As film festivals sprout up around the state, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s very own event returns for its ninth year, running Thursday-Sunday, April 12-15.
The Wisconsin Film Festival will “unspool,” as they say in the industry, 182 films in theaters on campus and in downtown Madison.
There are now film festivals in Milwaukee, Beloit, Stevens Point, Racine, Door County and elsewhere, but the Wisconsin Film Festival holds a special place as one of the biggest and longest running film events in the state. Presented by the UW-Madison Arts Institute as an outreach program for the university, the festival sets a high standard that its director, Meg Hamel, credits to the fusion of campus and city supporters.
“Academic departments collaborate to select the festival’s films,” Hamel says, “and dozens of local people and businesses breathe the life into this beast. All parts of our community work together, contributing their strengths to make the festival successful. The Arts Institute itself is a center based on cooperation between many departments on campus, and the festival knocks it up to the next level by involving so many other organizations.”
This year’s program includes films chosen with the cooperation of different UW-Madison programs, such as the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies. The center is hosting a spring lecture series that coincides with the festival’s April weekend. Douglas Greenberg, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, will be a featured speaker at that event.
“This gives us a wonderful opportunity to jointly present an astonishing film about Italian Holocaust survivors produced by Greenberg,” explains Hamel. “‘Volevo Solo Vivere (I Only Wanted To Live)’ by Mimmo Calopresti played at the Cannes festival last year, and Greenberg will bring it to Madison for our audience.”
The African Studies Program helped select a number of new films, including two South African films by Mark Dornford-May: “U-Carmen e-Khaylitsha” and “Son of Man.” Both are music-filled marvels performed in Xhosa by the Dimpho Di Kopane Theater company, based on Bizet’s opera Carmen and the New Testament, respectively.
“U-Carmen” won the prestigious Golden Bear top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2005 and was included in Roger Ebert’s own festival in Champaign-Urbana, Ill. Ebert called “Son of Man” “one of the most extraordinary and powerful films at Sundance,” where it was the first South-African film selected for that event.
“The Cats of Mirikitani” by Linda Hattendorf has been one of the most
popular films at recent U.S. festivals and will come to Madison as part of the Asian American Studies Program’s strand of films. Hattendorf, a New York filmmaker and editor, began talking with and recording images of a local homeless street artist, an elderly Japanese man named Jimmy Mirikitani. The story that evolves between them is remarkable, and it illustrates the complex cultural landscape that is the focus of the Asian American series.
A new campus partner this year is the Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education. Hamel describes this series as one of the most challenging yet for the festival.
“Audrey Trainor proposed that we work together to bring films about people with disabilities,” says Hamel. “The film festival audience would be enthusiastic about that program, I was confident of that, but I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to find pictures that satisfied us.”
Hamel explains that half the movies considered for that series were straightforward documentaries that weren’t inventive or original enough to make the cut. The other half didn’t fit the perspective of the campus department. “Audrey would say ‘it’s too Hallmarky,’ which was I think her gentle way of denouncing the common approach to telling the stories of disabled people.”
One film that they are looking forward to presenting is “Heart of an Empire,” a brand-new low-budget documentary about the Fighting 501st Legion, a Star Wars fan group. Best known for dressing as storm troopers, Darth Vader and other Empire characters, members of the 501st participate in charity fundraisers, visit children’s hospitals and use their power for good.
“Movies like this make my job easy,” Hamel says, “because they combine humor, great visuals, and incredibly touching stories. We try hard to make sure there is something in the Wisconsin Film Festival for everyone, and we may not have a theater big enough to hold the audience for this film.”
Campus festival theaters this year include both the Memorial Union’s Play Circle and the big Union Theater, as well as Room 4070 in Vilas Hall, often called the Cinematheque after the free film series presented there by the Department of Communication Arts. Hamel emphasizes that the Wisconsin Film Festival wouldn’t happen without the immense support given by the department.
“For starters, the Arts Institute doesn’t have office space of its own, so the department has graciously hosted the festival work space since the event began in 1999. I’m like the houseguest who never left.” Hamel shares an office with graduate student Tom Yoshikami, organizer of the Cinematheque, and new Cinematheque programmer Karin Kolb. Two part-time student assistants make up the entire official festival staff.
“The relationships shared by so many different groups around campus and Dane County are the most significant and important part of this event,” says Hamel. “Everyone pitches in. The state Department of Tourism supports the local Wisconsin filmmakers’ program, the Memorial Union box office staff sell the tickets, Isthmus prints our festival film guide, and Steep & Brew makes sure we have enough coffee to keep us going.”
Tickets for the Wisconsin Film Festival will be available starting Saturday, March 17, on the second floor of the Memorial Union and on the festival’s Web site. Information about all the films planned for the festival also can be found online.