There's more than a mere single handful of movies programmed for this year's Wisconsin Film Festival that have a connection of one sort or another to the Mad City. The University of Wisconsin looms large, understandably, with so many alumni moving on careers of all types in the film industry. That's not the only pipeline between Madison and cinema, though, as actors, documentary informants, documentary subjects, and other local folks integral to films in one way or another stand out in festival films.
All of the programming for the fest, running from Thursday, April 3 through Sunday, April 6 is now set and scheduled. Taking some time earlier this week in advance of the full unveiling of the complete schedule, festival director Meg Hamel spoke with The Daily Page about a second handful of Madison-connected titles screening next month.
Here are a few more of these locally pertinent that will be screening at the film fest this spring.
Screening restored films is one major element of the festival's mission, with multiple titles included in the programming each year. One particularly significant this year is Parting Glances, the 1986 drama about gay life in New York City during the emergence of the AIDS epidemic. Written and directed by Bill Sherwood, the movie starts Richard Ganoung and Steve Buscemi, the latter in his feature film debut. More importantly, the Wisconsin-born Ganoung lives in Madison and works as an actor in theaters around the city.
"This is a special event," says Hamel. Parting Glances is the first film selected for restoration by the Outfest Legacy Project, a collaborative effort between the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and the UCLA Film & Television Archive preserve key LGBT films. That this film is the first speaks to its canonical status.
"Sometimes selecting a title for the festival is so obvious it's painful," says Hamel. "The bonus on top is that the lead is living here in Madison." That's not the only local connection with this film, though. A key figure in the restoration project was born in town, and now works at the Academy of Motion Picture of Arts and Sciences, which is headed by a UW-Madison graduate who is assists in acquiring restored prints for the Wisconsin festival.
"Sherwood prized honest, nuanced performances from Ganoung and the rest," wrote Kenneth Burns last fall in a report on the restoration of Parting Glances. "What's indelible about the characters is the warmth of their friendships and the breadth of their interests -- in art, music, writing, politics. They are gay people, yes, but gay people pursuing ordinary lives."
In terms of brand new films, the documentary What's Your Point, Honey? directed by Amy Sewell and Susan Toffler will be making its world premiere at the fest. It tells the story of an internship program named Project 2024, which was created through a partnership between the White House Project and COSMOgir!, that allowed college-aged women to work with high-profile mentors and organizations over the summer. One of the featured interns is Margot Presley, with portions of film shot around Madison and her home at Phoenix Co-op.
The winner of this year's Oscar winner for Best Feature Documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, is currently screening at Sundance Cinemas, but it will also be returning to Madison and playing downtown for the festival. Directed by the recently on-fire documentarian Alex Gibney, the film was informed by the work of UW-Madison History Professor Alfred McCoy and his 2006 book about the Cold War origins of contemporary U.S. torture policy and practice.
Madison is also certainly an appropriate location for screening Terra Incognita: Mapping Stem Cell Research, given the city's reputation as a birthplace for this rapidly-advancing wing of biological science. This feature-length documentary tells the story of a Northwestern University neurologist who is spurred by his daughter's debilitating accident to begin researching embryonic stem cells as an avenue for treating spinal cord injury.
The story is previewed in a four-minute trailer for the documentary.
Another local connection for this film, meanwhile, is that both director/producer Maria Finitzo and associate producer Justine Nagan are alumni of the University of Wisconsin.
Two other Wisconsin-connected films were announced last Wednesday in a press release issued by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It noted the festival's origins, its subsequent decade on the screen, and its collaborations with various university departments, and revealed a pair of big name movies likely to fill plenty of seats.
The first of these is Stuck, a horror/thriller based upon the real-life story of Chante Jawan Mallard. She was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison in 2003 for hitting Gregory Biggs with her car, and leaving him to die in her garage while still lodged in the windshield. Besides inspiring episodes of CSI and Law & Order, it was the basis of this movie, directed by UW-Madison alumnus Stuart Gordon. Getting his break with the 1985 cult classic Re-Animator, Gordon has since written and directed numerous other horror films, and has been an artist-in-residence at the university. Hamel's verdict for this new movie: "It's kickass."
The other film is Mongol, another one of this year's Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. Made in Kazakhstan, it is a massive historical epic that tells the story of Genghis Khan's childhood in the 12th Century. The connection to Wisconsin is that it was edited by UW-Madison alumnus Zach Staenberg, a busy Hollywood editor who was himself nominated for an Oscar for his work on The Matrix.
Hamel explains that her interest in programming this movies goes back told connections between family friends and Staenberg. After the editor was recognized for his work on the '99 sci-fi classic, a friend urged her to program one of his movies for the festival. Being that his follow-ups were the two Matrix sequels, followed by Lord of War, it looked unlikely that his work would be screened in this fest. "I had always assumed the projects he was working on were different from the kind of films that come to the Wisconsin Film Festival," she says.
While perusing IMDB one day, though, Hamel saw that Staenberg had been brought on board the Kazakh film, and decided to pursue it for the festival. "The reason Mongol is going to play here in Madison isn't because its an Oscar nominee," she notes, "it's because there was finally a chance to show a film from this really talented editor."
The complete schedule for the Wisconsin Film Festival will be released on Thursday, March 6, with details about time and locations for hundreds of screenings. Tickets go on sale Saturday, March 8, both online and at the festival box office in the UW Memorial Union.