Milwaukee Film ‘experiments’ with sixth annual festival

Matthew Reddin, Staff writer

Presenting 275 movies over 15 days, the sixth annual Milwaukee Film Festival is certainly ambitious in its cinematic scope.

But festival artistic and executive director Jonathan Jackson says the event’s ambitions go beyond screening a lot of movies. “We really strive to use (the festival) as a catalyst for community, for engagement and for celebration,” he says.

Toward that end, this year’s festival is adding new ways to expand engagement. Organizers brought on board a new venue, Times Cinema in Wauwatosa, and added new series centered around food, the arts, and African-American subjects and filmmakers.

The new series help audience members navigate the scale of the festival. “If you create these niche programs that cater toward a specific audience or have an audience focus it helps people guide their selections,” Jackson says.

But also, as in the case of the Black Lens series, the new programs expand on what film festivals can accomplish socially. Unfortunately, festivals often fail to try.

“Regional festivals around the country just don’t do an incredible job of showcasing diversity — not just on the camera but in representing the filmmakers,” Jackson says. 

The Black Lens series, inspired by the powerful reaction to last year’s audience award-winner The Incredible Defeat of Mister and Pete, is an effort to change that. In addition to screening seven works by contemporary African-American filmmakers and one classic film, Jackson says community partners will help support and present these films, and a large number of post-film conversations have already been scheduled. 


Jackson says the Black Lens series is just one example of the Milwaukee Film Festival’s emphasis on creating distinct “moments” — unforgettable experiences that are more than simply getting to see a film. In previous years, many of his favorite moments have involved the festival’s opening, closing and centerpiece films, as well as the festival’s annual tributes to important representatives from the world of film.

This year is no different. Centerpiece film Jimi: All Is By My Side is a powerful biopic about the year before Jimi Hendrix made his breakthrough at Monterey. It stars Outkast’s Andre Benjamin and directed by Milwaukee-born John Ridley (who Jackson hopes will be able to attend the screening). And the closing night film, The Surface, is a Milwaukee film 18 years in the making, a drama about two men adrift on Lake Michigan filmed right here by a local production team, many of whom will be present.

But the opening night film, 1971, might be the most exciting moment of all. The thrilling documentary tells the story of the Citizens’ Commission, a group of Americans who exposed evidence of widespread government surveillance years before Watergate or WikiLeaks. 

It’s a powerful film in its own right, but Jackson says the guests attending the opening night screening are what take it from a regular screening to something special and unique. Among them are director Johanna Hamilton and representatives of her production crew — along with some members of the Citizens’ Commission, a coup even more exciting because they only revealed their identities earlier this year.

“I think it’s going to be an extraordinary experience,” Jackson says. “This is a film about a group of citizens that saw something they didn’t think was right about their world, and they impacted it, at their peril, in an incredibly profound way.”

Also exciting to Jackson are this year’s tributes, including new works from documentarian Marshall Curry and director Debra Granik, whom he calls “two of the finest cinematic storytellers of all time.” 

Curry will screen Point and Shoot, a documentary made with and about a fellow filmmaker who joined Libyan rebels in 2011 and was captured shortly thereafter. Granik will show the documentary Stray Dog, about a Harley-riding veteran she met while casting for her breakthrough feature Winter’s Bone

Both filmmakers have strong ties to the festival. Granik visited last year to host a daylong seminar with film students and Curry’s documentary Racing Dreams was the first film screened at a Milwaukee Film Festival, back in 2009.

“To have him back — Milwaukee Film Festival’s like what he’s wrought,” Jackson says. “I can’t wait to show him where we’ve come.”


The Milwaukee Film Festival runs Sept. 25-Oct. 9, at the Oriental Theatre (2230 N. Farwell Ave.), Downer Theatre (2589 N. Downer Ave.), Fox-Bay Cinema Grill (334 E. Silver Spring Dr.) and Times Cinema (5906 W. Vliet St.). Tickets for opening night, centerpiece and closing night films are $20, $17 for Milwaukee Film members. The festival will host an opening night party at Kenilworth Square East at 9 p.m. Sept. 25. The party is free with an opening night ticket stub or festival pass, or $10 ($8 for Milwaukee Film members). Visit for a full list of films and events.

Selected film schedules:

1971 Thursday, Sept. 25, at 7 p.m., Oriental; Saturday, Sept. 27, at 1:45 p.m., Oriental.

Stray Dog Saturday, Sept. 27, at 7:15 p.m., Oriental; Monday, Sept. 29, at 4:15 p.m., Times.

Jimi: All Is By My Side Saturday, Oct. 4, at 7 p.m., Oriental.

Point and Shoot Tuesday, Oct. 7, at 7 p.m., Oriental; Thursday, Oct. 9, at 5 p.m., Times.

The Surface Thursday, Oct. 9, at 8 p.m., Oriental.

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