Where should we pin the good citizenship ribbon?
While some film festivals function as annual interlopers—destination events that cater to out-of-towners while largely excluding the locals—the nonprofit Milwaukee Film Festival has always been a provincial affair, inseparable from the city and its people. For nine years, MFF has invested in Milwaukee by celebrating its unique cultural identity, sponsoring year-round educational opportunities for students and shoring up the local filmmaking infrastructure with workshops, alliances and grants.
That territorial commitment perhaps reached its apex in June, when Milwaukee Film announced the acquisition of a 31-year lease to operate the historic Oriental Theatre, one of the East Side’s most treasured jewels, on a daily basis starting next summer.
“We have cemented our permanence in Milwaukee and intend to greatly expand our cultural, economic, and educational impact on our community,” Artistic & Executive Director Jonathan Jackson said in a press release.
It follows, then, that much of this year’s festival programming has regional ties, including last weekend’s world premiere of the Wisconsin-set “Dear Coward on the Moon” (it plays again 8:15 p.m. Sunday in the Times Cinema) and Tuesday’s screening of “The Dundee Project” (9:30 p.m., Avalon Theater), a new short by Milwaukee filmmaker and “American Movie” subject Mark Borchardt.
Today’s presentation of the festival’s Centerpiece Film “The Blood is at the Doorstep” (11 a.m., Oriental Theatre), a documentary that surveys the aftermath of the killing of Dontre Hamilton by a Milwaukee police officer, will be fraught with local baggage. Afterwards, viewers and other interested parties are invited to a free public forum billed as “Activism Now: Re-Ignition.” Examining how community organizing in Milwaukee has shifted since the ’60s, the panel begins 2 p.m. at the Milwaukee Film Festival Lounge inside the Kenilworth Square East Gallery, 2155 N. Prospect Ave.
That Milwaukee Film has such a knowing, street-level view helps explain why the festival always feels like a hyperlocal event of the people, by the people, for the people.
In fact, filmgoers can expect a block party vibe tonight at “The Milwaukee Show” (7 p.m., Oriental Theatre), MFF’s beloved, populist tradition of showcasing short movies made by hometown talent. Pass the popcorn and applaud these seasoned veterans and rising artists—our neighbors—while sitting right next to their moms, cousins and roommates. Festivities will renew 8:30 p.m. Tuesday for a second “Milwaukee Show” collection, also in the Oriental Theatre.
Besides four anthologies of shorts and music videos, the Cream City Cinema section houses six feature-length works made by area filmmakers. Of the five I’ve seen, the best by far is “Scott Road” (6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Times Cinema), a Mandarin-language drama shepherded by Youcai Yang, a producer who lives in Milwaukee.
Set in January 1949, “Scott Road” desentimentalizes wartime Shanghai by showing it the way a teenager sees it—as an inconvenience to his encroaching puberty. Elegantly shot in a classical style, the story follows 15-year-old Ji-Chang as he trains his secret gaze on a cute substitute teacher and the collapsing love life of his older brother. What’s fascinating is how the Chinese Civil War dissolves into the background so completely for Ji-Chang that audiences, too, might miss the signs of rising political turbulence—there’s a father, presumably a Nationalist refugee, waiting in Taiwan; a reporter accused of being an undercover Communist; and a history teacher who suffers a heart attack. For Ji-Chang, though, the premature suspension of puppy love is no less a calamity than national upheaval, and director William Tang conveys those adolescent pangs without strain. It’s a lovely little picture.
Youthful impulses are also at the center of the nonfiction “Chasing Bubbles” (7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oriental Theatre). It’s partially about a journey—a 25-year-old amateur sailor resolves to skipper a small sailboat around the globe—but it’s mostly about a personality: Alex Rust has, as one intimate says, a “beautiful, childlike quality to him and the way he falls in love with the world.” That vitality is often on display, whether Alex is cliff jumping, surfing or warmly cozying up to Amazonian natives. Working from wanderlust home videos made by Alex and his friends, editors Chris James Thompson and Andrew Swant manage to match their subject’s joie de vivre—despite a subtle thread of trepidation throughout, the movie is mainly an ebullient experience.
Less appealing are the documentaries “Roller Life” (3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Times Cinema) and “Manlife” (1 p.m. Thursday, Oriental Theatre)—the former is too loud and the latter is too quiet. Both have agreeable subjects (an all-female amateur roller derby league in Milwaukee and one of the last acolytes of Midwestern philosopher Alfred Lawson, respectively), but neither quite finds the story it wants to tell. Still, I was happy to learn that Milwaukee has a derby player named D’Amanda Beating.
The best thing about “Life of the Party” (7:30 p.m. Sunday, Fox-Bay Cinema Grill), about a tiny wedding reception in the lower level of a West Allis bowling alley, is its familiar milieu. Sure, the acting is uneven and the movie is strangely depopulated—nearly every scene feels lonely, with no sense of other guests just outside the frame—but there are a handful of good characterizations and sharp lines of dialogue. (My favorite? “I like the beard. Are you changing religions?”) Director Rubin Whitmore II wisely resists big revelations, aiming instead for a lived-in occasion that, in its polkas, chicken dances and sauerkraut, feels an awful lot like southeastern Wisconsin.
The Milwaukee Film Festival started Sept. 28 and runs through Thursday. Most Cream City Cinema films will screen at least once more before the festival closes. 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. Most tickets are $12, but discounts are available for seniors, students, children and military members. They can be purchased online, by phone or in person at each theater box-office. Screenings often reach capacity, so buy your tickets now.