When the Milwaukee Film Festival named “The Blood is at the Doorstep” as this year’s Centerpiece Film, it was akin to drawing a line in the sand.
Erik Ljung’s debut feature is a hot-button political documentary that asks audiences to feel empathy for victims negotiating the American justice system in the wake of a police shooting. Moviegoers in southeastern Wisconsin will remember the specific case—the film’s subject is the grieving family of Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old black man fatally shot 14 times by officer Christopher Manney in April 2014 at Red Arrow Park in Milwaukee.
It’s true that Milwaukee Film, which opens its ninth annual festival Thursday, Sept. 28, has always evinced an enthusiasm for discussing politics in polite company. Still, this year’s choice to take sides, to not just program but champion “The Blood is at the Doorstep,” took real moxie. After all, the city remains wounded and divided about Hamilton, Manney, the Coalition for Justice, Black Lives Matter and how, in the aftermath of the killing, Milwaukee police officers were equipped with mandatory body cameras.
Other recent national events, including the protests in Charlottesville, show this kind of schism is hardly a Milwaukee problem exclusively. Such widespread political polarization could explain why present-day commercial cinema is largely disconnected from the times, too apprehensive to wade into the quagmire. Apart from Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” Hollywood right now seems resigned to pull its punches. Milwaukee Film, on the other hand, has decided to court civic engagement with a mighty right hook.
“The Blood is at the Doorstep” expands upon the short film that earned Llung a Brico Forward Fund Award at the 2015 Milwaukee Film Festival. The annual grants are designed to buoy local filmmaking, and MFF’s investment in Ljung two years ago has proved sagacious: Acclaim continues to accrue for “The Blood is at the Doorstep,” which had its world premiere at the influential SXSW Film Festival and earned a jury award at the Monmouth Film Festival.
“The financial support allowed us to cover travel expenses in order to follow our story and also allowed us to hire other extremely talented Milwaukee area creatives to lend their expertise to the project,” Llung said in a press release.
If you’d like to learn more about the role of artists—and film festivals—in times of crisis, Llung and his subjects will answer questions after the 7 p.m. Oct. 6 screening of “The Blood is at the Doorstep” at the Oriental Theatre.
By then, the 15-day Milwaukee Film Festival will be more than a week into its lineup of 120 features and 170 shorts from 40 countries.
Devoted attendees will be forgiven for experiencing déjà vu while glancing at the program guide. There are no new categories and, like last year, the festival will open with a genial documentary about unconventional therapy (“Stumped” concerns a quadruple amputee who turns to stand-up comedy) and close with a dramedy made by a young director coming off a breakthrough two-hander (three years after “Obvious Child” earned raves, Gillian Robespierre has re-teamed with star Jenny Slate for “Landline,” a ‘90s-set story about two adult sisters appalled by their father’s infidelities).
In between, though, MFF will justify its if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it credo by rolling out its strongest slate in recent memory, including the world premiere of “Dear Coward on the Moon,” a drama about a whimsical 9-year-old filmed in Viroqua, Wisconsin, and the U.S. premiere of “Schumann’s Bar Talks,” a German documentary that follows an iconic bartender as he traipses around the world visiting drinkeries where, presumably, everybody knows your name. Milwaukeeans probably won’t need much cajoling to chase the screening with a sponsored event featuring cocktail sampling and a cash bar.
If anyone knows that making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got, it’s the title character of “I, Daniel Blake,” an aging carpenter recovering from a heart attack. Trapped inside the cruel, Kafka-esque paradoxes of the British benefits system, Daniel is director Ken Loach’s latest avatar for life at the poverty line, and, to these eyes, one of his best. What struck me most was the way Loach persuasively shows how systemic indignities can, over time, bewilder even the kindliest old men—when Daniel finally lashes out, he might as well be howling from the rooftops.
Loach is not the only major artist represented in the Spotlight programming. For “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography,” Errol Morris seems to have found another subject worthy of his bottomless obsession with living, breathing novelties. I can’t think of another documentarian whose work more closely corresponds to the affection for odd things and people that marked Jonathan Demme’s early features.
At this point Demme, a true master of Americana, is essential to the Milwaukee Film Festival’s constitution. Inviting audiences to boogie in the aisles during “Stop Making Sense,” Demme’s 1984 concert film about the eccentric rock band Talking Heads, has become a cherished MFF tradition. This year’s dance party will be the first since the director’s death in April, and there’s probably no better way to eulogize one of our most mischievous, versatile filmmakers than to keep the conga line moving.
Live music by the world-famous Alloy Orchestra will accompany “The Lost World,” a 1925 silent visual effects spectacle that served as a precursor to “King Kong.” The title refers to the remote realm where adventurers find prehistoric beasts, but for me the more irresistible dinosaurs are the mechanical methods used by Willis O’Brien to create his flickering, computer-free magic. It’s a lost world, indeed.
If they weren’t scheduled four days apart, “The Lost World” and Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal” (1982) might have made a suitable double bill centered on elaborate, handmade fantasy. Revivals also include Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” (1982) and Prince’s “Purple Rain” (1984), paying tribute to both recently departed artists. Jûzô Itami’s “Tampopo” (1985), an amusing farce about Japanese noodles and American Westerns, is on the Film Feast menu, while a 25th-anniversary showing of Disney’s “Aladdin” will anchor the Rated K: For Kids slate of age-appropriate movies.
Steer children away, though, from the twisted—and unreasonably entertaining—Cinema Hooligante department. The Irish horror film “Without Name” even comes stamped with a big, bold warning: “Epileptics Beware.”
The newly revitalized American Independents strand (formerly the United States of Cinema) gathers six promising domestic features. The Black Lens category highlights movies about the African-American experience, while Cream City Cinema showcases regional works made by area talent.
If you’re willing to leave home behind, the Worldviews division offers 18 international titles, including new works by major filmmakers like Andrzej Wajda, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Cristian Mungiu. The Cine Sin Fronteras strand presents stories about the Latinx diaspora around the world. There are also loads of popular documentaries plucked from the global festival circuit. Other sections gather new movies about artists, music and sports.
Guest Ann Hornaday, the Washington Post’s film critic, will discuss media literacy at one of seven planned public forums. Many screenings will involve moderated small group conversations. Among the special events are a virtual reality gallery, a movie-themed bowling tournament and a concert featuring Milwaukee musicians performing songs from classic Black movie soundtracks in conjunction with a 20th-anniversary screening of “Love Jones.”
For Washington County filmgoers, the closest venues are the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill in Whitefish Bay and the Times Cinema in Washington Heights. Other theaters include the Oriental and Downer Theatres on the East Side and the Avalon Theater in Bay View.
Most tickets are $12, but discounts are available for seniors, students, children and military members. Right now tickets can be purchased online, by phone or in person at the Oriental Theatre box office. Starting Friday, tickets can be purchased at all five venues.
The festival runs Sept. 28 through Oct. 12. The full lineup is at mkefilm.org.