The Milwaukee Film Festival is definitely one of my favorite film celebrations, and not just because it gave me my first festival pass. I thought that heading to other, more major fests, such as the numerous options Chicago has to offer, as well as the ultimate arbiter of indie film, Sundance, would inject a sort of pretentious worldliness in me that would cause me to cast an amused gaze on this midwestern offering in a city that has become one of two of my adopted hometowns. (It’s complicated.)
But no, my appreciation for the Milwaukee Film Festival has actually grown. I suppose it helps that the fest has too. Normally when something continually gets bigger, it loses some of the charm that drew you to it in the first place. Not so with MFF. As it’s grown, it’s kept that mixture of sincerity and professionalism that’s endeared me to it. Everyone’s here because they love film, and unlike other film fests, there’s no caste system for the press passes. If you have one, it’s an uncomplicated arrangement.
This year’s isn’t much different so far. As is usually the case with major events in smaller environments, the order of the day is less networking than reunion. In many cases, most of the staff, filmmakers, writers, and press people who flock to the film festival either already know or know of each other. If you haven’t met them, you’ve at least interacted online, or at least vaguely remember some detail a friend posted about a few of their projects.
My actual planned meet up was with some fellow critics for a drink at Landmark Lanes, a literal underground bar whose almost nonexistent cell reception somehow adds to its charm rather than detracts from it. We chatted about film festivals, gossiped about a young critic who’d somehow managed to alienate seemingly everyone in our circle and even a few outside of it, and how our lives had changed since we’d met face to face. In the spirit of the occasion, or perhaps just budget concerns, we were all also drinking some of the most Milwaukeean drinks there were: they’d opted for Miller, me a Riverwest Stein.
Before The Film
I’m pleased to see the Oriental Theatre is packed. It’s both gorgeous and quirky, as we have an organ player to amuse us as we wait for things to start.
With any arts event, mentioning politics is unavoidable, and both Jonathan Jackson, Milwaukee Film’s Artistic and Executive Director, along with Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, do admirably well in mentioning it briefly, and the audience applause reassures them that they are indeed preaching to a very like-minded choir. Even the sponsor trailer seems more charming and creative. It’s about an attractive blonde woman heading in to get a tattoo while exchanging smiles with the scruffily handsome guy behind the counter as sponsor logos appear around her. The woman leaves her coat behind, sure that it will be brought to her…and it is, by the woman who gave her the tattoo and who is clearly her partner. The audience applause is genuinely heartwarming, and a welcome reminder that many of us are indeed moving forward.
Opening Night Film: Stumped
What a movie. Stumped is a doc about filmmaker Will Lautzenheiser, whose life is thrown into a tailspin after all his limbs have to be amputated in order to save his life from a sudden illness. His coping method is an unusual one: stand-up comedy. With a less skilled director, Will would simply be inspirational, and he certainly is. But he becomes far more than that thanks to the storytelling prowess of Robin Berghaus. She allows us to see Will as a person who has a disability, not someone whose disability takes over his identity. His story is of course tragic, but you’ll spend more time laughing at his stand-up, his films, and his art, which includes a photo shoot where he poses as a Greek statue, and a film where he compares his life to that of a cat’s (trust me, it works and it is hilarious).
There is also the concern and action it brings out in the people around him. After Will’s illness, his boyfriend Angel steps in as caregiver, his comedy partner also helps lighten the load by doing household tasks, and his twin brother and various strangers all step forward and offer assistance as well. It helps Will come to a place of stability, but when he’s offered the chance to get an experimental double-arm transplant surgery, he eagerly agrees, hoping to regain some of his lost independence. Berghaus manages to touch on many issues, including various obstacles people with disabilities and those who care for them face, but it’s also missing a major part of Will’s life and practically screams to be addressed: healthcare. Will spends a lot of time in the hospital, and it begs the question of how it’s all paid for. At the Q&A after the film, Will himself mentioned this issue, and how angry it made him that politicians were trying to strip healthcare from so many.
Luckily, even sidestepping such a major topic doesn’t really take much away from such an impressive documentary. Berghaus may have wanted to keep it personal rather than political, but in today’s environment, Will’s journey is deeply political, whether that’s acknowledged or not.
Opening Night Party
After the film and the Q&A has wrapped up, it’s on to the festivities. The opening night party is just down the road at Good City Brewing, a change of venue from the past couple years. It’s not entirely a good thing. Good City Brewing isn’t exactly small, but it is a smaller, more confined space for one of Milwaukee’s biggest events. It isn’t really designed to accommodate this, which means that one of my favorite aspects of the party, that of being able to wander around and strike up conversations with both old and new faces, is rather limited, especially in areas near the bar. It’s a fun set up, but getting to any new area is difficult, and after chatting it up with a few people, it stops being fun, and my friends and I duck out early. But it’s done what opening nights are supposed to do, which is make me look forward to the rest of the festival.
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