Film Frenzy

Imagine, if you will, dumping a bucket of chum into pool containing a large school of piranha.

Now, imagine that those piranha are people and the chum is independent and foreign films of every stripe. 

Welcome to the frenzy that is the 2011 Wisconsin Film Festival! Two hundred and nine films, shown in eight venues, over five days.

The Wisconsin Film Festival is unique in many ways. Because it is, technically, a campus-based film festival, it benefits from its association with the University of Wisconsin. Each year, the Fest's director, Meg Hamel, partners with various departments on campus to bring movies that support that department's subject matter. For example, the UW Department of  Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education was well represented with films about Down Syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, and other maladies. The campus also provides four of the eight screening venues.

Perhaps the best feature of this Fest is that all the venues are within walking distance along Madison's famed State Street - a pedestrian High Street with a huge variety of shops and restaurants - making the getting-to-and-from extremely enjoyable. After a couple of hours in a bleak Romanian "comedy" it's nice to get some fresh air and sun, if even for just 15 minutes between films.

Feed the FishFinally, because it's Wisconsin and it's only polite to do so, there's always a track of films called Wisconsin's Own. These films are made by "filmmakers living in or native to Wisconsin, or students/alumni of Wisconsin universities and colleges." This is how we snagged Feed The Fish starring Tony Shalhoub last year.  Mr. Shalhoub is from Wisconsin originally and this lovely little independent movie was filmed here.

2011 marked the thirteenth year of the Fest. It marked my twelfth as an attendee. The festival has grown a lot since those early years when it started as a Friday night through Sunday thing. Obviously, the total number of films and attendees has grown exponentially. I believe they estimate 35,000 people in attendance each year now. And the programming has evolved into a rich, albeit unpredictable, mix of documentaries and narratives.

For me, this used to be a solitary adventure. I would carefully choose my films and buy my tickets and then, only then, I would tell my friends what I was seeing. If they wanted to join me that was fine, but I didn't compromise my choices for someone else. As the years passed, I started coordinating with friends on certain films and buying films in a block with others to get the volume discount. Then, in 2007, my best friend from Atlanta decided she wanted to come up for the Fest - thus giving birth to the Atlanta/Madison Cultural Exchange. This totally changed the equation and now we choose our films together to maximize the visit. Sometimes I lament the old days of complete film fest freedom but it's outweighed by joy of having my friends here with me for five whole days.

In my heyday, I would see approximately 16 films over the course of four days. Now, with less stamina and out-of-town guests to entertain, my film to day ratio has dropped - to the betterment of all involved. This year I saw 15 movies in 5 days and, while we had plenty of time built in for meals, visits with other friends, and plain-old down-time, I'm still exhausted beyond belief. I must be getting old.

Below you'll find the list of films I saw, with links where possible. We didn't have any total stinkers this time around but I've starred the ones I think you should see if you can. And, if you're ever in Madison in the spring, you should plan it around Wisconsin Film Fest. Look for me in line.

- Alex

  • How To Start Your Own Country (documentary) - An intriguing look at "micro-nations", countries that are (sometimes arguably) countries but not recognized by any international body (such as the UN.) One is located in Nevada and has six residence - three of whom are dogs.
  • Slightly Unsettling Shorts (short film program) - Of the five short films in this program, the stand-out was The Legend of Beaver Dam.* Someone described it as Glee meets Marilyn Manson at a campground.
  • Beneath Hill 60 (narrative feature) - Based on actual events and people, this compelling WWI drama is about the Australian engineers who built tunnels under the European front lines. 
Beneath Hill 60 [Australia, 2010] DVD
  • Made In India * (documentary) - The ultimate outsourcing. A Texas couple hires a surrogate, in India, to carry their embryos. An interesting look at medical tourism and the issues surrounding it.
  • Marwencol * (documentary) - Stunning story of a man who, after suffering brain damage as the result of an attack, takes his therapy into his own hands and builds a world called Marwencol.
  • The Red Chapel * (documentary) - A raw look at today's North Korea and how they handle a visiting disabled person.
  • Circo (documentary) - A fourth-generation circus family in Mexico works hard and tries to survive.
  • Potiche * (narrative feature) - Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu shine in this period comedy (1970's) about women's liberation.
  • Troll Hunter * (narrative feature) - Trolls exist but the Norwegian government is covering it up. Great CGI monsters, a funny story, and gorgeous scenery.
  • The Colors of the Mountain (narrative feature) - In the tropical mountains of Columbia, the kids just want to play soccer and go to school but armed conflict is an always present threat.
The Colors of the Mountain
  • Medal of Honor (narrative feature) - A bleak Romanian "comedy" about a man who is surprised when he receives a medal for his service in WWII.
  • Mine Vaganti * (narrative feature) - An hilarious Italian film about love, family duty, and what it is to be gay in Italy today. 
Loose Cannons ( Mine vaganti ) [ NON-USA FORMAT, PAL, Reg.2 Import - Italy ]
  • Summer Pasture (documentary) - Follow a family of nomads in Tibet through a summer season. The nomadic culture is quickly dying out as more and more people settle in towns.
  • Anita (narrative feature) - Sad and sweet, a 20-something woman with Down Syndrome finds herself lost in the city and at the mercy of the people she meets on her journey.
  • Boy * (narrative feature) - Set in New Zealand in 1984, this quirky dramedy is filled with amazing kid actors and a story that will steal your heart.

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