The following is the first in a series of interviews that Moviegoers’ Mack Bates conducted with alumni of the 2011 Milwaukee Film Festival (MFF) program entitled “The Milwaukee Show,” an annual competitive showcase of the best new work from local filmmakers that is a part of the festival’s Cream City Cinema program.
Every year since 2009, the year of MFF’s inception, the festival’s yearlong Filmmaker-in-Residence prize has been awarded to the program’s jury winner. In 2009, UWM Film alum John Roberts won for his work on Mary’s Friend, a Tim Burton-esque mix of hand-drawn and stop-motion animation. In 2010, former UWM Film Lecturer Tate Bunker won for his work on Mickey Burgermeister. And last year, another UWM alum, Michael Hawkins-Burgos, won for his work on the inventive almost-silent film Don’t Go.
The idea for this interview series was born out of purely selfish reasons: during the 3rd Annual Milwaukee Film Festival last fall, I was unable to attend the “Milwaukee Show” screening held at the Oriental Theatre.
While thumbing through the festival’s program, I looked forward to attending that particular program. But you know how the old saying goes, “While we’re busy making plans, the universe invariably has something else in store.”
So to make a long story short, I approached the marketing director of the festival, Blyth Meier, with the idea of interviewing some of the filmmakers whose work was showcased. In turn, I’d be guaranteed to see all of the films that comprised 2011’s “Milwaukee Show.”
One of the first films I saw was Wisconsin native Kurt Raether’s (pronounced “ray-ther“, not “rath-er“) Documenting Westphal, which chronicles some of the increasingly outlandish exploits of its title character, Fred Westphal, a 73-year-old curmudgeon who mounted a decidedly grass roots campaign during the 2010 Wisconsin gubernatorial election.
Governor Scott Walker and current Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett may have been the go-to media stars of that race, but in Documenting Westphal they are mere understudies waiting in the wings for some stage time. However, current Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, former Wisconsin State Congressman Mark Neumann, and former Wisconsin State Senator Russ Feingold are briefly featured in Raether’s thought-provoking 20-minute documentary.
Documenting Westphal premiered at the 2011 UWM Student Film and Video Festival and won both the jury and audience prizes. A person in attendance tipped him off to the Milwaukee Film Festival’s looming deadline for entries for its 2011 edition. He submitted the film, and it was accepted into competition.
Described as “a confessional essay about the hazy ethical space that documentary film occupies [in its] attempt to portray the complex dance of mutual exploitation between filmmaker and subject,” working on Documenting Westphal proved to be “a hard and hardening” experience for the now-23-year-old Raether who started shooting footage of Westphal, in the fall of 2009, while a 21-year-old sophomore attending UWM’s Peck School of the Arts majoring in film and video production.
Raether, who co-created Self Destructive Films with Johnathon Olsen, a film collective whose mandate Raether describes as “a support network for personal projects” sat down with Moviegoers’ Mack Bates over coffee to discuss the film.
What’s your backstory?
I’ve been in Milwaukee for four and a half years now. I grew up in Shawano, Wis. It’s about half an hour northwest of Green Bay. I came down to Milwaukee for school. I just graduated last May. When I first came down here, I started out in business finance at Marquette University, and I did about a year of that before I finally figured out that it wasn’t my bag. So I switched over to the Peck School of the Arts at UWM for film. I did three years of that, and I graduated. I earned a BFA in film and video production. I did a lot of arts-related stuff back in high school, but it seemed like business was the only way to go coming from a small town, so I went down that route. I eventually wanted to get back into the arts. Film was a good combination of everything that I liked in one medium, so that’s why I decided to take it on.
Do you have any highlights of your time as a film student at UWM?
It’s a wonderful program. The beauty of UWM’s film program is that they don’t shove anything down your throat. They kind of just release the chains and let you do whatever what you want to do. So if you come into UWM as a motivated person who wants to make films, they give you guidance and allow you to create. A lot of my time there was spent just working on all my own stuff, like Documenting Westphal. [UWM film professor] Iverson White’s lighting class and directing class were two of the highlights for me, actually. In his lighting class, he teaches you so much about professional lighting that it’s unbelievable. You’ve got nothing if you can’t see anything.
When did you first know that filmmaking was something you wanted to pursue as a career?
In high school, and earlier on, I did a lot of theater, so I’ve been acting most of my life. I was at Marquette, in an accounting class, and I was really frustrated with my life. Marquette is a great school, but they just didn’t have what I wanted. If I remember right, I was walking down the street one day and it was kind of foggy out, and there was like an orange street light going on, and there was a guy walking, in shadow. That’s the moment that for some reason sticks out in my mind. It’s really pretentious to say that, it’s super pretentious: “The lighting was great!” But that’s what sticks out in my mind as the moment when I thought maybe film was the answer. I like films. I like watching every behind-the-scenes thing I can get my hands on. I wasn’t the guy who went everywhere with his Super 8 camera as a kid. That’s not my story. But at some point, everything just coalesced. Film is a combination of so many different interests. If you’re a filmmaker, you never have to be doing just one thing at a time, especially if you’re a documentary filmmaker. You never have to conform to one thing.
What brought Documenting Westphal about?
It was more or less the culmination of a couple of years of hard and hardening experiences in the documentary field with a certain ornery 73-year-old man that I grew to hate and love at the same time. I met Fred while I was an ads rep for the UWM Post, and he was a client. The editor-in-chief at the time put a handwritten fax on my desk with a post-it note that said, “I have no idea what this says.” So I called him up, designed his ad for him. He had no way to view the proof, I couldn’t email it to him since he didn’t have email, so I had to drive out to where he was to show him the proof. I spent a good five or six hours at his house listening to him talk politics. And I sat there thinking to myself, “Wow! What an interesting, crazy caricature of a guy.” I think that’s how a lot of documentaries come about. Filmmakers come across someone interesting and want to document them. [UWM film professor] Dick Blau actually called him a “tar baby” which I think is an accurate description. He’s a very intriguing man. But the thing is, as soon as you get into his web, he keeps pulling you.
The film has been described as “a confessional essay about the hazy ethical space that documentary film occupies [in its] attempt to portray the complex dance of mutual exploitation between filmmaker and subject.” What was your initial intent?
My intent was to document [Westphal]. A lot of what you see in the film wasn’t planned which was actually a lot of the struggle in making it. All the behind-the-political-scenes footage was minimal. I had about five or six hours worth out of the 60 hours we shot. The meat of story ended up being about us and our interaction. About halfway through shooting, I saw that he wasn’t going to be giving me the story that I wanted, so I started filming the voicemails as you see in the film, and started focusing more on what was happening between him and I. Truth be told, my documentary was falling apart, and I was trying to salvage it. The film was never intended to be what it is. My intent was to document this charismatic old man going up against the establishment, and hopefully there would be a moral, if not necessarily literal, victory at the end. But in the end, the film ended up being about that weird space: Who’s exploiting who? A valuable lesson I took away from making Documenting Westphal is that in documentary filmmaking the film you plan to make may not be the film you end up with.
While shooting Documenting Westphal did you learn anything new about the political process that you weren’t previously aware of?
Yeah, we were definitely in the cauldron. I didn’t know what we were in at the time. Now post-Walker, post-Tea Party, post-Obama, and all that stuff, I have more of a sense of the maelstrom of politics that we were sitting in. It was a boon to the documentary.
At one point in the film, Fred Westphal states rather emphatically that there is no such thing as a neutral documentarian. What are your thoughts on that?
I think he’s right. I came into this thinking I was going to be a fly on the wall. There’s no such thing as a “neutral” anything. No matter how neutral you try to be, everyone has a bias. Even the Maysles brothers had some sort of bias. You can either embrace it or try to separate yourself from it. So at this point, if I were to make a documentary, which I will in the future, the idea of neutrality is out of the window. I will accept who I am, what my biases are, what I’m trying to say with the film, and embrace it. Another thing I learned from this experience is to respect the subject and the story. The goal shouldn’t be to be neutral. The goal should be to remain as truthful as the story and subject dictates, to stay true to the essence.
Documenting Westphal will play this Sunday, April 22 at the 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival in Madison. It’s screening as part of the festival’s “Seven Solos” program (along with Seven Solos and American Homes) at 11:30am at the Union South Marquee. Check the festival's website for additional information.