (“Brief Encounter” as an expression of the absence of God), and always heaps of fun—it’s like hanging out until 3 a.m. with the cleverest guy in the dorm, the one who can riff on Beethoven then Batman without once coming up for air.

What if we’re only pretending to wait for Superman? “If You Build It” is a conventional documentary about two pioneering teachers in rural North Carolina but earns bonus points for arriving at unconventional insights regarding education reform. If the duo’s alternative methods (they provide real-world experiences in architectural design) aren’t exactly scalable, the movie’s exposé of a school board that values budgets more than learning certainly is; what comes across is a damning portrait of a pervasive, American brand of short-sightedness.

A Midwestern sensibility gushes through “Date America,” which tags along with a charismatic, witty Milwaukee banker as he tries to cure his romantic woes by going on dates in eight different cities. Look past the platitudes about finding true love, and you might detect a second, more interesting movie that has genuine fondness for the idiosyncrasies of middle America, including its many quirky inhabitants. It’s probably a stretch, but the movie called to my mind the affectionate Americana of early Jonathan Demme pictures, and might be just as funny.

Filmgoers needed Kleenex during the documentary “Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?,” which honors the career of Tim Hetherington, a gifted war photojournalist killed while on assignment in Libya. The movie asks about the power—and limitations—of the recorded image, but it extends those questions, rather than answers them, by slipping too easily into hagiography. Similar terrain was covered in the superior “Eddie Adams: Saigon ’68,” a brief oral history of the most famous picture from the Vietnam War (think pistol aimed at temple) and the fanatical journalist who was giddy at his get, yet humbled by the attendant responsibilities. The movie rightly won the Audience Award for short film.


Attendees also chose “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete,” made by Milwaukee native George Tillman, Jr., as the festival’s best feature film. Continuing its commitment to regional filmmaking, MFF presented its Cream City Cinema award to Michael T. Vollman for “Before You,” and acknowledged Logan Lark for his acting in “When the King Tilts.”

Among the jury prizes, “12 O’Clock Boys” and the first-rate “Habibeh” were given special recognition while the top honor, the Herzfeld Competition Award, went to the undeserving “War Witch.” There’s nothing especially wrong with “War Witch”—it’s a visually arresting, if psychologically obvious, litany of atrocities committed by African armed rebels—but nearly all of the other films in the Competition division had greater ambitions and took greater risks. Besides, if MFF’s main initiative is to introduce Milwaukee to new works of consequence, why pin ribbons on a movie that was nominated for an Oscar nine months ago and has been streaming on Netflix since September?

In fact, this year’s slate, although excellent on balance, contained a distressingly high number of “new” movies that were widely available for home viewing by the time the festival opened. (“Lore,” “Upstream Color,” and “Stories We Tell” surely would have ranked among my favorites if I hadn’t skipped them on the grounds that I’ve been raving about them for months now.) No doubt erratic release patterns and distributor demands make assembling a roster an annual nightmare puzzle, but this year’s unfresh quotient seemed unusually large, most egregiously in the Competition strand. Obviously there’s value in eschewing video rentals in favor of seeing films in a celebratory setting and in their natural habitat of the silver screen, and I’ll concede that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing “This Is Martin Bonner” for a second time with an appreciative audience. At the same time, though, it’s a bit like settling for day-old donuts—except in this case, there’s no markdown. Frankly, there’s something presumptuous about asking patrons to queue for 45 minutes and shell out 10 bucks when they could just as easily stream the same movie from the couch for pennies.

Five Favorite Films at the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival

1. Closed Curtain / dirs. Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi
2. The Act of Killing / dir. Joshua Oppenheimer
3. Something in the Air / dir. Olivier Assayas
4. A Hijacking / dir. Tobias Lindholm
5. This Is Martin Bonner / dir. Chad Hartigan