By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Sep 17, 2019 at 6:01 PM

The Milwaukee Film Festival's lineup is filling up and so should your schedule next month – especially after the festival's latest announcement, revealing more than 30 documentary selections headed to the big screen on Oct. 17-31. 

First announced by Shepherd Express, the Milwaukee Film Festival's Documentary Series features stories ranging from profiles of influential figures famous and unknown, to oddball tales that are too strange to be fiction (or are they?), to fascinating peaks behind the curtain of politics and Hollywood, to entertaining and informative issue docs bringing urgent messages and experiences to the public's eye.

Oh, and also there's a documentary about the origins of Baha Men's hit song "Who Let the Dogs Out." Just saying ... 

It's an eclectic and intriguing list that certainly includes at least one or two or probably two-dozen stories that should catch your eye. (Did I mention there's a pick about "Who Let the Dogs Out"? Because I cannot emphasize enough that there's a documentary about "Who Let the Dogs Out.) 

Here's the full list coming your way next month:

"17 Blocks"

America's most dangerous neighborhood is found in Washington D.C. – a mere 17 blocks behind one of the country's most American symbols and locations, the U.S. Capitol building. It's a tragic irony that "This American Life" contributor Davy Rothbart digs into in this documentary, working with the Sanford family to take 20 years of everyday life footage to paint a picture of true life in the inner city, filled with people ignored in plain sight. 


Lea Tsemel is a Israeli human-rights lawyer, defending those that – in many cases Palestinian defendants – her colleagues deem undependable in the name of ensuring everyone receives a fair trial regardless of race, nationality or creed. That powerful mission is tested, however, when her husband is charged with treason in this behind-the-scenes profile documentary, using animation in unique and unexpected ways to tell Lea's story as well as the stories of those she's attempting to defend.

"Always in Season"

In this true crime story that sprawls into a look into America's history of racism and lynching, a North Carolina mother questions whether her 17-year-old son's death by hanging was truly a suicide or instead the result of an ugly hate crime with its insidious roots still embedded in our nation.

"Bleed Out"

In a story that'll have you sweating about your next surgery even more so than usual, Milwaukee filmmaker Steve Burrows conducts a decade-long investigation into the legal red tape of medical malpractices after his mother Judie fell into a coma and suffered permanent brain damage after a second emergency hip surgery. 

"Building the American Dream"

Big cities and even bigger buildings are growing everywhere in America – but who is actually building these growing U.S. metropolises? Chelsea Hernandez's documentary spends time with the undocumented immigrants working long hours in rough conditions for little pay, helping to build a vision of America while still on the outside looking in.

"Carmine Street Guitars"

Classic hand-crafted independent shops of any and all varieties are hard to find these days – but one of the most famous survivors is Carmine Street Guitars, a custom guitar store featuring instruments carved from reclaimed wood from the city surrounding it, made for some high-profile clientele – from Bob Dylan to filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and Patti Smith. The film that shares the shop's name follows five days in the life of the store and its owner, Rick Kelly, paying homage to  a business that continues to defy the odds. 

"Cold Case Hammarskjöld"

Unconventional daredevil documentarian Mads Brügger ("The Red Chapel," MFF alum "The Ambassador") brings his unusual undercover approach to a new story with "Cold Case Hammarskjöld," an investigation into an unsolved 1961 plane crash that killed United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld – and hints at conspiracy theories that changed the course of history. Another oddball dive into conspiracy insanity (OR IS IT!?) perfect for fans of the popular MFF pick "The Russian Woodpecker."

"Cooked: Survival By Zip Code"

Can your zip code really determine if you're at greater risk of a deadly weather phenomenon? Documentarian Judith Helfand takes a look at this horrific hypothesis – using the Chicago heat wave in 1995 as key evidence – discovering how economic disparity, segregation and climate change can combine to make certain parts of cities deadly to the weather's growing wrath.

"Ernie & Joe"

Everyone wants safer and healthier communication and interaction between police officers and the people that they're supposed to protect and serve – but how do we accomplish this? "Ernie & Joe" tries to answer that question with the help of its titular characters, two officers in the San Antonio Police Department's Mental Health Unit trying to find a more compassionate and thoughtful way to help the people under their watch.

"For Sama"

"For Sama" is an immersive verite-style documentary told across five years through the eyes of its protagonist, a woman living in war-torn Aleppo and creating a video love letter to her daughter amidst the unpredictable dangers of their lives in Syria. The movie should be a powerful experience, but don't just take my word for it: The Cannes Film Festival gave "For Sama" its title of Best Documentary.

"Framing John DeLorean"

With a unique blend of documentary and star-studded reenactments – hi Alec Baldwin and Morena Baccarin! – befitting a starry and unique story in its own right, "Framing John DeLorean" gets after the story of the famed car mogul turned infamous con man whose life turned into a cautionary tale after shady deals and an even shadier drug bust. 


Presidential advisor. Friend of the pope. Chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation. President of the University of Notre Dame. Rev. Theodore Hesburgh lived one of the most influential lives in our time, fighting for civil rights along with Martin Luther King Jr. and stepping in for those in need of help. His story is told here from the director of "Wordplay," the MFF alum "If You Build It" and the ESPN 30 for 30 TV doc "Catholics vs. Convicts."

"The Hottest August"

For fans of last year's MFF selection – not to mention Oscar nominee – "Hale County This Morning, This Evening" – comes another visual mosaic capturing a time and place, in this case New York City in August of 2017 with temperatures rising and tensions even more so after the election.

"If the Dancer Dances"

In 1968, choreographer Merce Cunningham put on the groundbreaking modern dance piece "RainForest." Now, more than half a century later, it's returning to the stage as choreographer Stephen Petronio leads a new group of incredible dancers into recreating the iconic work, as this doc goes inside the world of dance and the hard work, blood, sweat and tears that go into making something beautiful.

"The Infiltrators"

It's a documentary that plays more like a thriller as reenactments help tell the story of some "Dreamers" who get themselves thrown into a for-profit immigrant detention center in order to fight the system from the inside out. 

"Jay Myself"

Not a movie for clean freaks – Marie Kondo, hide your eyes – "Jay Myself" follows artist and photographer Jay Maisel as he digs through decades and 36,000 square feet of trinkets, memorabilia and just plain stuff as he prepares to sell his Manhattan building. The result is a trip through memory lane via a lovable mess.

"Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound"

The perfect spiritual sequel to past MFF graduate "Score: A Film Music Documentary," "Making Waves" chats with some of the biggest names in cinema – Christopher Nolan, David Lynch, Steven Spielberg, just to name a few – to learn more about the craft of sound design and lift the curtain on the techniques used to make a visual medium sound as good and as meaningful as it looks. Plus maybe you'll finally learn what the difference is between Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing at the Oscars!

"Midnight Traveler"

In this Sundance selection and prize-winning doc across multiple film festivals, director Hassan Fazili chronicles his own family's tense journey racing to claim asylum in Europe whiling fleeing persecution from the Taliban in Afghanistan. A vivid first-hand account of a topic that many only know from headlines and from a distance. 

"Mike Wallace is Here"

Legendary newsman and "60 Minutes" host Mike Wallace goes from the man shining the spotlight to the man in the spotlight as this documentary learns about what made the reporter tick, his famous interrogation tactics, how he changed the art of broadcast journalism and what today's TV news could learn from one of its key progenitors. 

"Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements"

Director Irene Taylor Brodsky (the filmmaker behind the MFF alum "Beware the Slenderman") turns the camera toward her own family's story as she follows her young deaf son Jonah as he receives cochlear implants and gains the ability to hear. His new sense leads him to Beethoven – and leads "Moonlight Sonata" into a sprawling documentary reaching beyond Jonah's story, into Jonah's deaf grandparents lives and the life of the legendary composer who famously lost his own hearing. 

"N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear"

With the help of breathtaking photography and beautiful animation, "N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear" brings the lauded, Pulitzer-winning author's work to cinematic life, discussing his own life as well as the origins and history that helped form him, his art and others.

"Q Ball"

NBA superstar Kevin Durant may not play much basketball of his own this upcoming year, but he's bringing some hoops to the big screen as the executive producer on "Q Ball," a moving documentary about the San Quentin Prison basketball squad and how the sport helps these men power through the struggles of life in prison – and prepare for the struggles of life after it.

"The Raft"

In 1973, eleven strangers hopped aboard a raft and went drifting across the Atlantic Ocean for three months in the name of science. Reporters at the time called the unique social experiment a "sex raft" – but what all actually happened during the experiment? This documentary looks back at this peculiar trip – and even unites the surviving members to discover what they all learned, then and now.

"Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins"

"Polarizing people is a good way to win an election and a good way to wreck a country." Those all-too-accurate words came from Molly Ivins, the subject of "Raise Hell" and an icon of journalism who broke into the male-dominated world of local and national news during the '70s, bringing a new voice – funny, witty and whip-smart – to reports on injustices, inequalities, hypocrisies and anything else that those in power would rather not be discussed. 

"Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project"

Marion Stokes liked television – a lot. Or at least remembering it, as over three decades, she recorded what was on her television for 24 hours a day, complete with the advertisements. When collected and viewed now from a distance, however, what seems like a silly hobby becomes an amazing chronicle of world history and culture, and how it was presented to the world – either on the news, in our entertainment or in our commercials. The perfect Milwaukee Film Festival pick for those who either love history – or love merely watching old TV commercials on YouTube.

"Red, White and Wasted"

Basically "Florida Man: The Movie," Matthew Burns' documentary enters the world of the Redneck Yacht Club, which sounds pretty much what it sounds like: a mudding community that also dabbles in alcohol, racism, twerking and Confederate flag waving. But he also finds people and stories much deeper than easy headlines. 

"The River and the Wall"

Of all the complexities discussed in the current U.S./Mexico border wall debate, one of the least considered is its potential impact on the environment. Not the case in "The River and the Wall," which travels down the 1,200 miles of the border to explore the habitats along the path and learn what could all be impacted by a man-made barrier. 

"Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street"

Actor Mark Patton thought he finally made his big break, starring in the sequel to one of the most famous horror movies of all time, "Nightmare on Elm Street 2." Instead, the role and its gay subtext turned Patton's life and career into a nightmare in its own right. Decades later, Patton still works to reclaim his on-screen legacy and career, talking with cast members and the film's creators about homophobia in the film, the world of horror and the industry as a whole.


No, it's not a documentary about competitive eating. (That's a different MFF documentary.) Instead, "Stuffed" digs into the misunderstood world of taxidermy, finding the methods behind the seeming madness, reclaiming it as an impressive combination of art and science, and showing that its fascinating subjects are just as concerned with these animals' lives as they are in their deaths. 

"Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am"

Pay tribute to the late, great poet and writer with "The Pieces I Am," a documentary about Morrison's life and ineffable art – work that earned her both a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Peace Prize – filmed prior to her death last month. A film about her life as well as her work, a film about herself but also about African-American artists as a whole, "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am" is a fitting and informative final bow.

"The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary"

Filmmaker Ben Berman thought he was making a documentary about the final tour of a dying magician. Instead, he ended up with a mind-bending trip through illusion and reality as he tries to uncover the truth behind The Amazing Johnathan. Pairs nicely with Banksy's similarly slithery "documentary" "Exit Through the Gift Shop."

"Well Groomed"

You see the header image on this article? There's a dog underneath all of that color and fluff – and a story underneath it all as well. That's the task of "Well Groomed," a documentary about the ruff-and-tough world of competitive creative dog grooming, the fantastical designs gracing these pooches' fur and the inspired – and inspirational – artists behind them.

"The Weight of Water"

Kayaking? Pretty tough. Kayaking through the whitewater rapids of the Colorado River? Even tougher. Kayaking though those wild waters while blind? A level of toughness we can't even fathom. Yet that's exactly what subject Erik Weihenmayer takes on in this inspirational documentary about his quest to conquer the danger despite his disability. Consider it a spiritual sequel of sorts to last year's "Free Solo" – with the heebie-jeebies of a fear of heights replaced with the heebie-jeebies of a fear of drowning!

"Who Let the Dogs Out"

It's a documentary about how Baha Men's hit song "Who Let the Dogs Out" happened. That's it. That's the description. I don't understand why you would need more information than that.

"The Woman Who Loves Giraffes"

A documentary both as simple as it sounds – it's about a scientist who dedicated her career to studying giraffes – and much more, as it follows Dr. Anne Innis Dagg as she retraces the steps of her famed 1950s research on the stretchy animals, as well as reclaims her place in science history so long delayed and dismissed by the male-dominated world of academia. 

"You Don't Nomi"

At the time of its release, "Showgirls" was considered one of the worst movies of the year and one of the most notorious flops in cinematic history. Almost 25 years later, the erotic Vegas strip show melodrama has evolved into a cult classic, beloved by its fans as both silly soapy fun as well as something more. (But mostly silly soapy fun.) Come see where you land on this strip-apalooza when it plays in 35mm – then stick around for this documentary, which follow's the NC-17 movie's oddball rise to cult glory.

The Milwaukee Film Festival will take place next month beginning Oct. 17 through Oct. 31. For information on passes and ticket packages, visit Milwaukee Film's website. And for more updates on the rest of the festival's films and then some, stay tuned to OnMilwaukee.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.