The last stops on Docs In Progress Executive Director Erica Ginsberg's roadtrip into the world of midwestern film communities continues...
A bit of time has passed since I arrived in Wisconsin after my earlier visits to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago. The delay in posting will be understandable as you read further.
Milwaukee was the only city I had not visited previously either for work or fun, so I decided to spend a little more time there over the Labor Day weekend. Another D-Word colleague Danielle Beverly was kind enough to host me during my stay there. While there, I visited the city's renowned art museum (and took the requisite "hat" picture of the Calatrava-designed building) and got to check out different neighborhoods in the city.
Danielle also helped connect me to others in the film community there even though she herself is a relative newcomer to Milwaukee, as a Professional-in-Residence in Marquette University's Digital Media Program.
And what a welcome the local film community extended. Milwaukee Film hosted me for not one, but two conversations with local filmmakers - both established professionals and emerging filmmakers. This was amazing not only because this convening was unique to my entire trip, but also because it took place only a few weeks before the Milwaukee Film Festival which is organized by Milwaukee Film. The festival is a definite up-and-comer - drawing more than 35,000 people in 2011 and drawing some big names and films (this year they will be honoring Alex Gibney). A big thank you to their Education Director Susan Kerns for gathering a Who's Who of the local independent film community to meet with me.
The people I met represented a good assortment of filmmakers -- producers, writers, directors, editors, and educators. Among them Jeff Kurz (a former Miramax executive who had left L.A. to return to his native Wisconsin to found Belle City Pictures); Brad Pruitt (an Emmy-winning producer/director who focuses on issue-oriented documentaries and educational pieces); Jenny Plevin and Ryan Sarnowski (co-directors of docUWM, a documentary media center based in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee that provides students the opportunity to collaboratively work on professional productions and learn the art, craft and business of making documentaries); Susan Templin and Katie Jocum (from The Duncan Entertainment Group which is currently completing a 3-part television series on the Reagan Presidency); Janet Fitch (whose three-part documentary series on gun violence is focused on community engagement); Randy Bobo whose Independent Studios does post-production for numerous documentary and advertising videos; Mark Foote from Flexible Films (which has made a combination of features and documentaries). I was especially excited to meet Brad Lichtenstein, Nicole Docta, and Colin Sytsma from 371 Productions which is behind the upcoming Independent Lens documentary As Goes Janesville (see trailer below).
I was impressed by how much of a community there seemed to be among the filmmakers, and how Milwaukee Film seemed to be at the center of bringing many of them together. In spite of this, the filmmakers felt there could never be enough opportunities to interact and noted what appears to be a common experience among independent filmmakers everywhere - so much focus on "treading water" to get projects made and make a living that it was often difficult to find time to come together as a community.
Other challenges were also not unlike other communities -- finding distribution, mixed experiences getting support from local public television, and getting funding or balancing independent productions with bread-and-butter work. Interestingly, while the city seemed to have a healthy arts and activist scene, the filmmakers noted that the state of Wisconsin was in the bottom 10% of states providing funding for the arts. The Wisconsin Film Office had closed in 2005 and significant tax incentives -- so common in many midwestern states to attract feature film productions -- had been whittled back. Another nonprofit Film Wisconsin had been formed by volunteers to take up some of the slack of having no film commission.
While some filmmakers felt that being in a smaller film center than New York, L.A., or even Chicago made potential funders, collaborators, or subjects more approachable, there was also the double-edged sword where it could also be harder to infiltrate the broader network. The scrappiness which is an asset for any independent filmmaker was even more necessary when trying to work in a city which is not often considered a major film center.
I also appreciated that opportunity to meet with the next generation of Milwaukee's filmmakers. Danielle invited me to one of her classes at Marquette (where I got to give feedback to students planning their first documentary video production) and I appreciated the opportunity to see a film school during my journey. However, I was just as excited when Milwaukee Film arranged for me to meet several emerging filmmakers whose desire for community is mirrored in cities across the country. Not as hooked in to a film community through film schools, these filmmakers are most in need of community - a space where they can gain mentoring, advice, and access to a network. My sincere hope is that Milwaukee Film can help serve as this resource.
I had hoped to have this final blog entry posted before I reached Minneapolis for the final stop at the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC's) conference.
However I had a bit of a setback. After a wonderful overnight stop in Madison where I stayed with Gretta Wing Miller (yet another talented documentarian I met on The D-Word), I set out on the four hour journey to Minneapolis and planned to work on this final blog entry in the afternoon and then get ready for the opening night of the conference.
On the Interstate, poor construction zone signage resulted in a wrong turn where I ended up unintentionally driving my car through wet concrete. I was fine. My car was not. In fact, now nearly three weeks later, it is still at a repair shop in the middle of rural Wisconsin even though I have since had to return to Maryland.
Ironically where my car ended up was the town of Black River Falls, towards the northern edge of Wisconsin's "Driftless Area." I would later learn that this town was featured in Man on Wire director James Marsh's eerie documentary Wisconsin Death Trip. Small world indeed.
Thankfully there was no death involved in my trip. Though it was a frustrating, time-consuming, and costly experience, the accident also gave me an opportunity to see a part of the state I might not otherwise see, including some of the most bucolic countryside our nation has to offer. I also had a chance to have a conversation with people who I might not otherwise meet and learn a little about their life experiences and perspectives -- something which every documentary filmmaker welcomes intuitively even under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Though it has taken me several weeks to realize it, this was in some ways a fitting conclusion to this journey. For independent filmmakers can often feel like they are facing a complicated construction zone as they try to make their projects. In some places, there may be organizations that provide good signage which can help make filmmakers feel more supported and confident on their journeys. In other places, all there may be are orange cones where filmmakers must take it upon themselves to figure out how to navigate - through trial and error.
I wish much luck to all the fellow filmmakers and film organizations as they navigate their own roads towards bringing real-life stories to the screen.