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2016 Milwaukee Film Festival: Week Two Picks

The subjects of "Almost Sunrise," the Centerpiece film at this year's festival, undertake a 2,700 mile march from Milwaukee to Santa Monica.

The subjects of “Almost Sunrise,” the Centerpiece film at this year’s festival, undertake a 2,700 mile march from Milwaukee to Santa Monica.

One of the hottest titles at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival is coming to West Bend, and the wait won’t be long.

“Almost Sunrise,” the festival’s Centerpiece Film, concerns two Iraq veterans now battling depression, anxiety and guilt. Together they embark on a 2,700-mile mental health march from Milwaukee to Santa Monica. Along the way, the former soldiers reveal their traumatic war experiences and meet other anguished veterans. The documentary plays the festival Oct. 1 (Oriental Theatre, 7 p.m.) and Oct. 2 (Oriental Theatre, 10:30 a.m.), but seats are scarce.

The good news? On Oct. 3, director Michael Collins will bring “Almost Sunrise” to West Bend for a 7 p.m. screening at UW-WC’s Theatre on the Hill. Both Collins and Anthony Anderson, one of the film’s subjects and a West Bend native, plan to answer questions from viewers after the movie. Tickets are $10 at the door.

Anderson, who served two tours in Iraq, is proud of how the film honestly represents the struggles that many veterans experience as they try to reintegrate into normal life.

“My hope is that the people of West Bend will learn from the film and consider the impact military service has on service members, their families, and the communities they come from,” Anderson said in an email.

The filmmakers had intimate access to his story, life, family, and friends, so public showings of the movie make Anderson a little uneasy.

“I always fear viewers won’t like it,” Anderson said. “I’m always nervous when the film is shown, regardless of where. But I believe the people of West Bend understand that supporting veterans and their families is an important part of the experience and I’m confident that those who come to watch will understand what we were trying to do on the walk.”

Anderson will also appear at both Milwaukee Film Festival screenings, along with director Michael Collins, producer Marty Syjuco, and subjects Tom Voss and Katinka Hooyer.

The West Bend event was arranged by Tony Zappia, a social studies teacher at West High School. Each semester Zappia invites Anderson to address his War and Peace classes, so he has often witnessed the power of Anderson’s testimony. When Zappia learned about “Almost Sunrise,” he knew that local students and residents deserved a chance to see it.

“I think we have a wonderful opportunity to bring awareness to a very sensitive and serious topic, veteran suicide,” Zappia said. “I believe it to be an epidemic that most Americans are not aware of. The fight doesn’t end when they come home, for some of them it just begins.”

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Film Festival, which opened Sept. 22, is still in full swing. Nearly 150 programs, a smorgasbord of international and domestic breakthroughs, will play over the next six days. While I haven’t yet seen “Almost Sunrise,” I can vouch for the following adventurous choices.

Saturday, Oct. 1

A scene from "Ghostland"

A scene from “Ghostland”

Thirty-five years on, it’s clear that “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came from the finest possible adventure stock—there’s a reason why an entire generation clings to its joys, including yours truly—and yet there’s always been something vexing about its racial insensitivities. If you hurry, you can catch “Raiders” (Oriental Theatre, 3:30 p.m.) and then “Ghostland” (Fox-Bay Cinema Grill, 6 p.m.), a documentary about Namibia’s Bushmen that turns Indy’s detached colonialism on its ear. It starts as an ethnographic portrait of how the Ju’Hoansi tribe survives by performing as novelties for white tourists, but when several Bushmen travel to Germany to check out Western civilization, audiences are forced to see, through their eyes, the “otherness” present in our own cultural assumptions.

Sunday, Oct. 2

Drowned by forgetful fish and drowned out by screechy pets, the stylish French cartoon “Phantom Boy” (Downer Theatre, 10:30 a.m.) was the summer’s most invisible family film. Now it risks being overshadowed again—it’s slotted in the Rated K children’s division, which might feel like the kiddie table—despite having a cross-generational appeal rooted in mysterious, dreamlike escapades and genuine emotional heft. At its center is a cancer-stricken boy with the ghostly power to leave his body, a talent that makes him the perfect partner for a New York detective trying to thwart a disfigured madman.

Monday, Oct. 3

Few evil masterminds lord over cinema history like Joh Fredersen, the ruthless city engineer in Fritz Lang’s sci-fi melodrama “Metropolis” (Oriental Theatre, 7 p.m.). Frederson, to his son’s growing shame, oversees a flourishing Utopia that has a sinister underground secret. Lang’s vision of a mechanized, authoritarian future has always been terrifying, but to watch his 1927 silent classic now is to feel like a flummoxed time traveler, seeing in the present a glimpse of the future as refracted by the past. The delirium is separate from nostalgia, though: MFF last presented “Metropolis” with live orchestral accompaniment in 2010, and in the intervening years Lang’s themes of class warfare and revolt—and his Gothic horror—have only gained currency.

Tuesday, Oct. 4

There’s horror, and lunacy and an immaculate conception, too, in Celia Rowlson-Hall’s “MA” (Oriental Theatre, 9:45 p.m.), easily one of the festival’s wildest experiments. Closer in spirit to interpretive dance than storytelling, this wordless allegory follows a modern-day Virgin Mary, played by the director, as she journeys to Nevada’s Sin City. If that makes it sound unbearably pretentious, well, perhaps its performance art isn’t for you. But these bodies, balletic and otherworldly, and these landscapes, barren and sun-scorched, are all of a piece. There’s no mistaking how Rowlson-Hall has birthed a deeply felt work about the search for salvation.

Wednesday, Oct. 5

A scene from "Rams"

A scene from “Rams”

No less personal is Grímur Hákonarson’s “Rams” (Fox-Bay Cinema Grill, 6:30 p.m.), an Icelandic tragicomedy that won the Un Certain Regard prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It concerns two burly brothers, rival sheep breeders, who are forced to reconcile a 40-year quarrel when a lethal sheep disease threatens every herd in the valley. At stake is the local economy, and that overriding sense of what it means to be neighbors is perhaps the movie’s greatest, quirkiest strength—this is the kind of place where dogs serve as couriers and hospitals receive patients delivered via bulldozer.

Thursday, Oct. 6

Festival documentaries are often flavorless information dumps—the filmic equivalent of oatmeal—so I’m eager to report that “Notes on Blindness” (Avalon Theater, 7 p.m.) delivers a peculiar, spooky sensory experience. As actors lip-synch to the taped diaries of theologian John Hull, his musings about life without sight are given cinematic texture through rubbery recreations, visual change-ups, and enough water symbolism to drench audiences. It’s not quite avant-garde, but the ocular novelties capture, in an abstract way, how the senses can be recontextualized, much like how Hull wishes for the rain, with its audible plink-plink, to function as a kind of sonar.

The full festival lineup can be accessed online at mkefilm.org.

Venues include the historic Oriental and Downer Theatres; the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill; the Times Cinema; and the Avalon Theater. Tickets are $12, but discounts are available for seniors, students, and children. They can be purchased online, by phone, or in person at each theater box-office. Many screenings reach capacity, 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.