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Conversation with Jonathan Jackson, executive director of Milwaukee Film

"The energy is palpable. There is an electricity in the air. I have people talk to me frequently about how they love the time of the Festival because they say Milwaukee feels a little bit different."

- Jonathan Jackson

The seventh annual Milwaukee Film Festival opens this week, and this year, it is larger than ever.  In its 15 day run, it will screen more than 300 films, including fiction features, documentaries, short films, and even music videos featuring Milwaukee musicians.

Milwaukee Film Executive Director Jonathan Jackson joined me last week in studio to talk about the growth of the festival and what's new this year.  Click the podcast player above to hear our interview, which is also transcribed below.


NI:  I've lived in Milwaukee my whole life, Jonathan. And it's hard to believe it's only seven years old, because in the seven years, the film festival has become so ingrained in Milwaukee culture.  It seems like it's been here for decades. 

JJ: Then it's working. I am delighted that people feel that way but you know when you look nationally and we've done studies recently looking at the festival nationally comparing metrics like attendance, budget, size, staff, number of films shown, number of venues used.  I mean we are operating at the level of festivals that have been doing it for twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years so you know Milwaukee might not have always had a film festival like some other communities, but we've caught up really quick, and I'm really proud of how in the festival has become a true part of the community.  And that's a key piece of it it's I believe community driven.  

NI: There is a really special feeling, and it's kind of hard, I'll admit, to describe when you walk into the to the Oriental, and you're surrounded by all these other people that are there for the same experience from all different parts of Milwaukee. How do you describe the feeling? 

JJ: I mean the energy is palpable. That's just a given there is an electricity in the air.  I have people talk to me frequently about how they love the time of the festival because they say Milwaukee feels a little bit different.  It feels a little bit more enlivened, it feels a little bit more global, and it feels a little bit more connected.  And that's just something we strive to create at the festival.  But I think instead of describing it, I love it when we bring a director into the festival from outside of Milwaukee, who has never seen Milwaukee before, and has one of the featured films in the festival, and they will present their work in the big screen at the Oriental.  And basically as they're walking up to you know go introduce their film before it's screened if it's the first time they walked in the Oriental Theater I generally have to pick their jaw up off the floor so that they're able to communicate on stage because it's literally I mean it's one of the top ten movie palaces in the world.  And to have that here in Milwaukee and to be able to fill it regularly for the film festival is just truly special.  

Avalon Theater a new venue this year

NI: It's not just the Oriental either there's two other venues, the newest of them the Avalon Theater this this year in Bay View, and another beautifully restored historic venue.

JJ: Absolutely thrilled to be screening in Bay View.  We always know we have a ton of attendees, if your base audience by zip code. The Bay View neighborhood is thriving.  To be able to get a cinema right on K.K. in Bay View is a really awesome for us, and we really like the ownership group of those theaters, they do a great job running the Times Cinema, The Rose Bud Cinema and the Avalon, and are excited with how well they restored that the theater. 

Film as a way to build community

NI: It's really exciting. I live right in Bay View it like a block away from the Avalon, and I am I'm just really excited to see the energy in the neighborhood and people who maybe don't often come to Bay View coming there, or seeing my neighbors out you know to experience them in together.  So, I want to talk a little bit about building community through film, because I know that's a big part of the Milwaukee Film Festival's mission. Here's a good example: when I'm waiting in line to get into the into the theater I don't I don't usually love to wait in line, like if I'm at the grocery store it's not my favorite thing, but when I'm waiting in line to go to see a film at the Milwaukee Film Festival, it's really kind of fun because you get to chat with the other people around you, and you get to find out their story and where they're coming from, and what brings them to this the shared experience. How is community-building tie into the mission? 

JJ: From day one when we start planning every film festival, community is such a central piece of how we conceive of the festival and how it's created. It begins with the number of partners we work with annually on the festival.  One program that I really treasure that's part of the festival is our "Community Partner Program," and this year will have over 300 business groups, community groups, university departments who are partnering on individual movies that we're showing in the festival.  And this is not a cash relationship at all. It's merely identifying that a film is of interest to their network of constituents, or patrons, or supporters that we have a film that is a good match content-wise, and we give them a few tickets to give out to their customer base.  And then they can plan an event around our screening of it at the Film Festival. It's just a great way to connect on all the diverse individual content in the festival, because as you had said earlier, there really is something for everyone in the film festival, and we try to leverage that through all of the diverse content and ways to work with different groups in the festival. 

NI: That's no small task. It's a huge challenge that Milwaukee has with segregation, and with our different communities coming together to share an experience in Milwaukee.  It's something we hear all the time about the challenge that we have.  This is something that Milwaukee Film Festival is really taking head on and trying to make inroads into these communities, to really make films accessible for everybody. 

JJ: And you can see it throughout the festival line up, both in terms of the partners we work with and in terms of how we present film. One initiative that I'm particularly proud of is our "Black Lens Program."  This is a program of eight films.  It's in its second year this year. These are eight films that are all directed to by African-American filmmakers. There is really no other program quite like this in the country. There are many programs that specialize in black content, but there are few that put the emphasis on the filmmaker actually be an African-American.  And I would stress that this program is not just for a black audience, it's for the entire community of Milwaukee to engage with, but it's very important that the black community is the driver of the content, which you know, frankly, isn't often the case in the film festival world. By partnering with groups like the NAACP of Milwaukee, many other local businesses and organizations on actually presenting the, work and doing in a way that celebrates the content. Almost all eight films in the festival will have a representative of the film here that we're bringing in, flying into the festival, it's a great way for the community to celebrate this program, but it's not just for the black community it's for the entire community of Milwaukee it's just from a black perspective in this case.  

NI: Well, you could have chosen not to do that. You could have chosen not to have that "Black Lens" series and do this community outreach.  It was a decision that that film festival made. Why? 

JJ: I'm striving for the Milwaukee Film Festival to serve Milwaukee. And if you look at the demographics of Milwaukee, and the make-up of Milwaukee, there you know is obviously a large black community in Milwaukee. There's a large Hispanic population. There are many different ethnic and racial populations that make up Milwaukee, and the long-term vision is that the film festival can engage with all of those audiences. I don't think we're there yet, but we I think are well on our way, and I feel like one of our biggest initiatives is this black lens program.  Last year we had done a country spotlight on Mexico, and we did all a strong outreach into the Hispanic community in Milwaukee for the presentation of that. Film is a very unique tool. When it boils down to it, it's moving media.  We all interact with that on a daily basis. I think music is another tool that you can use that for, as well. But in the traditional arts and culture sphere, not everybody interacts with every medium, but film has a really open access point where or any audience can interact with it. And I feel like through the diversity of the content in the festival, there’s an ability to really serve the entire Milwaukee population. So with the film festival we strive, on an annual basis, to develop new programs to engage in enrich the entire community of Milwaukee. And I'd say again that that's not the case with most film festivals around the country. There's a very specific demographic that attends film festivals around the country and we are really striving to buck that trend, and to change that with the type of programming, the type of outreach we do with them walking Film Festival.  

Growth of Milwaukee film scene

NI: What are you most proud of about the Milwaukee Film Festival, either this year or in its history?  

JJ: Frankly, it goes to the growth of the local film scene.  It goes to my background.  I moved to Milwaukee 16 years ago to be a filmmaker. I was a couple of years into college, and I was looking around the country looking at all the top film schools. I had identified my interest in film, and I decided that I wanted to pursue a career at the time as a more avant-garde or experimental filmmaker, and they have a world-class program at University of Wisconsin  - Milwaukee for that. So, sight unseen, I moved to the state of Wisconsin a week before classes started to go to UWM in 1998. One thing led to another, and I fell into a job programming that UWM Union Theater, and that led to organizing and working for the first major film festival in Milwaukee. the Milwaukee International Film Festival, which then led to the Milwaukee Film Festival. But it all began as a filmmaker. I have a lot of relationships in the film community, and I just see the artists, and the vibrancy of the artists in this community, and I think it can one be of voice for positive change in Milwaukee if we listen, to if we support, if we activate the artists, and in this case specifically filmmakers. But then second, I think there's an opportunity to brand and to raise the level of Milwaukee, just as a cultural center by exporting that talent. I mean keeping the talent here - laughs -  but exporting their work around and developing a brand from Milwaukee.  I can see real progress that I can point to in the seven years of the Milwaukee Festival, and you know one way I look at is just by the sheer number of submissions that were getting on an annual basis from local filmmakers. 

NI: How many do you get?  

JJ: We used to have between thirty, forty, maybe fifty in a good year, and this is just you know four or five years ago.  This year we had one 177 submissions of local films in the festival, which was a more than 30% increase over last year, which was I mean that's so invigorating to me. We launched a new granting program this year for filmmakers called "Brico Forward Fund."  And this is a granting program that's going to give away $50,000 in cash, and $75,000 and more to local filmmakers in production services to make their next movie. We were hoping for between 20 and 30 applications for it because it's a really sophisticated process.  Knowing nationally what submitted for grants like this, that was kind of a good number. We had 57 applications for this program this year, which frankly overwhelmed by judges a little bit, but to be able to see that interest and that vibrancy bubbling is just really exciting and validating of the efforts.  I'm still a filmmaker at heart, and to know that we're having some kind of an impact in growing the film community itself here, that keeps me cranking.  

NI: Well, Jonathan Jackson, congratulations on another a year here of the Milwaukee Film Festival, it's seventh year. Thanks for coming in.  

JJ: Thank you so much, Nathan. 


Director of Digital Content | Radio Milwaukee