Wisconsin Film Festival director Meg Hamel fears sunshine. She believes sleet is the best weather condition for the festival, to drive people into theaters. Otherwise, she says, they'll stay home to clean their garages.
In other words, Sunday's gorgeous weather was potentially disastrous. But the UW Memorial Union was hopping at lunchtime, with long lines for Paddle to Seattle in the Wisconsin Union Theater and Svetlana & a King in the Play Circle.
Inside the Play Circle, director Leo Chiang stood onstage to answer post-screening questions about A Village Called Versailles. A packed house had watched his documentary about a unique Vietnamese community in New Orleans that pulled together in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Chiang joked about the village residents' inability to acknowledge the inspirational quality of their story. He tried showing the film at Versailles' new year's festival, but people talked and ate through it, and 20 minutes in, they shut it off to sell raffle tickets.
Chiang said it's been more rewarding to bring small groups of residents to screenings outside the Vietnamese community. There, they can see how strongly the film affects people. "That's when they understand how empowering their story is."
Chiang was amazed by the response he got at the Wisconsin Film Festival, from the attendance to the intelligent questions. "I was surprised to see the house packed on a sunny Sunday afternoon," he told me.
'It's a miracle that we have this'
Film fest director Meg Hamel got the Play Circle crowd laughing with her typically charming, typically casual introduction to Svetlana & a King. "If you don't have any Film Fest tickets left," she said, "I'll be showing DVDs at my house later."
I asked Hamel how things were going on the fest's last day. "On Sunday there's a more gentle approach to the films," she said. "The Friday night crowds are more rowdy. By Sunday, some people have already seen 11 films. They know the drill where to stand, how to get tickets."
Though the crowds looked huge, Hamel wasn't into talking about attendance figures. "I'm grateful that anybody comes, and I think it's a miracle that we have this. I just want somebody to be touched by a filmmaker's creative efforts. If that happens, I feel I've done my job."
I was impressed by how lively Hamel seemed on day five of the festival. I was even more impressed when she told me about the work she'd been putting in for months, just for this one long weekend.
"I've been working every night till bedtime, every weekend. It's not the festival that wears me out, it's the long march."
Soon after the festival ends, Hamel will start looking at the latest films from South by Southwest and Sundance. It's never too early to start planning for next year. In the meantime, she needed to rush off to introduce a film at another venue. I followed her out the Union's side door to Park Street, where she hopped on her bike with a bouquet of flowers someone had handed her at the last screening.
Two dissatisfied customers
I asked a film fest worker named Lauren Nielsen how people had been responding to the movies all weekend. She said it's been overwhelmingly positive, with most audience ballots marked "above average." Only a couple of people have registered complaints, saying they were going to "write a letter." I wondered why, but Nielsen couldn't exactly say. I guess we'll find out when the letters arrive.
Thousands and thousands of eggs
Another big crowd laughed and cried at Eggshelland at Monona Terrace. The documentary explores a unique phenomenon in a Cleveland suburb: a front lawn that displays tens of thousands of painted eggshells every Easter, arranged into elaborate, corny tableaux. We meet the obsessed husband and wife who save the eggs, plan each year's theme, and direct their kids and grandkids in putting together the locally famous creations.
After the screening, producer Julie Matthews admitted that she cried, too, even though she's seen the movie a hundred times by now. You could argue that she and director Christopher Noice (also on hand) are too close to their subjects, creating an overly sentimental portrait. A bit more distance might have made Eggshelland feel less like a home movie in places.
On the other hand, the crowd's strong response testified to its effectiveness. A woman from a Kenosha clan said, "People in that family remind me of people in my family."
The party bus
A world premiere is a special event, and Madison director Ben Reiser got into the spirit. He threw a cast and crew party at his near-west-side home before the Play Circle screening of his short comedy The Grapes of Madison. He also chartered a Badger Bus to chauffeur the (admittedly drunken) revelers to the Memorial Union for the big event.
It sounds extravagant, but Reiser had an extra $250 to play with. His actor Steve Tyska won a Wisconsin Film Festival award for breakthrough performance, and Tyska donated his prize money to the party.
That's especially impressive when you learn that Tyska wasn't an actor before shooting this film. He's a doctor, not to mention Reiser's neighbor.
Reiser found out about the deadline for submitting to this year's Wisconsin Film Festival only two weeks in advance. He invited friends over to brainstorm ideas, and Tyska ended up getting cast as a guy who loses his job and decides to audition for a community-theater production of The Grapes of Wrath.
Two weeks later, Reiser had a movie. After getting accepted, and winning a prize, he definitely plans to try it again for the 2011 Wisconsin Film Festival.
"Next year, though, we'll give ourselves a little more lead time."