Getting personal with an in-person 2022 Wisconsin Film Festival

After perusing the film guide that is publicly unveiled today, our film team shares thoughts and ecstatic observations.

After perusing the film guide that is publicly unveiled today, our film team shares thoughts and ecstatic observations. | By Maxwell Courtright, Jason Fuhrman, Edwanike Harbour, Hanna Kohn, Lewis Peterson, and Grant Phipps

Header Image: A simple collage that features the guide’s full-page front cover art on the left by Christina King, with several crystal formations. On the right, stills from Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams’ sci-fi musical art piece, “Neptune Frost” (top), and Maryna Er Gorbach’s drama “Klondike” (bottom), about the War in Donbas along the Ukrainian-Russian border.

It may seem like an eon ago, but it’s been just three years since the last in-person Wisconsin Film Festival in April 2019. And in that time, the ways new movies have been released to audiences have been strange and ever-shifting. Virtual cinemas, new streaming services, straight to streaming models, straight to Blu-ray, as well as recurrent delays of major franchises. It’s become a time of uncertainty, where everything can be branded as “content.” So it’s a bit comforting to know one of the state’s major film festivals is back in-person in full-force with the same old commitment to regional and world cinema.


From brightly lit Hollywood faces to abstracted earthen landscapes, it’s all here in the United States’ largest campus-based film festival, projected in theaters as big as the Wisconsin Union Theater to as small as the Chazen Museum of Art’s screening room, from April 7 through 14. The festival guide, released today, even returns to its customary place: tucked into print editions of Isthmus.

Tickets for individual screenings go on sale Saturday, March 12, at 12 noon, while all-festival passholders can reserve screenings beginning Friday, March 11.

In lieu of a typical rundown and aggregate list of noteworthy films, our film team wrote about their experiences looking over the guide and their impressions of the programming, layout of the guide, and the ethos of the event resuming. As we prepare to commit to preview coverage over the next month, we hope this collective approach reflects both our personalities and your limited time with the guide, as six of us—Maxwell Courtright, Jason Fuhrman, Edwanike Harbour, Hanna Kohn, Lewis Peterson, and Grant Phipps—refuse to distill things into a general, numbered column.

Also, we just want to know what the hell is with this poster tagline for The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit.

Maxwell Courtright: Alas, I will not be able to make it to this wonderful-looking festival this year. Even just seeing the “back in person” subtitle at the top of the program was a bit of a wake-up call, shocking me out of my comfort as an attendee of many virtual festivals over the last couple of years. But I can’t argue that many of these shorts and features will massively benefit from the big-screen treatment.

I’m seething with jealousy, for instance, at those who will get to see Daïchi Saïto’s earthearthearth and the other films of the “Avant Landscapes” program in a theater. Though the title of the screening might turn away people who aren’t inclined toward the avant-garde, I would argue earthearthearth is a sort of “gateway” film, one whose colorful horizon lines are understood less intellectually and more physically. Even watching it on a TV at home, it was one of my favorite films of this year’s Media City Film Festival (which ran February 8 through March 1) and is one that I only assume would flatten the audience with its elemental force on a big screen. Similarly, it will be a treat to see a fellow a-g luminary like Ben Rivers’ most recent work, Look Then Below, in the same program.

While it’s hard to fault anyone for not wanting to take chances on such a massive program of well-publicized films, I think the beauty of a festival is the potential of exposure to styles and themes that one may have not even been aware of. While not quite avant-garde but certainly not conventional, Ricky D’Ambrose is a filmmaker I’m happy to see on this schedule, specifically because his style feels so particular as to be almost relegated to festivals like this. The Cathedral, a film sure to break his fussy post-Bressonian style into the mainstream (or at least the mainstream of people who watch lots of no-budget New York indies), may also be a bit of a departure for him due to its (seemingly) autobiographical nature. Still, the stillness and intellectualism of D’Ambrose’s films puts him in a league of his own, and I’m already eagerly awaiting whatever he does next.

If not exactly as unique in style, I hope people will also take a chance on fellow new-ish filmmaker Payal Kapadia and her documentary A Night Of Knowing Nothing. While it hardly feels like an underdog given that it won the award for Best Documentary at Cannes last year, I’ve seen little love and discussion around this tender, lyrical, politically potent film. I imagine the experience of stumbling onto this would be a little like when I was a volunteer host several years ago and happened upon J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2015), a film that sticks with me to this day both for its poetic eye and social power. So, if I had to distill my advice for all the festival-goers, it’s this: take chances!

Jason Fuhrman: Since 2010, I religiously attended the Wisconsin Film Festival in-person every year. I look forward to this event more than anything else in my life, and I usually take the week off from work to fully immerse myself in cinematic bliss for seven consecutive days when I tend to see about 30 to 35 festival films. While the experience can certainly be intense, costly, and emotionally draining, it makes for a relatively affordable vacation from reality, and it’s always worth the time, energy, and money. I’m glad the festival was able to continue virtually the past two years, and I really tried to adapt my moviegoing habits. However, in the absence of physical spaces to see movies and the face-to-face social interactions and conversations that make the festival so rewarding, I simply couldn’t summon the motivation or enthusiasm to watch that many films alone on my laptop in my apartment. Frankly, the prospect was just too depressing.

As a member of the Golden Badger Jury this year, I’ve already watched, analyzed, and discussed approximately 14 hours of Wisconsin’s Own selections. I feel ready to plunge into the festival proper with renewed vigor and zeal. Of course, the general festival programming is always wonderful, but after examining the 2022 guide, I think this might be the single most impressive lineup of films I’ve ever seen. Among the selections I’m most excited about are from three of my all-time favorite directors—Fire by French auteur Claire Denis, with the ever luminous Juliette Binoche; a new restoration of David Lynch’s Inland Empire; and Vortex, an unexpected departure for Argentine enfant terrible Gaspar Noé. I’m especially ecstatic about Vortex on Friday, April 8, since Noé’s previous two films—Love (2015), an erotic 3-D art-house spectacle with unsimulated sex scenes, and the hallucinatory psychological horror drama Climax (2018)—did not play in any Madison cinemas.

It recently occurred to me that I’ve never seen a film from Ukraine, and I’m really looking forward to 107 Mothers and Klondike, which feel particularly relevant in light of current events. Petrov’s Flu, a film by Russian dissident director Kirill Serebrennikov, sounds amazing. Finally, I cannot wait to see Neptune Frost, on Saturday, April 9, a radical cyberpunk Afrofuturist symphony from Rwandan actress and playwright Anisia Uzeyman and multidisciplinary hip-hop artist Saul Williams that promises to be “the future of Black cinema.” I’ve seen Saul Williams perform live twice, and his power as a poet is unparalleled. This project promises to reach a new level of expression.


Edwanike Harbour: It’s been awhile since I’ve stood in line with baited breath anxiously awaiting to see my meticulously curated list of films over a solid week, so I need to make this one count. I have never missed a Wisconsin Film Festival since the first one in 1999, even when it went virtual last year. A few entries jumped off the guide’s pages. One of my goals this year is to try and mix it up and not stick to any one particular genre.

I am happy to see The Conversation with Gene Hackman getting some love. Made between the first and second Godfather films, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film is a glimpse into some of the post-Vietnam paranoia that was really a precursor to our modern world of 24-hour surveillance. In the same vein as greats like Hal Ashby and Paul Mazursky, it will be a treat to see on the big screen, first thing Friday morning, April 8.

For an even more modern take on big brother and our ever-expanding technocratic world, check out Steven Soderbergh’s KIMI. Starring Zoë Kravitz as Angela Childs, this taut, fast-paced thriller centers around an Alexa-like device called KIMI. Childs has to resolve any errors that come through the device by remotely listening to the recordings of users, and she stumbles upon a chilling sound byte that suggests a crime has been committed. Hindered by agoraphobia, Childs has to decide what steps to take and how far she is willing to go to resolve this issue. Screenwriter David Koepp will make an in-person appearance for the screening, so it’s worth squeezing into your schedule on Saturday, April 9.

Finally, Emily The Criminal with Aubrey Plaza is sure to be a timely entry, as it takes a close look at a down on her luck millennial who has to turn to a life of crime to pay back her student loans in an increasingly stringent job market. Plaza is reliable in any film that lets her be an acerbic smart-ass. Don’t expect anything less in this film, which closes out the fest on Thursday, April 14.

Hanna Kohn: The art design for the 2022 Wisconsin Film Festival guide is notably playful:

It’s comforting to see a little cartoony life breathed into the guide. I needed something to counter my eventual disappointment about personal scheduling conflicts and sold-out tickets. I guess movies have been wearing me down in general lately (sorry, not sorry). I’ve been on the edge of couches and Marcus Point seats, where the electric recliner is broken, waiting for something really good or sad or just really true to hit me, and haven’t felt a whole lot. That being said, I did see a crystalline glimmer of hope in the guide. A few films sparkled and gave me hope that I’ll once again be caught captivated, sitting in silent wonder at a movie theater.

I adore the experimental shorts selections every year at the WFF. I am looking forward to attempting to secure my seat to the “Memories Of The Future” program at the Chazen on Saturday, April 9, so that I can zone in on the unique audio and visual experience or sit in awkward anticipation for someone to make an angry comment and walk out of the theater. (It has happened every time I have attended.) The guide offers that it is a “mind-blowing collection of films that push the boundaries of what is possible within the medium,” and I highly recommend attending if you’re looking to try something that is far out.

Stay Prayed Up, a documentary chronicling gospel musician Lena Mae Perry, caught my eye with its promise of a live concert from the film’s subject and her group The Branchettes following the documentary presentation at Shannon Hall in the Memorial Union on Friday, April 8. Another documentary that glimmered to me was Claydream, which takes a look at the life and work of prolific claymation artist Will Vinton. It has showtimes both at UW Cinematheque (4070 Vilas Hall) on Saturday, April 9, and AMC on Wednesday, April 13.

Lewis Peterson: The first thing that struck me is how well the festival programming dovetails with the ongoing UW Cinematheque programming—Dolls, Re-Animator, and The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit supplementing the ongoing Stuart Gordon series at the Chazen, as well as Vampire’s Kiss and The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent kicking off the “Age Of Cage” series. The re-programming of Wisconsin native Joseph Losey’s Mr. Klein and The Servant from the cancelled 2020 festival also seem to fit into the ongoing planning, as well as an appearance by screenwriter David Koepp, another Wisconsin native who has appeared at UW Cinematheque on a few occasions. In terms of new restorations that don’t have a Wisconsin connection, both Inland Empire and Vive L’Amour are exciting to see.

As for new titles, I’m really glad the stop-motion-animated sci-fi epic Mad God is on the docket, as well as new films by established international directors like Fire by Claire Denis, Il Buco by Michelangelo Frammartino, and Vortex by Gaspar Noé (even if I’m a little disappointed by the omission of Terence Davies and Hong Sang-soo from the lineup). Klondike seems extremely relevant to current events, but I’m glad the festival hasn’t hopped on any boycott of Russian art, as both Petrov’s Flu and No Looking Back look promising.

Work commitments usually prevent me from going all-out, so I’m usually only able to go to half a dozen films over the course of the festival. But I look forward to standing in line outside of AMC Madison 6 in the rain with a bunch of fellow weirdos (and familiar faces). Another personal note, Four Star Video Rental has traditionally been the site of a radio program on WORT on the first Friday of the festival. WORT broadcasts live from the store with visiting filmmakers talking to Mel & Floyd. I’m pleased to say we’ll actually have people in the store for the program for the first time since 2018.

Grant Phipps: This year’s festival guide is adorned with crystal art—raw, point, double terminated—to associate the collective act of viewing movies with the alignment or balance of energy. At least, I hope that’s not a presumptive leap.

It’s been about two years exactly since chaos ensued surrounding the future of theatrical exhibition, and I’m still searching for that balance, at least, in the feeling that movies can still exist in public spaces beyond our homes where they’ve been increasingly beamed and streamed. The fest staff’s aspiration, in their Welcome Back message, is to “provide art with a stage worthy of its vision…” Not only that, but to frame it more illustriously in terms of time, the where and when, the grid at a glance. Maybe their efforts won’t result in mass commitment to watch 12 films over a weekend in April, one after another, but just a few scattered over the fest’s eight days. That’s still a valuable step—a stimulating alternative to slouching with a remote in hand, finger tapping the right arrow button in algorithmic purgatory.

The guide reflects a thoughtfulness, the loose “best of the other fests” that I remember consulting programmer Jim Healy had once used to describe our city’s boisterous springtime of cinema. I keep getting stuck on pages 20 and 21, letters N through R. From Neptune Frost to Retrograde, a bevy of art house premieres, international docs that intersect with local affairs, microbudget indies, and a splatter gem (Re-Animator). If you like to avoid the preset alphabetical order of things, it’s the best place to start reading. But there’s far more here on either side. If I was let down by the absence of Kogonada’s After Yang and Joanna Hogg’s Souvenir sequel, seeing the singular Ricky D’Ambrose secure a couple precious weekend spots (Saturday and Sunday) with his new film, The Cathedral, more than buoyed my spirits. And I can’t wait to dig in and unearth the talent in Wisconsin’s Own shorts programs, of which I’ve already made a list of 10 I’m most anticipating—from Amber The Acrobat to The Wind That Held Us Here.

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