Milwaukee Underground Film Festival brings new side to summer movie season
This weekend, the first much-anticipated follow-up to last year's "The Avengers," "Iron Man 3," hits theaters. The $200 million superhero action flick rings in the summer movie season, the time of the year when explosions are king, creativity often gets pushed aside and experimentation is hard to find.
In an amusing coincidence, while one of the biggest studio films of the year will be announcing the yearly stampede of other, equally massive studio features on Friday, UWM and its film department will head in the other direction with the 13th Milwaukee Underground Film Festival, starting this Friday and running through the rest of the weekend.
The three-day non-profit festival features a number of experimental shorts and art films from across the globe. The films range from a 22-minute Serbian short about a man reconstructing the history of a country through his own dreams and memories, to a 32-second short about a kind-hearted wrecking ball named Hurty, and everything in between. The aim is to communicate thoughts, emotions and sometimes stories to audiences while also testing the boundaries and expectations of the medium.
Coming to Milwaukee to judge the eclectic collection of shorts are world-renowned experimental filmmaker Fern Silva, esteemed film critic Genevieve Yue and Chris James Thompson, a Milwaukee director whose last documentary, "The Jeffrey Dahmer Files," played at last year's Milwaukee Film Festival and was picked up by IFC Films for distribution.
"We kind of got lucky," said Elizabeth Hagen, one of the student organizers behind the festival. "Chris Thompson is a globally recognized part of the university, and Dan – our faculty advisor – kindly approached Silva first, and Geneieve Yue happened to be a friend of Fern Silva. It just kind of fell into place."
Each of the judges will be presenting something at the Milwaukee Underground Film Festival as well. Silva will present two of his short films, "Concrete Parlay" and "In the Absence of Light, Darkness Prevails," and Thompson will show a brief trailer for his upcoming documentary, "The Guantanamo Lawyers."
Since Yue is most known for her critical works, she will be leading a unique discussion on the China girl, an iconic image including a woman in a bright dress or shirt holding color bars used by filmmakers to properly calibrate and set up the camera for filming.
The China girl image, once deeply attached to the film process, has extra significance for MUFF because the festival is one of the few remaining places and events in Milwaukee that still uses film. The line-up features 35 mm prints, 16 mm prints and some Super 8 film, all very rare for find for the current moviegoer.
"It's going to be an intimate experience reliving the age of these films," Hagen said.
"The quality and experience is just that much better, watching Super 16 and Super 8 mm film projected how they were meant to be seen," said Jake Bergmann, another student organizer for the promotional side of the festival. "It's hard to explain. It's like listening to a record and then listening to a CD. There's just something off."
The prominence of film is not the only thing that makes the Milwaukee Underground Film Festival special. The festival is actually the final product of a UWM film course that Hagen and Bergmann have been taking all semester. Every Thursday, the course's 20 to 30 students meet in a classroom for four hours and spend the entire class going over submissions – which, according to Hagen, went over 300 – fundraising for the festival and getting the event out into the public's eye.
"We would go up and present to the class what we did each week and what we intended to do next week for the festival," Bergmann said. "If anyone else in the class wanted to pitch in suggestions or help, they were welcome to. In that week, we'd try to get as much done as we could independently and then meet back up. It's a very collaborative project that could never work unless everyone was doing their full effort."
"It's supposed to be homework, but it's a lot more fun than that," Hagen said. "It's a class, but we're involved in something so much bigger that we can really take pride and ownership in."
It's a lot of pressure on these film students to put on an internationally acclaimed festival in only one semester in between all of their other classes, jobs and other activities, but it's worth it in the end to show films that have more impact than meets the eye.
"Experimental cinema is really where a lot of filmmaking begins," Bergmann said. "A lot of the techniques in the production of experimental films – camera movements, zooms, the use of quick editing and rhythms – trickle up into mainstream movies. It's really where you find the art of cinema."
Who knows; perhaps something you see in a small, five-minute experimental film at the festival will show up in the next "Iron Man" movie.
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