Experiments, elephants, and absurdities in WFF 2019’s Wisconsin’s Own series

Six short films and one feature that stand out among this year’s homegrown and homegrown-ish selections.

Six short films and one feature that stand out among this year’s homegrown and homegrown-ish selections.

Each year, Wisconsin Film Festival programmers are tasked with selecting some of the most significant filmmaking that’s happening here in Wisconsin, or from up-and-coming directorial talents who got their start in the Badger State, to create the fest’s “Wisconsin’s Own” series. For the 2019 festival, which runs April 4 through 11, programmers Ben Reiser, Tiffany Ike, and Zachary Zahos have curated a Wisconsin’s Own lineup of wildly original, enlightening, exhilarating, and funny films that offer myriad approaches to narrative, documentary, and experimental essay. Below, Kailee Andrews and Grant Phipps take a look at seven entries playing in the five locally emphasized programs across Friday, April 5, and Saturday, April 6 (designated by the color purple in the official film guide’s scheduling grid). For ticket availability, please consult campus arts ticketing through the links provided.

Elephant Path


How do you tell the story of the illegal ivory trade, a black market estimated to generate as much as $3 billion annually? According to UW-Madison alum Todd McGrain, a lifelong sculptor and first-time documentarian, you don’t. At least, you don’t cover it all. Rather than offering a glancing view of the poachers, consumers, locals, and lawmakers involved in this international issue, McGrain’s feature-length documentary Elephant Path closely follows three colleagues at the Dzanga National Park in the Central African Republic, where severely endangered forest elephants seek refuge from industry and poaching. There’s local tracker Sessely Bernard, who was born on this land and tirelessly supports its people and animals; the American biologist, Andrea Turkalo, who’s spent a quarter-century studying elephants; and the young eco-guard, Zephirine Mbele, whose team strives to fend off violence.

Following his conviction that “living in someone else’s shoes and feeling as though you are bearing witness can have a more profound effect on our behavior than information,” McGrain provides an immersive document of these three as they trek through the jungle, scale their observation deck, and brace for the moment when an unfolding civil war reaches their remote wildlife reserve. Some of the film’s finest moments allows us to soak in the pace of life in the park, the time spent washing feet in streams, or sketching the elephants’ distinctive ears to better recognize them as individuals. Meanwhile, the threat of extinction looms over it all: 60 percent of the forest elephant population has been lost since 2001, and the elephants may be extinct by the 2020s. Elephant Path does not blink in facing the brutality of the situation, including scenes where the characters bear witness to photos and audio recordings of the vicious dismemberment of elephants to satisfy market demand for ivory. Ultimately, this is an urgent, sorrowful document of what may be the last days of a complex and vital species. McGrain has found a modest, compelling group who bear witness to this senseless tragedy daily, often endangering their own lives, but finding resolve to fight on. —Kailee Andrews

140 N. Hancock (screens as part of: Played Out)


Arielle Bordow’s four-minute slice-of-life short feels like the start of a recurring sketch series that lampoons twentysomething apartment living. Arielle Bordow and Audrey Bachman wrote the short and star as versions of themselves who are unafraid to immediately mine socially awkward conversation for comedy, especially in Arielle’s interrogations of Audrey’s sex life. The film adopts subtle deadpan inspirations, as the women trade concerns about everything from attending a concert embroiled in #MeToo controversy, to feelings of despondency as a result of college class struggles with a sharp and hilarious reveal. With its title alluding to the precise Madison location, 140 N. Hancock features quick transitional views of the Capitol and various downtown/near-east side storefronts (particularly on East Johnson); and the jittery handheld filming of these interstitial time-elapses is a refreshing throwback to ’90s television scored with the garage-rock sounds of Nobunny. —Grant Phipps

The Emptiness [Die Leere] (screens as part of: It’s Only Natural: Out And About)


During a five-week cycling trip through the heart of America and Ontario, video essayist Anders Nienstaedt crafted a short film that meditates on his own memory and experiences as much as the recurring or underlying visual themes of our country (and Eastern Canada)’s rural landscapes. Nienstaedt delicately captures hazy morning sprinklers in a graveyard, verdant rows of crops, and cows naturally grazing in the vast expanses and, amusingly, on the road outside the Rockford Volunteer Fire Department. Perhaps the most striking images are a triptych of stationary shots of chain-link fences—one cut and warped, another with a dew-dabbed spider’s web clinging to one of the diamond links, and the final shadowed still with a closed combination lock. The ambient techno-inspired glitch pop tune that plays throughout, composed by Tokyo artist Yuko Ohashi, further contributes to The Emptiness‘ sensibility as a microcosmic tribute to Gideon Koppel’s 2007 documentary, Sleep Furiously, which celebrates rural ways of life in Trefeurig, Wales. —Grant Phipps

Husband, Ensured (screens as part of: Wisconsin Gone Wild)


The latest short from the inventive mind of Gabe Reiss approaches its dark subject matter about love and death with the playfully absurdist tone of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. In what coincidentally bears a resemblance to the very first episode of Charlie Sanders and Jordan Peele’s YouTube-exclusive series Weird City, Husband, Ensured sharply takes the premise of modern algorithmic matchmaking and marries it with event of a spouse’s sudden, unexplained passing. Joyce Gimble (Na’Imah Graham) is startled in her home by a man radiating a gameshow host’s demeanor, Wyatt Celery (Maurice McNicholas), who happens to be a representative from the Pioneer’s Pride life insurance company. Instead of a payout, Celery informs Joyce that her late husband signed up for a replacement plan that bestows her with another potential mate (Kamil Borowski). After the new man makes his overly mannered case, Joyce reluctantly agrees to give this eager stranger a chance; but of course the decision comes with a few thrilling delights, caveats, and eccentric twists. —Grant Phipps

Look At Me, Less Than One Hundred Times (screens as part of: Stories We Tell In Wisconsin)

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Frances Tyska’s experimental short crafts a montage of scarcely viewed vlog entries in this meditation on human behavior and the nature of performance. Tyska threads a looped beat through the film’s three and a half minutes, as a myriad of people digitally film themselves in ponds, woods, and their homes, and jitterily attempt to guide an imagined audience with selfie-sticks through a series of explanations and minor confessions that are all cut short of specifics. While the mood is thrillingly impressionistic, flirting with the psychedelic, Tyska also finds something grounded and universal in editing all of the clipped videos through an acute eye for visual themes, further elevating Look At Me, Less Than One Hundred Times to the point where it can delightfully function as a piece of pure sound art. —Grant Phipps

Old Rook (screens as part of: Stories We Tell In Wisconsin)


This brisk, good-natured comedic short shot by Madeline Bishop feels like a charmingly improvised take on the male competitive spirit. As three men watch an unseen sporting event on television, one of them spontaneously brings up the 12-year-old MLB pitcher in Daniel Stern’s ’90s family-friendly fantasy, Rookie Of The Year, as a sort of prompt to prove their own athletic abilities. Without the means to actually demonstrate, the men end up attempting to boast their Nerf basketball skills with a tiny doorframe-mounted hoop in a confined apartment. Inevitably, someone will be humiliated, but Bishop and her three actors-—Jacob Feiring, Shahin Izadi, and Christian Strevy—are such good sports that they eventually realize they aren’t out to prove anything, but just to enjoy themselves. —Grant Phipps

Psychosis (screens as part of: Wisconsin Gone Wild)


Tapping into a technological paranoia that evokes series like Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot, Ben Feldman’s thriller Psychosis tracks the deteriorating mental state of reclusive computer programmer John (Jack Alberts). The territory is familiar, but Feldman and his screenwriter brother Daniel have refreshingly pared this typically slow-burning type of narrative down to 14 minutes. In effect, they’ve synchronized the pacing to more accurately reflect to the panicked journal-scrawling of its principal character, whose suspicions about being abducted begin to escalate after a peculiar instance involving a returned phone call from his friend Amy (Alexandra Ivey). While the obsessive anxiety of John’s voiceover narration (supplanting his journal-writing) carries the majority of the film, its last leg takes a surprisingly gruesome turn, which is depicted with unflinching confidence by visual effects artist and cinematographer Enrique De La Garza. —Grant Phipps

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