Conversation: How Has Milwaukee’s Film Scene Evolved?

Jonathan Jackson and Erik Ljung met over coffee at Colectivo’s Prospect location to talk Cream City cinema.

Though it’s less than a decade old, the Milwaukee Film Festival is already one of the top five most attended film festivals in the country, thanks in no small part to artistic director Jonathan Jackson’s creative drive. Some 70,000 people are expected to attend the 2017 event. Among the documentaries being shown is local filmmaker Erik Ljung’s The Blood is at the Doorstep, which examines police violence in the United States through the lens of Dontre Hamilton’s tragic death in 2014. Jackson and Ljung met over coffee at Colectivo’s Prospect location to talk Cream City cinema.

JJ: One of the things I’ve seen is that there’s a lot more cross-pollination today than 10-15 years ago. I’m seeing more and more people work together and forging relationships and artistic or commercial partnerships. I like to think some of that is the festival bringing people together.

EL: I think Milwaukee Film has done a great job of championing film and gathering a film community. It’s amazing to me to see a sold-out theater on a Wednesday, to have an audience and get people excited about contributing resources. And I think it’s just the beginning of great things to come because, in years past, Milwaukee has lost talented people, filmmakers going elsewhere to get their films made, because there’s been a lack of resources in arts funding in Milwaukee. You have the Nohl Grant, which is great, and now you have the Brico Forward Fund.

JJ: I would echo that. When we created the Brico Forward Fund, we wanted to spur more creative energy in Milwaukee. And you know I think it has, as you said, a bit of a catalyst effect. I’ve seen more funding in the last two years than in my entire tenure at Milwaukee Film, absolutely. And that feels like great momentum and a sign for the future.

EL: There are a lot of talented people coming out of Milwaukee, and retaining some of those people is going to help grow the community.

JJ: There’s no better catalyst than seeing work on the big screen at the Oriental Theatre for an emerging, first-time filmmaker. There’s nothing like it. It’s amazing. I did that as a student. I worked at the Oriental Theatre at the concession stand. I would screen some of my 16-milimeter work that I did as a student on the big screen at the Oriental. It changes your perspective on things.

EL: I’ve got to say, though, having the Oriental as a backdrop for young Milwaukee filmmakers, it’s kind of a letdown when you premiere your film anywhere else in the country. It’s like, we’re having opportunities with the film I’m working on to screen other places, and it’s like, it’s just not the Oriental with 1,200 people. You’re not going to get that anywhere else.

JJ: It’s 1,070 seats … Nearly eleven-hundred seats is what I usually say.

EL: Just the excitement in the room and to have that many people watching your work is exciting, exhilarating and terrifying.

JJ: That’s how we get to keep people in Milwaukee.

Your 2017 Milwaukee Fall Arts Guide

This story is part of the 2017 Fall Arts Guide feature in our September issue. Click to read the rest of the guide.

‘Fall Arts Guide’ appears in the September 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.