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Eight series bring 2008 Wisconsin Film Festival into focus

There's usually a soccer movie or two to be found at the Wisconsin Film Festival each year, thanks to director and primary programmer Meg Hamel. While there is no formal series in the fest that focuses on the beautiful game, at least not yet, there are eight others this year, the tenth annual edition of the springtime tradition in downtown Madison.

Series generally consist of a handful of similarly-themed films, and are a regular element of the festival. Some are programmed through collaborations with UW-Madison academic departments, several of which are long-standing, while others change from year to year. They're not a minor portion of the programming either; out of the 220 total films screening this year, 47 of them, nearly one-quarter, are a part of a series. This number does not include the more significant groupings of the Wisconsin's Own and Wisconsin Student Shorts films, meanwhile.

There are eight total series in the 2008 festival.

The highest profile series might be "Documentaries about Iraq & Afghanistan," a series of five films that includes this year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature as well as a work that focuses on the way the current war has affected a Wisconsin family. "Given the festival's tradition of showing films about social change and our political landscape," explains Hamel, "I really wanted to put some energy into presenting works on this issue."

The titles and directors in this series follow:

  • Frontrunner by Virginia Williams
  • Jerabek by Civia Tamarkin
    This documentary tells the story of the Ken and Rita Jerabek in Green Bay, and their experiences after their son Ryan was killed in Iraq in 2004 while serving with the U.S. Marines. "The story is really about what happens to a family after they lose someone," says Hamel. "What's fascinating is that they're a military family; the father served in Vietnam, and they understand what it means to serve the United States in the military." The film examines how they deal with losing their son, while grappling with the larger issue of the war itself. More information about Jerabek can be found on its IMDB profile and MySpace page.
  • Operation Filmmaker by Nina Davenport
  • Postcards from Tora Bora by Kelly Dolak and Wazhmah Osman
  • Taxi to the Dark Side by Alex Gibney
    This film about the homicide of Afghani taxi driver Diliwar and the broader U.S. implementation of "enhanced interrogation" practices in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay was winner of the 2008 Academy Award. It also focuses in part on the work of UW history professor Alfred McCoy, who has documented the history of CIA torture policy and practice in his book A Question of Torture.

"I apologize to all of the Norwegians out there," says Hamel about another festival series, "Focus on Scandinavia." All of the films from Norway she pursued didn't pan out, but it does feature others from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden. "The festival has a strong relationship with Icelandic and Danish filmmakers, though," she explains. "This is a really good example of how difficult it can be to pull a schedule together. The goal is not just to stick some Norwegian film in there, but to show good films that stand up no matter the circumstances."

The titles and directors in this series follow:

  • Children by Ragnar Bragason
  • Parents by Ragnar Bragason
  • Man's Job by Aleksi Salmenperä
  • Prague by Ole Christian Madsen
  • The Substitute by Ole Bornedal
  • White Night by Jannik Johanssen
    This film was written by Anders Thomas Jenssen, a Danish filmmaker whose work has been featured in the festival for several years. The Green Butchers was screened in 2004, while Adam's Apples was screened and won the Audience Award in 2006. "Unlike the other two films that are very comic, though," notes Hamel, "this film has a more serious tone."
  • You, the Living by Roy Andersson

"You many want to watch this year's Asian American film series with someone you love," writes Lisa Bu introducing this longstanding fixture in the festival's lineup in the print guide published in Isthmus last week. "Each of the four films tells a story about the power of memory, the possibility of transcending unhappy memories, and above all, the meaning of human connections." This series was once a stand-alone event put on by the UW Asian American Studies Program, but was merged with festival years ago and has remained a central element ever since. The university department is responsible for the programming in this case.

The titles and directors in this series follow:

  • The Curse of Quon Gwon by Marion Wong
  • Hollywood Chinese by Arthur Dong
  • N? Kamalei: The Men of Hula by Lisette Marie Flanary
  • New Year Baby by Socheata Poeuv This is a documentary told by a young Cambodian American woman who grew up in Texas and decided to learn more about her family's background and history. "This is a first time filmmaker who has pulled together a really powerful personal story," says Hamel, "one that's done very well every time it's played at a festival."
  • Tie a Yellow Ribbon by Joy Dietrich

Another perennial element in festival programming is the collection of "Restorations and Revivals," movies well and lesser-known that are simply those that haven't been made in recent years. "It's less a series than a bunch of films," says Hamel, "but for those interested in seeing these older works, it's nice to give people an index." This year's group covers the gamut, running from 1936 through 1989.

The titles and directors in this series follow:

The inaugural Tales from Planet Earth environmental film festival in Madison last November as a resounding success, so much so that organizers at the UW Nelson Institute made plans to return, as well as a collaboration with the Wisconsin Film Festival. At this point, the stand-alone edition of this new Madison fest will run every other year, with the next slated for the autumn of 2009, while other films will be included as a series in the Wisconsin festival in the springtime. "It will be very easy for us to do a series with them regularly," notes Hamel.

The titles and directors in the series follow:

  • Garbage Warrior by Oliver Hodge
  • Planet Earth by Johan Söderbergh, Michael Stenberg, and Linus Torell
  • The Unforseen by Laura Dunn
    This documentaries examines the effects of massive development in and around Austin, Texas, following the state capital's growth through the S&L boom and bust in the '80s, the tech boom of the '90s, and up through its current cultural ascendancy. It takes a close look at the effects development has had on the Edwards aquifer underlying the city, particularly on Barton Springs, located on the south side of the Lady Bird Lake reservoir on the Colorado River that divides the boomtown in twain.

Another series that returns every year to the fest is "The World of Jewish Film." This is organized with the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the UW. This group of movies includes the festival's annual nod to soccer, in this case the 1966 World Cup comedy Sixty Six, which Hamel describes as "one of the most crowd pleasing-type movies we've ever had."

The titles and directors in the series follow:

  • Constantine's Sword by Oren Jacoby
  • Eight Twenty Eight by Lavi Ben Gal
    This short film, paired with God Forgot Me in a Sunday screening, is an hour-long documentary about a man named Lavi who returns with his camera to the kibbutz where he grew up. "It's really cinematic, and filled with personal observations," notes Hamel, "and he does a great job of creating a humorous experience for the viewer."
  • God Forgot Me by Ifat Makbi
  • Gole Sangam by Sarit Haymian
  • Jellyfish by Etgar Keret
  • Refusenik by Laura Bialis
  • Sixty Six by Paul Weiland
  • You Wanted to Make a Film? by Gali Weintraub

The series "Undercurrents: Recent Films from China" was inspired by a suggestion from UW Chinese literature and culture Professor Nicole Huang to. Originally, the idea was to highlight documentaries from the nation, but while organizing the festival, Hamel found narrative films she decided to program as well. "Somewhere along the way I became fascinated by films about the Three Gorges Dam project, so I set out to see what movies there were about this," she says. "Lo and behold, I found four, and was able to bring all of them to the festival. I'm really happy with how this series came together, and it includes some of my favorite films in the fest."

The titles and directors in the series follow:

  • Bing'ai by Feng Yan
  • Xiang zi by Wang Fen
  • Luo ye gui gen by Zhang Yang
  • Xue chan by Peng Tao
  • Gong yuan by Yin Lichuan
    This film (titled The Park in English), along with Xiang zi (The Case), are the first two in a proposed ten film series from the Yunnan New Film Project to feature the work of female directors in China. These two are the only that have been completed, though all ten scripts have been written, six have been approved by the Chinese government, and a third is in pre-production. Though they have been screened at several big festivals in Asia, the Wisconsin Film Festival is only one of a handful of places where these works are expected to be screened in the U.S.
  • Sanxia haoren by Jia Zhang-ke
  • Up the Yangtze by Yung Chang

The final series is "Wholeness & Consumer Health," which was organized with the Center for Patient Partnerships at the UW Law School. These films illustrate the issues faced by persons who experience sudden health issues in midlife, which is the also the focus of the partnership. "I thought it was a great idea," says Hamel," and I am grateful for the learning experience."

The titles and directors in the series follow:

  • Crazy Sexy Cancer by Kris Carr
    This film is a self-focused documentary in which the director tells her own story of dealing with her diagnosis of cancer. "Kris Carr is extremely appealing on screen, and does a great job of sharing with the viewer what is going on with her battle," explains Hamel. "It's not all doom and gloom, though, but about how to be healthy. It's not just a window into someone's suffering.
  • Indestructible by Ben Byer
  • Terra Incognita: Mapping Stem Cell Research by Maria Finitzo

Tickets for the tenth annual Wisconsin Film Festival went on sale on Saturday, and remain available both online and at a box office at the UW Memorial Union. Just over three weeks remain until the screenings begin.

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