Stumped - MKE Film Fest

The 2017 documentary Stumped — which opens the festival — ably demonstrates film’s ability to connect us with others.  

Life, meet art.

Programmers for the ninth annual Milwaukee Film Festival have chosen 297 features, shorts and documentaries that combine life and art to illustrate how powerful the medium can be in the hands of master filmmakers.

Building awareness of what film is capable of has been the festival’s purpose since its inception. 

A story empathetically and effectively told has the power to entertain and also change people’s thoughts and move them to action, according to Jonathan Jackson. He’s the artistic and executive director of Milwaukee Film, the nonprofit organization that runs the festival. It is the festival team’s job to screen hard-to-find examples of the filmmaker’s art and present them to as many people as possible.

“These films don’t get out theatrically in Milwaukee and are just harder to find in general,” Jackson says. “It’s the festival’s job to spotlight the boundaries of cinematic storytelling.”

Virtual reality

The festival, which runs Sept. 28–Oct. 12, also has made significant strides in the area of virtual reality — VR for short. A dedicated VR Gallery is located around the corner from the Oriental Theatre, with free admission to the public. 

The films shown in the VR gallery demonstrate the power of this immersive new technology. 

“We had done VR displays at previous festivals, but this year there’s a physical pop-up shop devoted to the technology,” says Jackson, a Cleveland native and former filmmaker who moved to Milwaukee in 1998 to attend UWM’s film school. “There will be different types of hardware that people can try, including headsets that replicate the full 360-degree experience.”

This is not a mere video-game experience, Jackson explains. In The Fight for Fallujah, viewers will find themselves alongside Iraqi forces battling ISIS rebels to regain the city. The film contains actual battle footage.

“I’m interested in social reality aspects that allow viewers to immerse themselves in situations they never otherwise would experience,” Jackson explains. “The ability to experience an actual battle with a 360-degree view might cause someone to think twice before going to war.”

Pushing boundaries

Stumped, which opens the festival, ably demonstrates film’s ability to connect us with others. The 2017 documentary — a full-length expansion of a previously made short — tells the story of Will Lautzenheiser, a Montana State University film teacher who contracted a bacterial infection that required doctors to amputate all or part of his four limbs to save his life. Lautzenheiser tackled his trauma head-on by becoming a stand-up comedian, a career move that reveals the man’s truly indomitable spirit.

Another is Manifesto, a 2017 German film in which Cate Blanchett portrays 13 characters — from a puck rocker to a housewife. The manifestos, taken from throughout history, range from Karl Marx to Jim Jarmusch in Blanchett’s tour-de-force performance.

Schumann’s Bar Talks

From the German movie Schumann’s Bar Talks.

Films have been arranged into multiple categories that stress content, length and intent. The categories include American Independents and Rated K: for Kids to Sportsball! and Worldviews. There also are the Black Lens and Cine Sin Fronteras categories, which highlight the work of African-American and Hispanic filmmakers, respectively.

Festival films are eligible for cash prizes. The award amounts differ by category, but the total purse is worth more than $20,000. The awards are designed to help fledgling filmmakers pursue their careers, Jackson says.

New home, year-round films

Milwaukee Film, the festival’s parent organization, also will have a new home. Starting July 1, 2018, the organization will take over operations and programming at the Oriental Theatre, says Jackson. It’s the start of a 31-year lease that will give the group a year-round presence and enable it to program the types of films usually seen only during the festival.

In a world where media is tailored more and more to individual preferences and experiences, the influence of film festivals becomes a critical exercise in social engineering, he adds.

“A festival allows people to come together and see a film they might not otherwise see and then have conversations about it,” Jackson says. “A festival at its best is about building community and serving as a forum to bring people together.

State of Cinema Keynotes 

The festival offers two opportunities to hear smart people talk smartly about film.

The first is a dialogue between Matt Mueller of and Susan Kerns, a filmmaker and faculty member at Columbia College in Chicago, about making movies in Milwaukee.

The second features Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, who will discuss what it means to write about movies in an era in which media literacy is seen as both vital and a source of contention.

On screen: some recommendations

Milwaukee Film staff members offer the following personal recommendations from among the festival’s films and events:

Kerstin Larson, programming coordinator

Infinity Baby (USA, 2017)

If you like black-and-white, semi-dystopian rom-coms set in the not-so-distant future that include babies who never age or cry, this is a film for you.

The Summer Is Gone (China, 2016)

We’re all home from vacation, kids are going back to school, and the chilly weather is rolling in. But this film gives us the chance to bask in the languid summer heat for just a little bit longer.

Sami Blood (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, 2016)

I had never heard of the Sami people before I saw this movie, and I’ve been to Sweden twice. The film chronicles the country’s extreme prejudice toward the indigenous Sami and is a prime example of how film can raise awareness for untold stories.

Anna Sampers, grants writer & shorts programmer

Schumann’s Bar Talks (Germany, 2017)

If you’ve ever made, served, or drunk a good cocktail, then this is the movie for you! Gorgeous cinematography shows off a host of great bars around the world and the interesting stories behind the drinks, customers and bartenders that frequent them.

The Road Movie (Belarus, Russia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, 2017)

This is the kind of film that you have to see with a crowd in a theater. Try not to gasp out loud or shout at the screen while watching this beautiful and frightening compilation of Russian dashcam footage. I dare you.

Shorts: That’s Life

This new themed shorts program will make you laugh, cry, and everything in between. 

Cara Ogburn, programming & education director

Girl Unbound (Canada, Pakistan, 2016

This inspiring sports documentary goes beyond sports to give insight into global conflict, the clash between western and Pakistani culture, the struggle of women in sports, gender nonconformity, and more. Bonus? The film was directed by Wisconsin native Erin Heidenreich!

Dina (USA, 2017)

With intimate access, this documentary reveals the humanity of adults on the autism spectrum with tender sensitivity. You’ll find yourself relating to the main subject more often than not and leave the cinema wanting to tell those you care about just how much you care, regardless of how awkward telling them may be.

Dina - Still 1

Image from the documentary Dina.

Catch a movie, or 297

The Milwaukee Film Festival is Sept. 28–Oct. 12, with screenings at five theaters.

  • Landmark Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave.
  • Landmark Downer Theatre, 2589 N. Downer Ave.
  • Fox Bay Cinema Grill, 334 E. Silver Spring Dr.
  • Times Cinema, 5906 W. Vliet St.
  • Avalon Theater, 2473 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
  • VR Gallery, 2021 E. Ivanhoe Pl.

Festival passes are $425 (Milwaukee Film members) and $475 (nonmembers); premium screenings are $15 (members) and $17 (nonmembers); regular screenings are $12 (adults), $11 (seniors and students with IDs), $10 (members) and $6 (children 12 and under).

The opening night screening of Stumped at the Oriental Theatre is $25 for the general public and $20 for members, which includes the after-party at Good City Brewing Company, 2108 N. Farwell Ave. After-party-only tickets are $13 (members) or $15 (nonmembers).

For the schedule, go to


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