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Local legend Clarence Garrett and his quest for his bachelor's degree is at the center of "Clarence," showing at the Milwaukee Film Festival.

"Clarence" brings a big local personality to the big screen

The big screen has always been home to larger than life characters. Beloved local legend Clarence Garrett certainly belongs in that category. For decades, Clarence's huge personality and unabashed friendliness added a colorful, loud shade of thread to the city's fabric – and that's not even including his background as a World War II veteran or his quest to get his bachelor's degree at the age of 85.

His story is almost too big to contained on the big screen – but fellow Milwaukeean and filmmaker Kristin Catalano and her documentary "Clarence" certainly try. Her debut feature-length documentary brings Clarence's quest for his diploma through hard tests and health scares back home to Milwaukee at the Milwaukee Film Festival, with screenings starting Monday, September 28 at the Times Cinema.

Before then, however, OnMilwaukee chatted with Catalano about meeting Clarence, capturing his charismatic persona and the film's decade-long journey to reality.

OnMilwaukee: What drew you to documentary?

Kristin Catalano: My class and my instructor, and then just the realization that you really can do everything on your own. You don't really need a huge budget. You can take your time and figure things out as you go on the way.

The editing process for a documentary is also a lot like writing for screenwriting. I felt like there was a big similarity, although it's on a computer and I don't really know what I'm doing. But still, you're laying out a story with all of the footage that you have. It's almost weird when you say that you wrote the documentary, because it kind of comes after when you have all of your footage. I knew the basic story that I was going to tell and I knew where I wanted it to go, but all the conflict and hurdles you'd have in a screenplay, you don't know what those are until you have your footage.

OnMilwaukee: How did you meet Clarence, and how did you decide that this was someone that could be the subject for a documentary?

Catalano: I've known him since I was about eight years old. He was the mechanic at our warehouse grocery store. He was always education, education. "What are you learning in school? What are you going to study?" Always education. So when I knew I wanted to make a feature documentary, I knew I wanted it to be on him. He's just so likable, so alive, so memorable that he's a character.

He's really interesting – going to the Y everyday, World War II vet, growing up in segregation – but when I was interviewing him, I didn't really know what the story was going to be at that time until I asked him what his biggest regret was. I kind of thought he was going to say, "I don't have any," because he's just that kind of person. But then when he said never finishing college, that he actually had the brochure in the kitchen and was thinking about going back, I was like, "Alright! Well, if you decide to do that, let me know!"

OnMilwaukee: Did a little jackpot go up in your eyes? Like, "My story's here!"

Catalano: (laughs) Oh yeah. Originally, he was talking about World War II and how he hasn't seen any of those people, if there are any alive. I thought that might be interesting, trying to see if any of his old soldier buddies are still around, but then he actually went through the process and got his transcripts. I was living in L.A. at the time, and I made another trip back several months later when he was going to MATC and UWM to get his transcripts. I was like, "Wait for me so I can film it, because maybe this will be something!" And then it just took flight.

OnMilwaukee: When did the filming take place?

Catalano: 2005 to about 2008.

OnMilwaukee: So this project has been a long time coming.

Catalano: I accumulated close to 300 hours, so after I did all my filming and had everything, I had to watch all of this and log it all. It was just so overwhelming that I had to take almost a year just to chill out and figure out what I was going to do.

OnMilwaukee: What was the most difficult part of the filming?

Catalano: (Clarence) actually helped me overcome a little bit of shyness. He's so outgoing, so we'd go into a room, and I didn't really know what I was doing. I'd say, "OK, we have to get these people to sign these releases," and he's like, "What do you mean!?" I'd say that we'd have to get permission, and he'd say, "No you don't! Hey, do you want your picture on camera!?" People would just laugh and be like, "What … OK." It was so easy; he was like a producer.

OnMilwaukee: What is it about Clarence that reaches out and touches so many people?

Catalano: I think he makes you feel special. When he talks to you, he makes you feel like you're very important. When you'd walk away, you'd ask, "Who was that, Clarence?" "Don't ask me!" That person would never know that he couldn't remember their name; they felt very important because he would ask what they're doing and what they're up to, and he'd be very interested in them in that moment. And he was interested; he just didn't have a very good memory for names.

He was very, very genuine. A genuinely loving, kind person. There wasn't really anything really fake about him. And he really tried to be happy. He wanted to have that happy, outgoing personality that people would flock to.

OnMilwaukee: Was there a particular moment you missed while filming that you regret?

Catalano: There was, and I always think back on it. It was one of his first classes, and I had to talk to the professors first to OK (the filming). Then they said they had to OK it with the whole class – it was a lecture – and so I waited. He was introducing Clarence and me, and the whole class just erupted in applause for him, and I was like, "Oh no!" (laughs) I didn't have the camera on, but it would've been amazing. They just had this spontaneous applause – a whole lecture – because what he was doing was so inspiring and amazing. It sucks I didn't get that.

OnMilwaukee: How was it watching the story evolve over the years – especially with the turns involving his health that take place over the film?

Catalano: You know, people would always ask that: What if he dies? Well, then he died trying. It's still a journey; the actual end place doesn't matter as much as him trying to get there – to me and probably to him too.

There were some scary moments. I was always his friend, and I was more worried about his wellbeing than I was about making a film. I remember when he was in the hospital, and I went in there, and I had that ethical dilemma of whether or not I should bring my camera. I didn't bring it, and then he was like, "Where's your camera!?" OK, now I feel like I have his permission to bring it, and then I actually had a talk with his son about that too. There was a trust element. He wanted people to see what he was doing, and I think he knew he was going to pull through and triumph.

OnMilwaukee: What do you hope people take away from the documentary?

Catalano: I hope people are inspired to do something. It doesn't even have to be education, just to not give up. If you have a dream, just to go for it. I almost feel like my whole process parallels his story, because it took me so long to do it, and I had to reedit it and reedit it and re-cut and trim and trim and trim. I wanted to get it out there for people to see it. I just think anything in life that you want to do, he's testament to it, that you can if you put your mind to it. If you really want it, you can do it.

"Clarence" is showing at the Milwaukee Film Festival on the following dates and locations: Monday, Sept. 28 at 4 p.m. at the Times Cinema; Thursday, Oct. 1 at 3:15 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre; and Saturday, Oct. 3 at 12:30 p.m. at the Fox Bay Cinema.

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