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Beyond Hollywood
Milwaukee's First Annual International Film Festival

Shepherd Express
November 6, 2003
By Jamie Lee Rake

Sure, Greater Milwaukee has supported numerous multiplexes, a couple of art houses, a revival cinema or two and a handful of niche-themed films fests. Now, however, a cavalcade of motion pictures from beyond Hollywood is about to hit the city. Not only should this event make the art of film enlightening and fun, but it will raise Milwaukee's cachet as an international city.

Press That's only one reason the event, which opens this Thursday, is called the Milwaukee International Film Festival (MIFF). Another reason? Films from all corners of the globe will be shown at the festival's four venues, the Oriental and Downer theatres, the Times Cinema and the UW-Milwaukee Union Theatre. Films from Japan, Germany, Iran, France, Poland, Morocco, China, India, Thailand and elsewhere will be shown alongside homegrown shorts, documentaries, dramas and comedies from elsewhere in America. Borders are crossed, as in the splendid film West Bank Brooklyn (Nov. 9, Oriental Theatre) about assimilation and tradition among Palestinians leaving in the U.S. Cartoons, in all their cell-drawn and dimensional variety, receive their due, too, amid a festival as populist as it is diverse.

The movie menu includes something for everyone. MIFF's opening film, Reeseville (Nov. 6, Oriental), is a contemporary noir mystery set in small-town America. Chump Change (Nov. 7, Oriental) is a hilarious satire of contemporary Hollywood recounted by a Milwaukee actor who comes home after one run-in with the industry after another. Princess Blade (Nov. 8, Oriental) is a Japanese samurai film set in a dystopian future. Making Revolution (Nov. 8, Downer) is a documentary on a failed "summit" of youthful political activists, filmed largely in the Milwaukee area by a Wisconsin cast and crew. Return to Kandahar (Nov. 10, Downer) follows the trail of last year's international hit, Kandahar, with a journey through war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Tycoon (Nov. 13, Oriental) is a fascinating dramatization of contemporary Russia. Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Nov. 15, Times Cinema) is a colorful, exotic romp from India's "Bollywood" film industry. The great French director Bertrand Tavernier's Safe Conduct (Nov. 14, UWM Union Theatre) examines collaboration and resistance in the French film industry during the World War II Nazi occupation. Charlie: The Life and Art of Charlie Chaplin (Nov. 16, Times Cinema) is a documentary on the great silent screen star by Richard Schickel, a Milwaukee-born movie maven who became Time magazine's film critic.

And that's only a handful of MIFF's 110 selections, which can be found on the festival's Web site,

For those who don't want the fun to end with the last frame of film, there's plenty of partying to be had. You could attend an opening-night gala with a global theme (Nov. 6, Renaissance Place), a celebrity-filled party for the premiere of Chump Change (Nov. 7, Dragon Lounge), an evening of jazz vibes (Nov. 8, RC's), an electronic DJ-art happening incorporating the annual wearable sculpture exhibition (Nov. 14, Turner Hall), or a contemporary closing-night party (Nov. 15, Mantra Lounge) or even a video installation by internationally known artist Takehito Koganezawa (Nov. 16, UWM's inova gallery). There will even be two nights' worth of outdoor film projections on the walls of a few East Side edifices.

Want some education thrown in? There will be several seminars, beginning with one on the impact of film on politics and culture featuring Three Kings' screenwriter John Ridley, Shepherd Express film critic Dave Luhrssen, Chump Change director Steve Burrows, filmmaker Brooke Maroldi and Wisconsin Public Radio's Jonathan Overby (Nov. 5, Turner Hall). Also featured are discussions on "micro-budget filmmaking" (Nov. 8, Miramar Theatre), the business and legal side of filmmaking (Nov. 13, MIAD) and the Milwaukee film scene (Nov. 15, Turner Hall).

Embracing the World

As local dwellers know, Milwaukee truly is a city that embraces the world. There is no better evidence than the gamut of lakefront and neighborhood ethnic festivals that fills most every weekend of every summer. This diversity helps make Milwaukee a world-class city.

However, there is at least one thing that has separated Milwaukee from comparably sized American cities--the lack of a festival that elevates one of the most ubiquitous and influential artforms in the world, one that many don't even consider an artform because it seems to permeate the air we breathe.

Yes, Milwaukee has needed an international film festival for a while. Enter MIFF. But why now?

As MIFF Executive Director Dave Luhrssen recalls the event's inception, Shepherd Express Publisher Louis Fortis "demanded of me why Milwaukee is just about the only major city in the U.S. without a film festival." Some inspiration may have also come from watching Milwaukee being bested by less populous communities. "There are smaller towns--Lake Geneva, for example--that have had film festivals before Milwaukee. I think that may have stimulated us, too," Luhrssen adds.

Fortis elaborates, "Milwaukee is one of two cities its size that does not have a film festival." Keeping up with the municipal Joneses by hosting an international cinematic cavalcade is one thing. The event's social importance is another. "Good cinema is one way people learn about other cultures, and if one understands another culture, fears and prejudices disappear.

"It's also important for the cultural capital of Milwaukee," emphasizes Fortis, who founded the non-profit Milwaukee's Future Foundation to operate the festival. Many state and community leaders agreed with Fortis' assessment. For example, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism gave MIFF a generous grant through its JEM program to advertise the event around the state and in Illinois, while Julia Taylor, of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, helped spearhead fundraising efforts for the festival.

Cultural Capital

As Luhrssen sees it, this influx of cultural capital comes at a crucial time: when the city is experiencing a bustling revitalization.

"Many of us fervently believe the city's in the midst of some kind of cultural renaissance, that many things are happening here in terms of raising its profile, making it a much more desirable city to live in, for people to move to and not to move away from. Milwaukee has a lot of cultural assets in place: major league sports, symphony, opera, plenty of theater companies, good locally and nationally owned bookstores, a proliferation of restaurants and buildings in the heart of the city being turned into condos," Luhrssen says. "It seems that the one thing Milwaukee did not have was an international film festival."

Many hands helped bring the festival to fruition--too many to mention. Even the snappy festival trailer, which is being shown at the four participating cinemas, was made possible by a roster of organizations including the UWM Film Department, UWM's Student Cinema Action Network (SCAN), Astrolab/Filmworks, Purple Onion, North American Camera and Kodak.

MIFF will have four major exhibition tracks--World Cinema (featuring films from all over the globe, produced outside Hollywood), Mid-by-Midwest (a unique juried competition for filmmakers from the Midwest states), Underground Late Night (experimental work) and Milwaukee Issues (documentaries dealing with Milwaukee concerns), plus seminars and parties galore. An examination of one of Milwaukee's smaller, more specialized film fests, the LGBT Film/Video Festival held for several years at the UWM Union Theatre with opening-night screenings at the Oriental, provides a model of a film festival as builder of community and cultural solidarity.

Says LGBT festival organizer Carl Bogner: "It's gone from 16mm in a small room to eight nights of programming, more than 50 titles. Something that's taken me a while to learn is that a festival is as much about the community as it is about the film. Sometimes it might be more about the community than it is about the film. A festival, which is a temporary community around film, needs to work with as many members of the broader community as possible in terms of diversity."

Bogner says that his festival may deal in themes of alternate sexuality but entices filmgoers of many stripes with savvy marketing and programming.

Civic Pride

Bogner's belief in film as a medium of expression, especially for the sometimes-estranged communities represented by the LGBT fest, had nearly led him to a short-sightedness regarding the merrymaking to be had when the last reel of the evening has run off the spool. He finally became convinced. "I always think the films are enough. But people say it has to be a bigger event--throw parties! Parties give it the idea that there's a community surrounding the film."

Several MIFF screenings will be followed by galas to achieve just that goal of making the festival an event larger than simply an interesting, engaging selection of films. But still, the movies remain the heart of the festival.

As MIFF's Managing Director Rubina Shafi--who moved back home from New York City to work for the festival--says of the movies' broader cultural significance, "In a time when the need to promote greater understanding between cultures has become so important, international film festivals carry new relevance. To sit in a darkened theater and be immersed in another world, another geography, another life, then to suddenly find oneself reflected in the story, allows one to appreciate the universality of the human experience."

With advertising spanning the city, the state and northern Illinois, Luhrssen is confident that many people will experience the darkened environs of the four theaters housing 11 nights' worth of exploration into the world of cinema. "If you loved the Chicago Film Festival, a few weeks later you can come to Milwaukee, maybe catch a few films you didn't see the first time," he says. "Frankly, our major goal is to do a festival that will have a positive impact on people living in Milwaukee and people living further afield in Wisconsin."

To those who think a festival of foreign films and American indies seems ambitious for Milwaukee, Luhrssen optimistically begs to differ, citing the recent box office success of substantive international movies like Bend it Like Beckham, Magdelene Sisters and Whale Rider as arthouse hits that crossed over to mall screens.

Surrounded on all sides by cities whose film festivals have boosted civic pride and artistic cache (Chicago, Toronto, Cleveland, Madison), Fortis concludes, "The film festival will hopefully become one of Milwaukee's most popular cultural events." Beyond that aspiration, however, he has a taller, but achievable goal for his latest entrepreneurial project.

"Five years from now, I would like to see the Milwaukee Film Festival to be in the top 10 among film festivals in North America," Fortis says.

--additional reporting by Jenn Danko

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