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Introducing the First Annual Milwaukee International Film Festival

By Eric Beltmann

If we offer a starving man Pringles and he scarfs them down, should we assume he likes chips and therefore will never need nor want roast duck a l'orange? One of my deepest frustrations as a filmgoer in Wisconsin is how North American distributors routinely treat Midwesterners like that starving man: They release many of the best-reviewed movies only on the coasts, and then point to the success of pop tarts like Pirates of the Caribbean and Bruce Almighty as proof that we'd rather not see anything else. Yet regarding an entire region as a shallow market strikes me as a self-fulfilling prophecy. How can viewers have preferences if they don't know their choices? How can a city like Milwaukee develop a thriving film culture if it is institutionally denied access to the most challenging movies being produced around the globe?

By no means is this shrinking of options a Milwaukee problem exclusively. While some of the year's most interesting pictures eventually play in medium-sized cities -- often months after the national discussion about them has ebbed -- the vast majority of Americans are considered second-class filmgoers, never allowed to pick from a wide range of movies. In other words, distributors make our selections for us. In Milwaukee, at least, I'm clearly not alone in resenting such systematic marginalization. Thanks to a determined consortium of local artists, journalists, politicians, entrepreneurs, and film lovers, this year marks the birth of the Milwaukee International Film Festival (, an 11-day event designed to restore some degree of choice to filmgoers in southeast Wisconsin.

Between November 6th and November 16th, the festival will present more than 100 films, from more than 30 countries. This year, MIFF will focus on the current trends in German independent cinema, featuring Shattered Glass, a family-secret drama, and The Farewell, about Bertolt Brecht's final days.

In competition will be films made in the Midwest, including No Sleep 'Til Madison, about high school hockey among cheeseheads, Reeseville, with Mark Hamill, and Making Revolution, a feature about college kids trying to jolt their own generation out of political apathy. Also homegrown is one of the festival's most highly anticipated pictures: Stephen Burrows' Chump Change is a Milwaukee-set comedy recently acquired by Miramax for national release.

I'm most looking forward to Lukas Moodysson's Lilya 4-Ever (Sweden), Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold (Iran), Hany Abu-Assad's Rana's Wedding (Palestine), Claude Chabrol's Flower of Evil (France), Jia Zhang-Ke's Unknown Pleasures (China), Paul Cox's Nijinsky (Australia), Bertrand Tavernier's Safe Conduct (France), Martin Doblmeier's Bonhoeffer (United States), and Nabil Ayouch's Ali Zaoua (Morocco). Most of these are major works by major directors, and this will most likely be Milwaukee's only opportunity to see them in a movie theater.

The festival also promises several free outdoor screenings, projecting independent features against prominent East Side buildings. Many Q&A sessions with filmmakers and cast members are planned, and Richard Schickel, film critic for Time Magazine, will be on hand to discuss his documentary Charlie: The Life and Times of Charlie Chaplin. There seems to be a party nearly every night, and six seminars are scheduled: "The Alternative Screen," "Hollyton or Washingwood? Making Sense of the Relationship Between Film and Politics and the Politics of Filmmaking," "Micro-Budget Filmmaking," "Business & Legal Consideration in the Art of Film," "Milwaukee Film Scene: Stepping Up Production," and a forum with installation artist Takehito Koganezawa.

On November 16, the winners of the Mid By Midwest Competition Jury Prize, the Audience Award, and the World Cinema Showcase Audience Award will be revealed.

A few recent, high-profile favorites making the festival rounds this year that I was hoping would find their way to Milwaukee include Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention (Palestine), Tian Zhuangzhuang's Springtime in a Small Town (China), and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Afghan Alphabet (Iran). Alas, no such luck. Still, considering the lack of clout and resources that a first-year festival endures, I think MIFF has shown impeccable taste and range in its programming. Wisconsinites ought to take pleasure in stumbling upon these unfamiliar titles and unfamiliar names -- they remind us of the many discoveries that can be made when we look beyond the boundaries imposed upon us by Hollywood, commercial distributors, and the multiplex.

Article published 11.05.2003.

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