The Stoughton-based indie film festival expands to three venues across three days—August 11 through 13—for its second year.
The independent SOGO Film Festival celebrates its second year in Downtown Stoughton on August 11 through 13. Spearheaded by founder, filmmaker, and activist Miles Kristan, the festival has grown substantially from its inaugural year in 2022, on one Sunday in late September. What once featured seven or eight filmmakers has now expanded to include dozens of individuals and members of participating filmmaker collectives (like Pizza Sutra, Story Is Everything, Camp Createability, and Chameleon Films) around Wisconsin.
Pandemic lockdowns conditioned many regional filmmakers into relying on virtual screenings and uploading work to YouTube for anonymous views. Kristan says he wants to rediscover that swell of community response, “creating a space for filmmakers to be able to show their work in person.” That’s where SOGO comes in, with its three summer days of screenings at cozy Main Street spots in this town of about 13,000 that currently lacks a conventional movie theater.
Last year, Kristan held SOGO—named after his creative abbreviation for Stoughton that he devised when first attempting to get the festival off the ground in 2019—at the restaurant Wendigo at 121 E. Main St. SOGO returns there this year as its Sunday evening screening destination. New venues for 2023 include the spacious Mershon’s Cidery (formerly the Cinema Cafe) at 124 W. Main St., with a capacity of 500, on Friday, and the historic Stoughton Village Players Theater at 255 E. Main St., with a capacity of 150, on Saturday.
Each day’s starting time is 5:15 p.m., with one intermission about halfway through the evening, before the festivities wrap between 9 and 9:30 p.m. Tickets Friday through Sunday are set as free reservations through Eventbrite, but the SOGO Film Festival is asking for a one-time donation of $20 to support the events and community of filmmakers.
Reflecting the festival’s mission statement, relayed by SOGO Public Relations Coordinator Yuliya Slesareva, about the nature of sharing and collaborating, Kristan is proud to showcase diverse work from filmmakers from around the state. They hail not just from Dane County and Milwaukee but also Green Bay, Racine, and Dodgeville. Ambitiously, Kristan sorted through this year’s submissions by himself, estimating that he viewed 50 in total before settling on the final lineup of nearly 20. Working against the tradition of most film festivals nationally or internationally, Kristan did not charge submission fees, in order to encourage a broad range of hobbyists and aspiring filmmakers alike to enter.
“I think what Miles does really well is reduce those barriers to entry, and make it possible to participate in the story of creation,” says Slesareva. “That is, the type of community that really results in a more transformative experience for those who live in it.”
Kristan’s involvement extends beyond simply organizing and curating the festival: He’s picked two of his projects to screen—Die, Canada, Die and The Iraqi Interviews. Just recently, Kristan finished editing the latter into a 30-minute documentary from more than 12 hours of footage that Kristan shot around Wisconsin nearly 20 years ago when in junior year at Gibraltar High School in Door County. The doc’s survey of public opinion about the Iraq War seems to promise an insight-in hindsight approach, much like Chuck Olin’s terrific 26-minute documentary, 8 Flags For 99¢ (1970), about the southwest side of Chicago’s community response to the Vietnam War.
Other notable works screening at SOGO 2023 include Will Loper and Jarrod Crooks’ Sidekick’s Guide To Adventuring, an intrepid riff on Indiana Jones (judging by its poster), and the centerpiece of Saturday’s program, OpenGate Shutdown: Private Equity In Janesville, Wisconsin, And America. The latter chronicles the 166 layoffs that resulted at the Hufcor plant in Janesville (which made movable partitions and glass walls) when its new owners at OpenGate Capital shuttered it and moved those jobs to Mexico in 2021.
This Janesville documentary short by Brian Alberth and Rainlake Productions also chronicles the rippling economic impacts through the state, which Senator Tammy Baldwin continued to call out last year. Kristan says the discussion forum scheduled to follow the Saturday screening around 6 p.m. will include former Democratic Wisconsin Senator Tim Cullen.
While centering these true stories, SOGO is also home to several narrative shorts that were completed as part of the 48-Hour Film Festival this year—the aforementioned Sidekick’s Guide, Cruelty Cooked (a production developed by six adults and one teen with autism), Seasoned With Death, and Annoyee Of The Month. The festival will also feature some “work that those filmmakers made outside of the event [held in late April, with screenings at Marcus Point Cinema in late May],” Kristan says.
In terms of breaking down the content over the course of the three-day weekend, Kristan clarifies that the Friday screening at Mershon’s Cidery is “95 percent short [5- to 8-minute] fictional work [with] two pieces that could be defined as documentary. One is a biopic of a man [Bob Tapp] from Racine, telling his life story in a few minutes. And then there’s a documentary [Sunday Drive] on the race-car group [Madison Sports Car Club] that meets over at the Alliant Energy Center,” he adds.
With Saturday devoted exclusively to lengthier (20- to 30-minute) documentaries and extended discussion, Sunday aims to merge the two formats of both narrative and documentary in a more balanced fashion. The variety of subject matter and durations should truly get at the breadth of filmmaking and creative productions emerging from Wisconsin.
While Kristan and Slesareva are, in essence, the faces of SOGO, Kristan points out the behind-the-scenes contributions of Jennell Jenney of Milwaukee’s Pizza Sutra collective, who “played a significant role in the success of the first SOGO Film Festival by connecting us with the 48 Hour Film Festival and other filmmakers throughout the state.” Pizza Sutra is slated to screen its own 48 Hour Film Festival entry, Whose Party Is It, Anyway?, this year. Kristan further nods towards Pizza Sutra’s own upcoming short film fest in Cudahy on August 19, one week after SOGO begins. Following SOGO’s lead, Pizza Sutra Film Festival includes a full block dedicated to Wisconsin-filmed shorts.
If SOGO continues, Kristan hopes to persist on the path of and standard set by this year’s planning. That involves multiple venues dedicated to specific types of documentary and narrative filmmaking, as he teases that he’d like to “expand it in all sorts of directions.” In considering the reach of the festival and what it captures, Slesareva buoyantly chimes in to point out the small-town charm of SOGO on its opening night. “In addition to [Mershon’s Cidery] being a fantastic venue, it’s also a little bit of a historical tour of Stoughton” across that space and the few blocks of Main Street, she notes.
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