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2016 Milwaukee Film Festival: Scheduled Guests

Film critic Eric Beltmann covers the 2016 Milwaukee Film FestivalWho knew Bud Selig likes fabulist movies spoken in Farsi?

There he was, sitting directly behind me during a 2010 Milwaukee Film Festival screening of Shirin Neshat’s “Women Without Men,” a work of magic realism about four Tehran women.

I’ve often had the good fortune of bumping into public figures at festivals—Harold Ramis, Susan Sarandon and Alex Gibney, for starters—and never felt especially starstruck. Selig, though, was another story. After all, the Milwaukee native wasn’t just the MLB commissioner. He was also the person most responsible for bringing major league baseball back to our city in 1970, and therefore responsible for my eternal obsession with the Brewers.

That handshake was special, I confess.

Such moments are part of the pleasure of a film festival. Movies, of course, are the main draw, but the unique convergence of diverse people with only one thing in common—movie love—can yield spirited conversation or even lasting relationships. For example, three years after meeting her while standing in line, I remain friendly with a documentary filmmaker from Iran.

Nearly 50 visiting filmmakers are scheduled to appear at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival, supplying ample opportunities for attendees to make their own red-letter memories.

Barkhad Abdirahman stars in "A Stray"

Barkhad Abdirahman stars in “A Stray”

Emerging actor Barkhad Abdirahman might not be a household name—he’s no Tom Hanks, his co-star in “Captain Phillips”—but his latest performance may soon expand his clout. Abdirahman’s coming Sept. 28 and Sept. 29 to present “A Stray,” an immigrant drama set in Minneapolis that promises to serve as a valuable corrective to the xenophobia being stoked by our current election season. No doubt the title refers to both of the discarded creatures at its center: the lonely Somali Muslim refugee played by Abdirahman and the street dog that he mistakenly runs over while delivering food. That sounds like overripe symbolism, true, but advance buzz suggests director Musa Syeed has a gentle, minimalist touch closer to Vittorio De Sica than, say, Lee Daniels.

If “A Stray” echoes De Sica’s neorealist classic “Umberto D.” (1952), a similar kinship exists between Irene Taylor Brodsky’s new documentary “Beware the Slenderman,” about the notorious Waukesha case involving two 12-year-old girls arrested for stabbing a friend 19 times, and “Paradise Lost” (1996), a nonfiction touchstone that scrutinized a triple child murder in Arkansas. For me, though, the Slenderman case rather brings to mind Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” (1994), a stylized yet fact-based feature about two girls whose intense fantasy life spirals toward matricide.

The psychological riddle at the heart of such crimes is what grips Jackson, and, presumably, Brodsky. Don’t we all want to know how and why Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier became fixated on appeasing Slender Man, a fictional Internet character? What mental health treatments were pursued while both girls were housed at a juvenile detention center in West Bend? Viewers of “Beware the Slenderman” will surely have countless burning questions. Fortunately, both Brodsky and producer Sophie Harris will try to answer them in post-show Q&A sessions Sept. 24 and Sept. 25 at the Oriental Theatre.

The unknown also drives “God Knows Where I Am,” named Best U.S. Feature at the 2016 American Documentary Film Festival. By investigating the specific, baffling story of a homeless woman who was found dead in a vacant farmhouse, the movie ends up asking thorny questions about what it means to be sick and anonymous in America. Co-directors Jedd Wider and Todd Wider will attend Sunday’s screening at the Downer Theatre and Tuesday’s show at the Avalon Theater. While the brothers have impressive producing credits (including the Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side”), “God Knows Where I Am” marks their first film as feature directors.

Nine years ago, when Lanre Olabisi was still a rookie, his feature debut “August the First” played the now-defunct Milwaukee International Film Festival. I remember being impressed—Olabisi adroitly steered the triple mysteries within a middle-class American black family toward an emotional climax—but haven’t seen anything by him since. Now Olabisi returns to Milwaukee with “Somewhere in the Middle,” and I’m curious about whether his second feature, a romantic drama about intersecting love affairs, will confirm the talent promised in his first. Olabisi, along with actor Charles Miller, will be in town for screenings on Oct. 3 and Oct. 4. Miller will also attend the Oct. 6 show at the Times Cinema at 1 p.m.

A scene from "Ovarian Psycos"

A scene from “Ovarian Psycos”

From California comes Andi Xoch and Joan Zeta, subjects of “Ovarian Psycos,” the odds-on favorite for catchiest title of the festival. Screening in the new Cine Sin Fronteras division, which spotlights Latinx stories, it’s a nonfiction portrait of Los Angeles women who form a cycling collective to salvage their perilous neighborhood streets. Best of all? On Sept. 30, filmgoers are invited by the Wisconsin Bike Federation and Ciclovia to join a city bicycle ride that will wheel into the 9:45 p.m. showing of “Ovarian Psycos” at the Oriental Theatre. On Oct. 1, Xoch and Zeta will attend the Avalon Theater, and Xoch will stick around for a solo appearance at the Times Cinema on Oct. 3.

More than 50 local filmmakers will also attend the festival, including Brad Lichtenstein and Morgan Johnson, co-directors of the nonfiction “There Are Jews Here” (Sept. 25, Oriental Theatre, 8 p.m.), about how Jewish communities are receding across America. Lichtenstein is best known for the 2012 documentary “As Goes Janesville,” which chronicles the Madison skirmish over Act 10 and union rights. He will appear at three additional screenings starting Oct. 1.

The festival starts Sept. 22 and runs through Oct. 6. The full lineup is online at mkefilm.org.

Venues include the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill; the Times Cinema; the Avalon Theater; and the historic Oriental and Downer Theatres. Tickets are $12, but discounts are available for seniors, students, and children. Right now tickets can be purchased online, by phone, or in person at the Oriental Theatre box office. Starting Sept. 23, tickets can be purchased at all five venues. Many screenings are selling quickly, so buy your tickets now.

About Eric Beltmann

Eric Beltmann has been writing about cinema for various print and web outlets since 1991, including an eight-year stint at the now defunct Flipside Movie Emporium. Currently he teaches film and literature at a high school in southeastern Wisconsin. He shares a birth date with Pauline Kael and considers Buster Keaton part of the family. Contact Eric at beltmann@criticspeak.com.