“Movies touch our hearts and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things. They take us to other places, they open doors and minds. Movies are the memories of our life time…” ― Martin Scorsese
The first signs of spring in Madison, Wisconsin: The Wisconsin Film Festival premieres in theaters on the University of Wisconsin campus and near east and westside neighborhoods, usually during the end of March and early April, the terrace chairs return to the UW Memorial Union, and the first Dane County Saturday Farmer’s Market arrives.
These are three reasons ― and yes, there are many more ― of why I live in this city. A little over a week ago the 19th Wisconsin Film Festival (WFF) concluded. On Friday, the iconic chairs took their place overlooking Lake Mendota and welcome visitors back to the Memorial Union Terrace. Yesterday, the Dane County Saturday Farmer’s Market, the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the country, hosts a parade around the Capitol Square of men, women, children in strollers, and little red wagons full of produce and seasonal fare. Life is good.
From the WFF 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.”
For eight days, I still go to work during the day, yet evenings and the weekend are spent in darkened movie theaters with cinephiles and filmgoing friends. I don’t leave the city, yet I’m transported to places all over the world; I time travel, and meet unforgettable people both on the screen and the filmgoers in line waiting to see the movies and sitting next to me inside the sold-out theaters.
I’m an old-school movie fan. I still enjoy being in the audience of a movie theater sharing the experience with companions and anonymous others. One of the fandom features of the film festival is that people talk to each other while waiting in the queues to buy tickets, or to see the movie. Festival filmgoers chat each other up inside the theater too, before and after the films.
For me, the excitement begins when Isthmus, Madison’s weekly alternative free newspaper publishes the festival film guide and the annual WFF site goes live two days before tickets go on sale. The filmgoing festival frenzy begins. Yes, I admit, I’m guilty of excessive and repeated alliteration.
Film Festival Strategic Planning
With highlighters, pencil, and pen in hand, I begin the film selection process opening the Isthmus film guide like a wish book. After reading the film synopsis and penciling in checkmarks for films I’d like to see, I complete the initial round of film selection, the difficult stage is next. First, a recap of my personal filmgoing criteria.
Film Selection Guidelines and Rules:
- I like to choose a mix of narrative, documentary, animated, and movies by local filmmakers. Sometimes I include experimental films and shorts.
- Since I still work during the festival (now gratefully only part-time), during work days I select movies that begin in late afternoon or early evening.
- I’m an early morning person, so movies after 8:00 p.m. are generally off my list unless it’s something special and I might not get the opportunity to see it again.
- On weekends, based on past years, three films in a single day is my limit.
- Showtime’s, venue locations, and estimated travel between theaters factor into my choices, sometimes eliminating films I hoped to see. This process sometimes requires multiple rounds of sifting and winnowing.
With the Isthmus film guide opened to the centerfold grid, I highlight my selections. Once the selections are locked in, I ink a border around them. When tickets go on sale on Saturday at noon, a strategy for buying tickets is also required. It helps to have two or three films pre-selected as backup if one of my movie choices is sold out.
There were films I wanted to see that didn’t make my list because of conflicts with other choices, or timing with travel and parking. I’m spending the day Sunday celebrating our father’s birthday, so I’m missing films that day. Films I wanted to see, but logistically couldn’t make work schedule-wise: Divided We Fall, The Freedom to Marry, Neruda, Personal Shopper, Things to Come, and Whose Streets.
Some years I stood in line, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend, and often I’ve made new filmgoing friends. One year, I was happy in that I was about 10th in line and was confident I would easily receive all my picks. That year the ticket box office computers crashed and after an hour, in addition to the hour I waited before the box office opened, by the time I placed my order, phone and online orders sold out a couple of the films on my list.
After that experience, I decided to try ordering by phone and online. Both options posed their own challenges. One year online, I like many other ticket-buyers, experienced issues, which prevented us from completing our orders, until the problem was resolved. Phone orders are reliable, once you get past the busy signals, which may keep you trying for extended amounts of time. To the credit of the festival organizers, each year improvements are made to streamline the process and attempt to minimize problems. This year a new ticket-ordering website also encountered issues and I was booted out of the queue three times, but in the end, gratefully I obtained all my movie picks.
Total tickets purchased, 13. I selected a couple of late night films, and on Saturday, I chose four films when in the past, I decided three was my limit. Oh well, some rules are meant to be broken!
In this year’s filmgoer’s dispatch, I list films by category, rather than the order in which I saw them. It helps to illustrate the planning and diversity of the festival producers’ selection process. One more shout out to the festival programmers, coordinator, director, and volunteers is for the Q & A sessions following some of the films featuring writers, directors, actors, or subjects of the offerings. For those who missed the festival, here’s the 2017 WFF Trailer, You Are Here, which opened each film.
Wisconsin Film Festival Opening Night
Opening night was at the Barrymore Theater on Thursday when I saw four Wisconsin shorts, the series entitled, Transmissions from the Heartland – Wisconsin’s Own Short Documentaries, the perfect start to the festival with filmmakers and subjects on hand following the films for a Q & A, including Michael Feldman (I’m a huge fan). Descriptions from the WFF film guide:
The Dundee Project
Hang out with Wisconsin’s (in)famous cult film hero, Mark Borchardt, and Dundee, WI locals as they drink and talk and drink some more while revisiting their experiences not only seeing alien crafts but getting abducted by them.
A Place in the Garden
Wisconsin couples moonlight as experts on the rare, beautiful hummingbird. With infectious enthusiasm they build oases in their yards and educate friends about the importance of this species
Silently Slip Away
Every night the Jack Raymond Show lights up the airwaves around Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin and for 48 years, fans have tuned in. But who is Jack Raymond?
Whad’Ya Do Now?
After 31 years on the air, the powers that be pull the plug on Michael Feldman’s comedic radio talk/game show, Whad’Ya Know?, but Feldman isn’t quite ready to retire.
Before the film, the Golden Badger Awards were introduced by sneak previews and presented to the 2017 winners:
Cliff, Superfan, Diane Moy Quon
Daedalus and Icarus, Luke Bassuener (and the Crestwood Elementary 4th grade students)
Lingua Absentia, Kate Raney and Jeremy Bessoff
Big Screens, Little Folks
At Eye Level
A common theme in a number of films this year were children who were abandoned or orphaned, searching for lost parents or new families. This German film was a surprise stand-out for this filmgoer, the tender-hearted story of a boy searching for his birth father after he reads a letter his deceased mother has left for him with a just a name. Michi, who must stand-up to bullying in the children’s home where he lives, goes in search of his birth father and is confronted by his own biases about difference when he thinks he finds him. The film was preceded by the Golden Badger award-winning stop action film, Daedalus and Icarus by Crestwood Elementary 4th grade students, a delightful, creative, reimagining of the classic story.
Director Alex Ross Perry’s Brooklyn-based, contemporary story about relationships featured a stellar ensemble cast of actors we’ve seen in numerous independent films and some players newer to the screen. The film has been described as “Bergmanesque” in its stark look at how we relate to each other as we question our choices, happiness, and judge the lives and relationships of others. Chloë Sevigny, Mary-Louise Parker, Jason Schwartzman, and newcomers (to me), Beastie Boy Adam Horowitz, and Emily Browning round out the cast. It’s a story that looks at how we compare what we’re feeling inside, with how we view others’ outsides. Characters who are coupled view their single counterparts with envy (and sometimes desire), and singletons yearn for what they perceive as the steady comfort and companionship of partnered relationships. Neither are truly happy or satisfied with their lives, leading the coupled to commiserate with the singles, and the singletons with coupled friends and family.
A bonus for seeing this film was it was part of Nick Offerman Day, who was introduced by Jim Healy, WFF Director of Programming as an “American actor, voice actor, producer, screenwriter, author, musician, humorist, stand-up comedian and carpenter.” Offerman attended the Q & A following the film. His comedy, intelligence, and improvisational talents were on display. The Hero, is the story of an aging actor, Lee Hayden, played by Sam Elliott, who is remembered for his Western movies, and chiefly for a single performance. In this Brett Haley-directed drama, Lee takes a hard look back at his life and what legacy, if any, he will leave behind. He’s estranged from his adult daughter, has a somewhat prickly relationship with his ex-wife, and is weary of the commercial voiceover work that pays the bills. Things change when his friend and pot supplier, Jeremy, played by Nick Offerman, arrives with a young woman, Charlotte, in tow. Soon Lee learns of his fatal cancer diagnosis which sets a chain of events in motion which may rewrite the final chapter of his life. Everything in this movie, for this viewer, was pitch perfect, the directing, the chemistry of the ensemble cast, especially Elliott, Offerman, and Laura Prepon as Charlotte, the screenplay by Haley and his co-writer, Marc Basch. music by Keegan DeWitt, and cinematography by Rob Givens. The film was picked up by The Orchard at the Sundance Film Festival and will open limited on June 9 before expanding on July 4. If you missed it at the festival, see it this summer.
Person to Person
The film is a contemporary New York story that opens with a series of questions by multiple characters pursuing individual objectives in a single day, “Was it a murder or a suicide? Is it an authentic, early Charlie Parker recording, or a fake? Will the new reporter get her story? Will the depressed couch surfer take a shower and leave the apartment? Will the precocious high school girl who skips school with her BFF, discover if she likes boys as much as she likes girls?” It’s a madcap story which features a bike chase through the streets of NY instead of a car chase. The writer/director, Dustin Guy Defa, was on hand following the film for a Q & A.
New International Cinema
This film was a last-minute addition, replacing a collection of shorts, Speaking in Tongues – Wisconsin’s Own Shorts, for which I had purchased a ticket, but miscalculated the travel time between theaters from my previous film. Afterimage was the third of four films I saw on the Saturday of the festival. Yes, I broke one of my filmgoing rules of limiting myself to three films in a single day. I’m glad I saw all four series of films. From the festival film guide, “(The Polish film) is a profoundly relevant dramatized biography of the avant-garde artist and art instructor Wladyslaw Strzeminski. Wajda introduces us to Strzeminski (Boguslaw Linda) who lost an arm and a leg in WWI, as a charismatic and influential force on his students in the years following WWII. Soon, however, his revolutionary writings and ideas about art run afoul of the Soviet communist powers in Poland. Strzeminski’s work has nothing to do with Stalin’s favored social realism and superficial positivism and soon he finds himself blacklisted by galleries and as an instructor.” What made this film timely for me was the recent announcement by President Trump to cut funding for PBS and the National Endowment of the Arts. Artists are critical voices representing our democratic values and when censored it’s an attempt to silence free speech.
I, Daniel Blake
I ended the Saturday with my favorite narrative film of the festival, Ken Loach’s, Palme d’Or Cannes Film Festival Award winner and BAFTA award-winner for best film, I, Daniel Blake, which also won my heart. The film is a political story relevant to our times, told through the personal journeys of the lead characters. Director, Ken Loach, has captured the struggles and triumphs of working-class families throughout his career, and once again has shown a spotlight on the pride and demand for respect of the hard-working, striving, downtrodden men, women and families, and the failure of our society to help those most in need without demoralizing them in the process, as they interact with bureaucracy.
My Life as a Zucchini
The festival offered both the original French version of this stop-action animated feature, and the English language version which featured Nick Offerman in the role of Raymond, a supportive police officer and father-figure in, My Life as a Zucchini. It’s the story of a young boy who is first abandoned by his father, then orphaned after the accidental death of his alcoholic mother. Zucchini is the nickname his mother gave him and he embraces it as he’s introduced to children he joins at the home for kids without parents. First, he’s bullied by Simon, but soon after meeting a new girl, Camille, he befriends the band of children who each share their individual stories of why they’re together in this home and in the end, how they become a family. The film has adult themes told in a colorful, poignant, and relatable way for children and adults. It was another festival film which answered the question of, “Who and what makes a family.” My Life as a Zucchini, won the Steep & Brew Audience Award for Narrative Feature
New International Documentaries
This “fly-on-the-wall” documentary is about a romantic relationship that leads to marriage. What makes this film special is it features a couple who also share the additional challenges of autism. Though the film tells their personal story, it is universal, like most relationships, one partner wants more intimacy and affection than the other. Dina teaches Scott what she needs from him to feel loved, while they each face their own self-esteem issues and learn how to communicate and love both themselves and each other.
Ben Reiser, Festival Coordinator, introduced the film with his own trademark humor and asserted that this film is rated a definite number 5 on the Steep and Brew scale. He was right. The story of the New York Times obituary writers and the life stories they tell is life-affirming and surprisingly full of humor and spirit. This is my favorite documentary of the festival. A quote from the festival film guide, “One of the few great films I’ve seen about writing… celebrates human achievement and human strangeness. It effuses an obit writer’s intellectual curiosity and itch for a good story. A handsome ode to life itself.” — Soheil Rezayazdi, Filmmaker Magazine
Seeds & Cells — Planting Seeds: Wisconsin’s Own Farmers and Milwaukee 53206
The second film profiled the personal stories of three people and their families, whose lives have been permanently changed by prison. 53206 is the zip code with the largest number of incarcerated POC in the U.S. and the world.
There Are Jews Here
Day 7 of the festival was winding down for this cinephile. I saw only one film making it a dozen movies total. As described in the festival guide, “There Are Jews Here is a heartfelt, moving examination of what it means to be Jewish in modern day America, where the passing on of cultural and religious traditions has become a hard-fought struggle.” The film features four communities who struggle to maintain their Shuls and preserve their temples and cemeteries as their members move to larger cities. Featured were Laredo, TX, Butte, Montana, Latrobe, PA, and lastly Dothan, AL which led an aggressive recruitment drive for families to relocate to Dothan and receive an incentive of $50,000, donated by a resident.
On Day 8 of the festival, like other years, I ran out of filmgoing steam and didn’t make the showing of my final film, Patti Cake$ (someday I’ll learn to pay attention to my rule of no late-night films). No regrets however, it was another satisfying WFF spring staycation. This year, even more than in the past, I enjoyed the company of cinephile friends, chatting up people in line hearing their reviews, picks and pans, and making new filmgoing friends while waiting for movies to begin, and finally interacting during the Q & A sessions with filmmaking guests following the films.
Note: All images (except as noted), are from the Wisconsin Film Festival website, film guide, and Facebook page.
WFF by the Numbers
29,294 total Festival attendance
Steep & Brew Audience Award Favorites
Audience Favorite Narrative Feature
My Life as a Zucchini | Claude Barras
Audience Favorite Documentary Feature
STEP | Amanda Lipitz
Audience Favorite Restoration/Rediscovery
One Potato, Two Potato | Larry Peerce
Audience Favorite Shorts Program
Portraits and Pictures from Wisconsin’s Own
Audience Favorite Big Screens, Little Folks Selection
Heidi | Alain Gsponer
Additional WFF Reading from Mixed Metaphors, Oh My!