After 15 days of seemingly endless films, the Milwaukee Film Festival is coming to a close.
This year was undoubtedly the festival’s most successful outing, with several sold out screenings and the U.S. premiere of Alex Gibney’s newest documentary, “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.” It is technically impossible to see every film featured in the festival, but I did my best to attend films that had promise based on their popularity and the reputations of their directors. Most of them lived up to that promise; others, unfortunately, not so much.
The festival’s opening film, “Starbuck,” set a high standard. It’s a surprisingly warm movie, despite the plot being about a sperm donor, David Wozniak (Patrick Huard). He is a French-Canadian who leads a life that is the epitome of dysfunctional, from a mediocre meat-delivery job to growing debt. He also must convince his girlfriend that he is mature enough to be a father to their unborn child.
On top of that, he learns his days as a sperm donor were extraordinarily productive. Or should I say reproductive, as he is the father of 533 kids, 142 of whom want to learn the true identity of their father, known only by the donor name “Starbuck.”
Director Ken Scott uses this comedic scenario to show Wozniak’s struggle to connect with his newfound kin and reconnect with his girlfriend and family while also providing lots of laughs and heart. Scott will be directing a Hollywood remake of the film, currently in production with Vince Vaughn as the lead, but I doubt Vaughn can portray Wozniak with half the compassion Huard puts into the character.
The documentaries I’ve seen at the festival have opened my eyes to just how intriguing these films can be.
“Beauty is Embarrassing” gives a frank and honest look into the life of artist Wayne White, the designer of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. By recounting his life story, White inspires fellow artists and audiences to follow their dreams and try a bit of everything because we only live once. Director Neil Berkeley showcases all types of White’s work, from larger-than-life puppets to word art paintings. Berkeley also captures White’s carefree personality, showing his Appalachian dances and repeated “FUs” to his haters.
Other documentaries had far darker stories to tell. “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” combines the captivating tales of a medical examiner who worked on the Jeffrey Dahmer case, the police officer who interrogated the serial killer and one of Dahmer’s neighbors. Interspersed between these interviews are fictional vignettes re-enacting Dahmer’s everyday life.
One scene in the film shifts from someone talking about the disgusting smells emanating from Dahmer’s apartment to a sequence involving the fictional Dahmer getting his eyes checked at the doctor’s office. Scenes like these make the audience realize how the notorious serial killer could appear normal, despite the horrific murders he was committing. Considering director Chris James Thompson won the Filmmaker-in-Residence award for this film, the Cream City Cinema jury would probably agree that this documentary succeeded in showing a part of the Dahmer case previously undisclosed.
Another of the festival’s documentaries, “The Imposter,” recounts the bizarre true story of a Texas boy, Nicholas Barclay, who was found in Spain three years after going missing. But here’s the twist: it wasn’t actually the same kid.
Instead, the boy’s family brought home a 23-year-old Frenchman named Frederic Bourdin, who stole Barclay’s identity so he could be part of the family he never had. What I find hard to believe is that the family actually believed he was their son, ignoring the 5 o’clock shadow and French accent. Eventually, Boudin’s abnormal ears gave him away, and he was put in prison for six years. While the story is intriguing, the re-enactments are what set the film apart from others, as they are perfectly intertwined with the interviews.
Some films did not live up to the hype. Even though it is a modern adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood, I do not recommend young children seeing “Little Red.” It follows a young girl, Red, as she travels alone to Florida in hopes of seeing the horses on Cumberland Island. She is repeatedly stalked by Lou, an excessively creepy pedophile. The story had potential, but unfortunately it went too far, particularly with Lou’s unsettling advances on Red. The end goal of seeing the horses of Cumberland Island certainly didn’t seem like a fitting reward for escaping the clutches of such a predator.
“No God, No Master” takes audiences back to 1919 New York City, catching them off guard with two package bomb explosions in the first ten minutes. This sets off the discovery of an anarchist plot to take down some of the city’s most powerful men, including John D. Rockefeller, and ultimately destroy the entire democratic system. While federal agent William Flynn (David Strathairn) and his partner investigate this case, they discover an attempt to deport innocent immigrants to stop future attacks against the U.S. The film was certainly suspenseful, but it featured one too many subplots for audiences to keep up.
The highlight of the festival was the U.S. premiere of Alex Gibney’s documentary, “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.” In a startling investigation into the sex abuse scandals within the Catholic Church, Gibney shows the traumatic stories of four deaf men who were all abused as children by Fr. Lawrence Murphy at St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wis.
As the boys get older, they realize what has been done to them and demand retribution for Murphy. Unfortunately, they only discover an extensive cover-up of similar abuse cases by authorities within the Catholic Church. The stories alone are heartbreaking, describing 10 year-old boys who were put into horrific situations because they didn’t question the authority of a priest. The sign language used by the subjects to tell their stories makes it all the more powerful – Gibney captures the emotion in their faces and gestures that might otherwise get lost in just words.
HBO will be airing the film early next year, when it will surely reignite strong feelings and emotions whether the Vatican likes it or not.
I have lived near Milwaukee my whole life, and this was my first time attending or even hearing of the Milwaukee Film Festival (shame on me). I quickly realized it’s one of Milwaukee’s best attractions. The organizers at Milwaukee Film chose high-quality films from around the world that made audiences laugh, cry and cheer. And although this is only the festival’s fourth year, I am sure it is well on its way to becoming a regionally, and possibly even nationally, renowned film festival.