Looking Ahead To The 8th Annual Milwaukee Film Festival: A Conversation with Jonathan Jackson

Aug. 11, 2016
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Film brought Jonathan Jackson, the Artistic and Executive Director of the Milwaukee Film Festival, to Milwaukee in 1998. As a student of film production at UWM, Jackson was at the helm of the university’s Union Cinema from 2000 to 2003 where he cultivated a passion for presenting great cinema on a big screen to many people. I spoke with Jackson about the upcoming 8th annual Milwaukee Film Festival (September 22-October 6) and came away with the suspicion that the world might actually be a slightly better place were there “more great cinema seen by people in a communal setting.”

How far along is the MFF 2016?

By early next week we’ll be fully selected but not fully scheduled – that is, we don’t know when and at which theatre the films will be screened.

What is the selection process?

There are fifteen individual programs in the festival, consisting of over 300 films. We think of each program as a track or brand or identity. Each has an individual programming philosophy, team and process. The most general criterion of selecting films is that we try to present the best fifteen days of cinema possible. Lots of festivals make it their goal to discover or premiere new films. We simply want to screen the best films. It’s not disqualifying if they have already been seen. The quality of the film is most important. 

Our team travels to film festivals across the nation and around the world. We do extensive research guided by the programming philosophies of the different tracks. We’ll try to see of all the films that full under the categories – sports documentaries, for example – made in the past few years. 

How does the MFF interact with MKE institutions that are not film-oriented?

That’s an important question for us. The great films we show are just the beginning. What we are trying to create is a celebration for the entire community to engage in. We have over 350 partners working with us to produce the festival and events. The films start the conversations that get carried on during after-parties and post-film discussions. We have public forums after more than 100 films, during which there will be participant-driven discussions in local coffee shops, bars or restaurant. The Zeidler Center for Public Discussion provides trained facilitators to spur these discussions. We also do a series of panels that are more expert driven. These will dive deeply into the subject matter of the film and will connect that subject matter back into the context of Milwaukee and the world at large. We think of the Milwaukee Film Festival as a modern day community forum.

What is the role of sponsors in producing the MFF?

They drive the organization. We are incredibly lucky to have our sponsors. We could not produce the event without their support. We have approximately three million dollars of cash, in-kind goods and donated services. Without that funding the festival would be a shadow of itself. Our sponsors are what allow us to present one of the top ten festivals in the country in terms of attendance and number of films shown.

What’s new about the 2016 MFF?

We have three new program tracks. Our new “Cine Sin Fronteras” is an effort to continue presenting films from the Latin diaspora and to engage with Milwaukee’s Latin and Latinx community as participants, supporters and attendees. We won’t reach the full vision for the film festival until everyone feels like they are part of it. “Cine Sin Fronteras” was definitely inspired by our “Black Lens” program.

“Sportsball!” is an attempt to accommodate the influx of sports documentaries that have been made in the past few years inspired by ESPN’s 30 for 30. There were many that we didn’t show last year because we didn’t have the space. We like our programing to reflect the concerns of the community; and sports are pretty important to Wisconsinites.

In the past we haven’t had enough space for quality independent cinema, so we created “United States of Cinema.” We have, over the years, screened much independent Milwaukee cinema, but very few independent American fiction films outside of that. We want to honor that tradition. The diversity of locales and characters is important to us. We make an effort to identify films from many communities across the U.S.

Any new developments with the education program?

Right now we’re just trying to deal with being at capacity. We show films to approximately 8500 students over the course of the festival but our waitlist is still close to 1000 students. We need to figure out how to expand the program to meet the demand.

Any “Spotlight Presentations” to be excited about? 

I’m especially excited about Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. We screened it five years ago and people still talk to me about it. Once again we’ll have the Alloy Orchestra providing a live score to the silent film. They are one of the best in the world at doing this. On October 21, not long after the festival ends, the Milwaukee Art Museum has an exhibition of set designs, posters and other pieces associated with German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s.

For more information about the 8th Annual Milwaukee Film Festival visit Milwaukee Film’s website for news, membership information and advance, discounted tickets.

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