A Filmgoer’s Takeaway: 2016 WI Film Festival

“No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” Roger Ebert

Time can play tricks on a moviegoer when sitting in a darkened theater.  A good story ends too soon, while sometimes it’s challenging to remain in your seat until the closing credits.  It already seems like the 2016 Wisconsin Film Festival was a long time ago. Daily life has a way of altering time. Years pass and some memories seem like they happened yesterday. Days go by and recent experiences often feel like they existed in the distant past. Hopefully this dispatch from the 18th Wisconsin Film Festival will help preserve the experience for me and other cinephiles of sitting in darkened movie theaters with filmgoing friends in Madison, Wisconsin from April 14 -21.

wff_logo_vertical_redFirst, some background from the festival website:  “The Wisconsin Film Festival is presented by the UW-Madison Arts Institute in association with the Department of Communication Arts. Founded in 1999, the Festival presents an average of 150 film screenings over 8 days every spring, making it the largest university-produced film festival in the nation.”

Next, my personal stats: This year I had tickets for nine films over the course of six days. I saw eight of the nine films. As often happens by the end of the festival, I ran out of filmgoing steam.  I’m not sure if it’s the disruption during the work week of my work – eat – sleep routine, or simply not being prepared to sit all day at work and then evenings in the theater. Like an athlete, I think I need to train before the festival.

Finally, a little insight into my selections and strategies for attending the festival:

  • Since I work during the day, the earliest weeknight film I can make is 6:00.
  • From experience, I’ve not selected any films that begin at 8:00 or later. I’m a morning person.
  • I’ve tried to leave sufficient travel and parking time between theaters and show times.
  • My maximum weekend number of films I can see in a single day (based on previous experience) is 3.
  • I like documentaries so there are a number of them that made my list.
  • I’m an avid Robert Altman fan so one of my picks is one of his films. He’s the featured producer/director this year.
  • Some of the films that I originally hoped to see were at times I wasn’t available or conflicted with other selections.
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Tickets and buttons from this year’s festival. Photo Credit: LLLenzke

Following are the highlights and takeaways from this year’s festival presented in the order that I viewed them. Note: All images and logos are courtesy of the Wisconsin Film Festival website except as noted. All copyrights apply. 

Friday: Cameraperson

CamerapersonThe film was a compilation of snippets and outtakes of over 20 years of cameraperson Kirsten Johnson’s career filming documentaries including Citizenfour and Fahrenheit/911 and personal videos of her family, including her toddler twin daughters, father, and her mother while she was  living with Alzheimer’s and after her death. Johnson’s filmmaking took her around the world from her family’s home in Wyoming and New York, to the Balkans, and an impoverished maternity ward in Africa. The seemingly unrelated footage showed the scope of her work, while the editing between locales sometimes created confusion.  Most frustrating for some of the audience was the unknown outcome of some of the subjects and scenes. The filmgoers I spoke to either were amazed by the breadth of her work, or simply saw the documentary as her effort to string together leftovers and outtakes. Audience reaction: A mixed bag.

Saturday: Louder than Bombs, Remember My Name, and June Falling Down

Louder Than Bombs

Louder than BombsLouder Than Bombs is the English language debut of director, Joachim Trier and screenwriter Eskil Vogtand, the team behind Oslo, August 31 (WFF 2012) and Reprise who’ve produced a mesmerizing family drama.  The film stars Jesse Eisenberg, Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne, with supporting roles by Amy Ryan and David Straithairn, and a breakout performance by Devin Druid. It’s a story about a family and the aftermath of an unexpected death of a wife, mother and war photographer, and the ripple effect it has on each family member and their relationships. This well-crafted story with effective shifts between past and present, reveals how denial may temporarily protect us, yet true healing begins when we’re able to challenge the myths we’ve created and accept the flawed humanity of the people we love. This was my favorite narrative film of the festival, with June Falling Down following a close second.

Remember My Name

Remember My NameI’ve been a fan of writer, director, and producer Robert Altman since I first discovered his work in the 1970s, beginning with Mash and the ensemble comedies and dramas that followed which were often commentaries about our culture. Some of my favorite films include Nashville, 3 Women, The Player, and Short Cuts. Altman was this year’s featured festival filmmaker showing a retrospective of some of his work like California Split.  Altman also mentored and produced other filmmakers including Alan Rudolph, who made a film, Welcome to L.A. which echoed Altman’s trademark interweaving of multiple storylines and characters whose stories would come together in the end, which would later be mimicked by other directors and films. For the festival, a film, Remember My Name that has not been seen since it was first released in the late 1970s with Rudolph as director and Altman as producer was featured. It starred Geraldine Chaplin, who appeared in many Altman films, plus Anthony Perkins and his wife, model and actress, Berry Berenson. The cast included early performances by Moses Gunn, Alfre Woodard, Jeff Goldblum and Dennis Franz. Geraldine Chaplin plays a woman who is recently released from prison and stalks her ex husband (Perkins) and his wife (Berenson). What made this filmgoing experience special was unexpectedly running into and joining friends who also had tickets for this film.  

June Following Down

June Falling DownJune Falling Down is a Wisconsin-made film, filmed in Door County. It’s a sweet, heartfelt tribute to family, the place we call home, the value and comfort of friends, and the complicated feelings we have about people we love. It’s also about how loss changes us and sometimes after we lose our direction, grieving helps re-chart our course. The indie film was made on a very modest budget by Rebecca Weaver, a Wisconsin native, who wrote, directed, and stars in this film produced by Chris Irwin her cameraperson, creative collaborator, and more. Many of the actors were nonprofessionals and residents of Door County. The film’s original single scheduled showing sold out so quickly a second one was added.  Weaver tells a story that is inspired by her own life, a screenplay that was the perfect mix of humor and heart.  She is both a natural storyteller and a natural on camera, smart, watchable and mesmerizing. It’s a relatable story, especially for Wisconsinites, that captures the essence of moving on after loss and the realization that things change and so do we. I hope to see more from this creative team. Weaver and Irwin answered questions during a talkback following the film. This was one of the gems of this year’s festivals. If you can find a way to see this film, do so.

Sunday: Unlocking the Cage and The Fear of 13

Unlocking the Cage

UNLOCKING THE CAGE press notesSunday was an unseasonably sunny and summer-like day; the kind of day that often keeps people out of the movie theaters. This film was scheduled for the Barrymore Theater, a new venue for the festival on the eastside of Madison, reserved for films with larger audiences and increased interest. I arrived early to get a good seat, and with a couple, were the first ones in line. Unfortunately, the theater was only half-filled for this informative reflection on sentient beings and nonhuman rights.  The description from the film festival website: “What makes a person?  If corporations are now legally considered people, why not chimpanzees?  Do intelligent animals have rights?  Take a deep dive into one of the most fascinating legal cases and philosophical questions of our time with visionary animal rights lawyer Steven Wise.  Leader of the Nonhuman Rights Project, Wise wants to break down the legal barriers separating man from beast, and give chimpanzees and other cognitively complex creatures the same limited rights we afford our children. His plaintiffs are Tommy and Kiko, a pair of former showbiz chimps now living behind bars, who Wise wants relocated to a haven in Florida. Primatologists help make his case with compelling evidence of the animals’ truly amazing mental capacities, and Wise takes his battle all the way to New York’s Supreme Court.”  This is a subject that will increasingly be debated in classrooms and courtrooms. Just this week, some circus elephants and abused lions have been moved to sanctuaries and their natural habitats. This film was co-directed by renowned documentary filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. It was produced by HBO Documentary Films so watch for future showings.

The Fear of 13

The Fear of 13This true crime documentary challenged the conventional wisdom that a film that features talking heads will bore the viewer.  Fear of 13 focuses on a single talking head, that of convicted murderer Nick Yarris, spent 23 years on Death Row for a murder he maintains he did not commit. We’ve heard claims like his countless times, yet Yarris is a compelling storyteller. Director David Sington lets his subject take center stage —or cell in this case— to convincingly win us over with his command of language and skill at persuasion which he gained by reading thousands of books while incarcerated. First he asks to be executed yet when advances in DNA evidence might exonerate him, he requests a new trial.  Effective reenactments of his crimes and troubled past augment the story and illustrate life on Death Row in an oppressive prison system. Is he guilty or innocent? Will he be executed or set free? The audience has to wait until the very conclusion of this story to determine his guilt or innocence. I found myself being restless while watching this film, yet there was a point when I became riveted to my seat waiting to discover the outcome of his story.

Monday: The Witness

The WitnessOver the years documentaries have become one of my favorite film genres. It should not be a surprise. As a reader I always preferred nonfiction, especially biographies or commentaries and essays about history and culture. I was very excited about The Witness, the timing of the film’s showing came just a week after the death of convicted murderer of Kitty Genovese made the news and writers and her brother Bill Genovese commented on the crime and its repercussions. From the Wisconsin Film Festival website: “On March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside the apartment building where she lived in Kew Gardens, Queens. Two weeks later, The New York Times published a shocking investigative report that said 38 eyewitnesses to the crime watched the attack and would not even bother to pick up a phone. New York City became an internationally recognized symbol of selfish urban apathy. Another New York Times report, 40 years later, determined that most of the police’s interview subjects were, at best, “earwitnesses” to the crime. These discrepancies are part of the reason why Kitty’s brother, Bill, 16 at the time of her murder, remains obsessively devoted to examining the many aspects of the crime. Bill Genovese is our guide in filmmaker James Solomon’s powerful film, The Witness.”  This was my favorite documentary of the festival which I was able to see with my festival filmgoing friend, Julie. See this film.

Tuesday: Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

Lo and BeholdOne of my favorite aspects of the Wisconsin Film Festival is the opportunity to talk with other cinephiles and anonymous moviegoers while waiting in queues before the film or sitting in the theater before or after the movie.  I chatted up a Millennial who sat next to me, a former high tech worker who was currently enjoying a well-deserved sabbatical between jobs. We talked about the role of technology in our lives before the film, both from his perspective and mine as a late adopter. Our expectations for the movie were not dashed. Werner Herzog, the prolific filmmaker of both documentaries and narrative films, did not disappoint. From the festival website: “Legendary director Werner Herzog explores the great digital frontier in this mind-expanding documentary, which ranks among his very best films.  Its ten chapters delve into the mysteries of the internet and the promise of artificial intelligence, as well as their implications for cyber security, robotics, and our own sanity.  Through philosophical interviews with vanguard scientists, entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, and regular people whose lives have been destroyed by these same technologies, Herzog prods us to think deeply about the unprecedented explosion of tech in recent years, and, in his inimitable way, where it’s all headed.”  The Marie Christine Kohler Fellows of the UW Institute of Discovery hosted a panel discussion following the film.

Wednesday: Starving the Beast

Starving the BeastI must confess that I ran out of filmgoing steam and skipped this last film on my list. It was a combination of physical fatigue (who knew sitting in a desk chair for eight hours and a movie theater for at least two more could be so tiring and stress one’s body) and I also felt temporarily exhausted by political discourse. To read more about the film click here, or read the article from Isthmus, 10 hot tickets at the 2016 Wisconsin Film Festival 

Well, that wraps up another Wisconsin Film Festival, my annual celluloid vacation. I’m already looking forward to next year’s line-up, but until then Madison is abundant with opportunities to see films including independent, foreign, experimental, and student films. Thank you to the Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD) and the the UW Cinematheque. Finally here are the festival stats from the Wisconsin Film Festival website:

2016 WISCONSIN FILM FESTIVAL FACTS AND FIGURES

6 venues

8 screens

158 films

171 screenings

29,015 total Festival attendance!

STEEP & BREW AUDIENCE FAVORITES

Audience Favorite Narrative Feature

Hunt for the Wilderpeople | Taika Waititi
Audience Favorite Documentary Feature
Louder Than Words | Saj Adibs
Audience Favorite Restoration/Rediscovery
Death Wish Club | John Carr
Audience Favorite Shorts Program
Just Be Yourselves: Wisconsin’s Own Narrative Shorts
Audience Favorite Big Screens, Little Folks Selection
Birds of Passage | Olivier Ringer

To read my reviews of past Wisconsin Film Festivals: 

2015 Wisconsin Film Festival Fandom (And More!)

Wisconsin Film Festival Fandom

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