One of Madison’s fastest-growing attractions made its way through town last weekend. Starting out in 1999, the Wisconsin Film Festival has grown to epic proportions, selling a record 24,000 tickets this year.
It’s not often that I get to say I “only” caught seven movies in one weekend. I started off the week by catching the Thursday screening of “Madness and Genius.” One of the few narratives I caught, “Madness” followed three college students and a professor. A combination between science fiction and a character sketch, the movie attempted to weave together a narrative plot with elements from “Godel, Escher, Bach” and complex mathematics. Considering that a movie with a focus this specific will probably never see a commercial release, it was a perfect setup for the weekend.
Filmmaker Ryan Eslinger’s piece is somewhat harrowing when you consider that it was put together in just three weeks on a $20,000 budget. The shots are long, and there are a number of monologues, which makes the pacing slow but deliberately so.
Saturday was a full day, and a grab bag, at that. A wrong turn at the Orpheum brought me to the Young Visions exhibition, featuring a five-part series of submissions from local youths covering everything from art films to documentaries. A series of shorts by very young children kicked off the event, which quickly became more convoluted as the age of the submitters increased. Everything came back together with a well-executed documentary on Madison’s high-school hip-hop scene by a 17-year-old filmmaker, chronicling hip-hop as a “lifestyle” as much as an art form.
Next up was a showing of “Dali to Disney” at the UW Cinematheque. The screening space, which is used for UW’s film classes, was an excellent venue choice. “Destino” was a collaboration between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney, conceptualized almost 60 years ago and only recently completed. Shown in a glorious 35mm print, Disney’s faithful rendition of Dali’s storyboards is breathtaking. Mountains become people, bells become dresses, and dancers turn into dandelions in a seamless flow.
“Destino” was followed by a lackluster summation of surrealism. While “Remembrance of Things to Come” was (as described) very dense, it suffered from a lack of focus and drive that had many patrons visibly nodding off.
“Dali to Disney” rebounded in its third act, however, with a second showing from “Remembrance’s” director, Chris Marker. “One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich” catalogues one of the final days in filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s life. Here, Marker finds a clarity that was lacking from “Remembrance,” very concisely dissecting the imagery and the infectious exuberance of Tarkovsky’s films.
After “Dali to Disney,” it was only a short walk away to “Ticket to Jerusalem.” One of a number of foreign submissions, the film tells the story of a Palestinian man. Jaber, middle-aged and married, drives between small towns with his trusty movie projector, attempting to show films to children. Jaber’s dream is to show his films in Jerusalem, which has been largely cut off from Palestine by military forces. Well-crafted and a winner of the Cairo International Film Festival’s Silver Pyramid award, “Ticket to Jerusalem” presents a view not often seen in America — that of Palestinians who are not villains, but merely people like anybody else.
Sunday it was back up and in the theaters for “Wisconsin’s Own Student Winners.” All winners hailed from UW-Milwaukee. The experimental “Goodbye Milwaukee” by Kookhee Choi was the most accessible of the three jury-selected films. Starting with a description of the role of kim chi in Korean cooking, the film quickly expanded with a number of beautifully rendered shots into an impressionistic story of depression and (for lack of a better word) life.
Kodak awarded three grants to filmmakers for “best achievement in motion picture film.” The submissions ranged from the sharp skin textures and experimental motion of Eric Gerber to the crisp, exemplary craft of Andrew Rosas (“East Saint Paul”) to the simply bizarre. The final submission was Christopher Zahn’s “Dreams of America,” which featured a levitating Japanese woman in both forward and reverse with undecipherable Japanese being recited in the background.
Walking out into the street after the student competition, I was feeling a bit at a loss. There had been so many interesting films and different films and beautiful things to look at, but nothing that really grabbed me in a new or surprising way.
As is often the case, just when you’ve given up hope, along comes something you’ve been looking for.
“The Story of the Weeping Camel” is the graduating thesis of Italian Luigi Falorni and Mongolian Byambasuren Davaa. The documentary follows a nomadic Mongolian family as it tries to reconcile a newborn camel with its mother. Eventually the family sends its two sons to a nearby village seeking a musician to perform a traditional ceremony. Every member of the family has a distinct personality that Davaa and Falorni tie into their plot with a delicate eye for detail. The youngest son of the family is irresistible, and the characterization of the two main camels is amazing. Everything comes to a head at the performance of the folk ritual, which truly has to be seen to be comprehended.
Walking home after a weekend of absorbing film, it wasn’t the thought that I had perhaps seen the next Academy Award winner that occupied me (I probably didn’t, but who cares). It was the fact that there were 146 films I hadn’t even seen. Everybody who saw the festival saw it differently, and I want to know just as much about the movies I missed as the ones I actually caught. With its incredible breadth of expression and messages, the Wisconsin Film Festival is such a rare thing and an interesting one that it should keep people entertained for a long, long time. If it weren’t for the need to ingest food and get occasional sunlight, I can assure you, my ass would still be blissfully numb.