On its fifth anniversary, the Wisconsin Film Festival (Thursday-Sunday, March 27-30) is bigger than ever. Try 146 films. Try eight venues. Try threads on documentaries, Contemporary African Cinema, Experimental Film and Media, and New European Cinema. Try, say festival organizers, to see as many films as you can.
It might be a little easier this time around. "We kept hearing from people, '146 films in four days...how do I do that?'" says director Mary Carbine, who notes that her own sister uses an Excel spreadsheet to plan the films she'll see. The festival's Web site (www.wifilmfest.org) now has a wish-list feature that allows users to plan the films they want to see by topic, venue and showtimes. There's also an up-to-the-minute listing for sold-out films, so festival-goers can avoid the agony of being turned away at the door. (The list is already large, including Bend It Like Beckham and Divine Intervention.) All this testifies to the festival's growth from a free, 16-film affair in 1998 to a nationally respected event.
Highlights include the Contemporary African Cinema program, organized by the UW's African Studies program; it's designed to show Midwesterners that the so-called Dark Continent is actually 53 individual countries, each with its own filmmaking style. The experimental film program centers on avant-garde pioneer Michael Snow, who'll debut his latest project, *Corpus Callosum (March 27, 4070 UW Vilas Hall, 7 p.m.), which uses digital technology to warp sound and images. As usual, there's a heaping helping of Wisconsin films, including Benjamin Hershleder's documentary The Bronx Boys (March 27, Bartell Theatre, 9 p.m.), Chris Boebel's Red Betsy, set in rural 1940s Wisconsin (March 27, Club Majestic, 7 p.m.), and Dan Klein's Making Revolution, in which college activists attempt to rouse their apathetic peers with a Woodstock-like summit (March 28, UW Memorial Union, 9 p.m.).
And for the glitterati-lovers among us, there's an appearance by Mr. Big Thumb himself, Roger Ebert, who'll preside over a showing of A Hard Day's Night (March 28, Orpheum Theatre, 7:30 pm).
Carbine's especially pleased with the emphasis on women filmmakers in this year's lineup, including Gurinder Chadha's girls 'n' soccer comedy-drama Bend It Like Beckham (March 27, Orpheum Theatre, 7:30 p.m.). "It's part luck, part intent," she says. "In cases like this, threads emerge that you didn't see when you began the planning process."
As for Carbine's don't-miss-list, three come from the fest's documentary thread: Stevie, in which director Steve (Hoop Dreams) James revisits the troubled kid to whom he'd been a Big Brother (March 29, Orpheum Theatre, 1 p.m.); Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time, a detailed look at the Scottish artist's work (March 29, 4 p.m.; & March 30, 3 p.m., Orpheum Theatre); and Someone Sang for Me, a portrait of an inspiring music teacher (March 29, Bartell Theatre, 8:45 p.m.). Carbine's pick in the African cinema thread is Moufida Tlatli's The Season of Men, a look at gender roles in Tunisia (March 29, Orpheum Theatre, 6 p.m.). "How many times do we get to speak to a Tunisian woman?" asks Carbine.
Aside from Carbine's advice, film lovers will just have to take some chances. Which, come to think of it, is one of the most enjoyable things about the Wisconsin Film Festival. "Try an experimental or African film," says Carbine. "See something you've never seen before."