Notes from the 2012 Milwaukee Film Festival

Dreama Walker stars in Craig Zobel's "Compliance," a highlight of the 2012 Milwaukee Film Festival, says our critic.“Good luck,” warned Jack Turner as he introduced “Compliance,” Craig Zobel’s squirmy new film, to a sold-out crowd at the Downer Theatre.

Turner, a producer working on Zobel’s next project, reminded filmgoers at the Milwaukee Film Festival that “Compliance” provoked walkouts and charges of misanthropy at Sundance. Nervous energy rippled through the rows, but the movie’s notoriety was, of course, the main attraction.

In an era when movies no longer seem like Events—that halcyon period has been forever undermined by the easy accessibility offered by the digital hurricane and the consequent demise of film societies and repertory theaters—there were traces of the old cinema-as-event culture at the “Compliance” screening. Later, passionate debate about the film clogged sidewalks all along Downer Avenue.

Similar opportunities to enjoy film as a unique communal activity marked the fourth annual Milwaukee Film Festival, which ended October 11 after presenting 225 movies unlikely to reach the local multiplex. One irony of the digital revolution is that while the Internet has made it easier to access more obscure films than ever before, these types of movies are increasingly difficult to find in a movie theater, and, by extension, to experience as something larger than just another disposable download.

It might be tempting to dismiss “Compliance” as exploitation, especially as it strides towards sexual humiliation in its second half. Yet Zobel, working from true events, tells a story ripe with metaphorical meaning. When Sandra, a fiftysomething manager at a fast food franchise receives a prank call from a man identifying himself as a policeman, she is quick to accept his claim that one of her workers is a thief and agrees to cooperate with his demands, which start with detainment but escalate into repellant violations of the young woman. The acting is natural and convincing, which helps Zobel study the human tendency to acquiesce when faced with authority.

“It’s not up to me,” says Sandra, who’s just following orders. Is she responsible for what happens, or is she a victim, too? Another character asks, “Is this okay, what we’re doing?,” and Zobel observes how nagging doubt isn’t enough to prevent a moral compass from going haywire. By re-purposing familiar genre staples, “Compliance” also indicts voyeurism in popular cinema, which begs a question: Can a film be about misogyny without engaging in it? That I never quite knew the answer is entirely to Zobel’s credit.

Far more risible, if street chatter during the festival’s first week is any measure, was the Tibetan drama “Old Dog.” Does the title refer to the mastiff coveted by rich Chinese businessmen, or the elderly country rancher who refuses to sell him? Scruffy and amateurish, the movie is a bit of a dog, too, but what riled people was the final scene, which depicts an agonizing act of animal abuse and had patrons fleeing for the exits.

A scene from Mads Brügger's "The Ambassador."
A scene from Mads Brügger’s “The Ambassador.”

For me, though, the most distasteful feature was “The Ambassador,” a punk semi-documentary that follows Danish director Mads Brügger as he travels to the Central African Republic, masquerading as a corrupt diplomat from Liberia so that he can expose, from the inside, the blood diamond trade. This might be fearless satire—imagine Borat as an undercover reporter—but the way Brügger rotates his cruel alter-ego, and his sinister findings, towards safe, ironic entertainment for complacent Western audiences strikes me as an ethical breach.

Moral failure is the subject of the Audience Award winner “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” which charts how the Catholic Church chose, at every level of its hierarchy, to protect its reputation rather than its congregants by covering up cases of child sexual abuse. After tackling American corporations and the Pentagon in previous documentaries, Alex Gibney once again likens a powerful social institution to organized crime. This time, though, anger gives way to mourning. As a portrait of how misplaced deference can have devastating human costs, this well-researched inquiry could be shown on a double bill with “Compliance.”

Still, there was an orthodoxy at work in “Mea Maxima Culpa” and many of the festival’s other social justice documentaries, which often curbed their sense of outrage. Strong films like “The Invisible War,” “We’re Not Broke,” and “Love Free or Die” may crystallize arguments against rape in the US military, corporate tax dodging, and homophobia rooted in religion, but even so, all three are constrained by conventional structures and styles.

A scene from Bart Layton's "The Imposter."
A scene from Bart Layton’s “The Imposter.”

Less square is “The Imposter,” a nutty, nonfiction hybrid of psychodrama and detective noir. Director Bart Layton tries to comprehend how a crafty con artist with a French accent convinced a San Antonio family that he was their long-lost son, and the more you learn, the more questions you have about life in that Texas home. Layton allocates new revelations with such artistry that your jaw might hit the floor, even if his docudrama re-enactments are, at times, a tad grating. Whatever its faults, “The Imposter” is a mind-bending analysis of how confirmation bias works—for the family, for the media, for the audience itself.

True crime also fuels “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files,” but Milwaukee-based director Chris James Thompson mostly wonders about the case’s ripple effects on the city, focusing on the officer who elicited Dahmer’s confession, a forensic examiner, and a neighbor. That fresh angle yields earthquakes of heretofore overlooked details, and announces Thompson as a major nonfiction talent. Thompson, who won the Cream City Cinema award for local achievement, also stages static recreations of the killer’s mundane daily routines, expressing anxiety only through stuttery, nearly imperceptible editing jolts. What emerges is the Dahmer you never knew, and proof that journalism can exist as a bracing work of curiosity and imagination.

A scene from the French animated film "Le Tableau."
A scene from French animator Jean-François Laguionie’s “Le Tableau.”

Spirited are the visionaries who conceived “Le Tableau,” a dazzling, animated ode to creativity that might appeal equally to eight-year-olds and connoisseurs of art history. Ensconced inside an unfinished painting are three castes: the fully painted Alldunns, the unfinished Halfies, and the barely begun Sketchies. At first the story is familiar—the class struggles involve a forbidden romance—but eventually it expands into a political and religious allegory of surprising intricacy.

The Allduns justify their tyranny by saying, “It is clearly the Painter’s wish,” but that established doctrine is challenged after several explorers tumble through the canvas into a forsaken studio. Seeking answers from the Painter about their purpose, these faithful adventurers enter the self-contained worlds of his diverse pictures. By the end, director Jean-Francois Languionie has tackled discrimination, war, fascism, and democracy, alluded to Lazarus, Christ, and the Pope, and gloried in the traditions of European painting. No other film at MFF offered such a dense, lovely banquet for the eyes, mind, and soul.

Revolution is possible, learn the Sketchies, and a similar faith is also at the core of the twin documentaries “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” ostensibly the biography of a controversial Chinese protest artist, and “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists,” which observes the rising influence of a group of cyberpunks. While the first eloquently articulates the significance of individual citizen action, the second locates a more mysterious, unchecked power in anonymous, crowd-sourced activism.  “Legion” isn’t in the same league as “Ai Weiwei”—it’s too close to juvenile hagiography—but in their embrace of the wicked possibilities of new media in political dissent, both films, like “Le Tableau,” throb with an egalitarian spirit.

My favorites are listed above, but I also admired “Tchoupitoulas,” an impressionistic odyssey of New Orleans nightlife that somehow bridges early ‘60s direct cinema and the city symphonies of the silent era; “Las Acacias,” which envisions the highways of Argentina as a purgatory for two lost souls; “Step Up to the Plate,” an unruffled documentary about two culinary artists, father and son, who create dishes so fastidious they might be sculptors; “Elena,” which broods over a Russian woman burdened by class resentment and a poison cup; “Starbuck,” the opening night comedy about a sperm donor who has fathered hundreds of kids; and “Tales of the Night,” Michel Ocelot’s undeniably gorgeous storybook—although I sensed the animator coasting on ideas perfected in his earlier films.

Worth mentioning are “Sleepovers,” a Shorewood documentary that revisits four young girls over the course of nine years and, despite being formally unpolished, suggests a touching, miniature-canvas version of Michael Apted’s “Up” series; “Goodbye,” a shadowy drama about female vulnerabilities in contemporary Tehran that earned Mohammad Rasoulof the Best Directing award; “Blackmail,” Hitchcock’s silent thriller accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra; “Mourning,” an Iranian road movie that owes a hefty debt to Abbas Kiarostami; and “The Sessions,” the closing night selection, if only for the way actor John Hawkes balances despair and self-deprecation as a disabled man who resolves to lose his virginity.

I didn’t catch Saul Williams’ performance in the Senegal-set “Tey,” which won Best Acting, nor the Competition winner for best feature, “Crulic—The Path to Beyond,” an experimental nonfiction work from Romania. Honorable Mention went to “5 Broken Cameras,” an accidental, revelatory movie made by a Palestinian protestor on the West Bank who feels a vital need to keep filming—to find meaning through documentation—no matter how many cameras are lost to bullets and bulldozers.

There isn’t space to mention a dozen disappointments, but why dwell on the negative when MFF by and large delivered the goods? With apologies to Orson Welles, the Milwaukee Film Festival remains the biggest electric train set film lovers in southeastern Wisconsin ever had.

Five Best Films at the 2012 Milwaukee Film Festival
1. “Le Tableau” / dir. Jean-Francois Languionie
2. “The Imposter” / dir. Bart Layton
3. “Compliance” / dir. Craig Zobel
4. “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” / dir. Chris James Thompson
5. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” / dir. Alison Klayman