When you come to a new city, you don't want to be an outsider and you don't want to be a tourist. But that is what you are. You can't totally escape it. But you damn as well try. It helps when local residents are friendly and open, ready to share their city with you.
But you also have social anxieties and a tumult of self-doubt, so you aren't always the adventurous type, and can get stuck in your own skull far too often. There, you attempt at constructing a narrative about your travels; to look closer, be wiser, be keener than the average schmo.
Traversing the streets, moving from the bustling weekend busybodies of downtown Milwaukee to one middle-class neighborhood and the next, all in the name of sustaining my appetite for movies, structures begin to form in my mind, before they bleed out into my fingertips, my touch, like a second sight as I scan the horizon of Brew Town with my eyes. I begin to notice the grid work of a city: both in the sense of urban design and planning itself, to interactions between locals and weekend tourists; the rippling bodies of a Midwestern family moving through the public market, the quietly chatty retirees at the Fox Bay cinema, sipping their beers before a movie about the absolute cruelty of eugenics starts...
If I have cultivated a narrative here, it is merely the one that the Milwaukee Film Festival was planning on me cultivating, for their slate of films suggested it. I believe it is the duty of cultural institutions like a film festival to cultivate and sustain an environment where progressive and stimulating dialog can take place... at the very least. And I believe Milwaukee Film to have achieved that. The sampling of their program this year proposes a dialog not unfamiliar to the moment: it is one that highlights inequality and questions power structures, especially that of institutional racism. The films at this year's festival do not position themselves within a sensationalist or propagandist framework. Far from it. The variety of work I have experienced in the cinemas here seem to have one overarching idea: it is ultimately that institutionalized racism is the unfortunate core construct of most civilizations. We build systems around the fear of the other. To either keep them out, destroy them, or control them. The films I saw on my second full day at the fest show this in direct and indirect ways, within modern Black America as well as a region we don't always so closely associate with racism.
To start off my second and final round of reviews from the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival, let's begin with the best horror film of the year. Which just also happens to be a documentary.
Theo Anthony's documentary feature debut is of such stunning skill and radical affect, not seen in the field for perhaps years, that my initial reaction was to call it an an anthropological masterpiece.
Anthony's ability to correlate and connect the history of pest control in the city of Baltimore, Maryland to terrifying laboratory experiments at the city's John Hopkins University, to zoning laws, home loans and institutionalized racism is a stroke of thrilling genius. Yes, Rat Film's subject matter may read like the academic thesis of an MFA student, but the film's energy is that of a punk song. It is entertaining, driving, insidious, and here to fuck you up. Every image, every action, every person, in the film acts as a mirror, a metaphor, a simulacrum for another and another and another, until one is left wide-eyed and spinning from the horrors of a system so perfectly constructed that it can't even escape itself. Indeed, Rat Film is a miracle of cinematic subversion and playfulness, slyly painting an image that wants to disrupt what feels like everything in civilization. But if civilization is only a simulation -- if we are just a rat in a maze the size of a city -- where do we escape to exactly?