Review: ‘Riverwest Film & Video’ is an Intriguing Fly-on-the-wall Look at a Community Staple

Part of the “Cream City Cinema” program at the 2018 Milwaukee Film Fest, ‘Riverwest Film & Video’ is a documentary worth seeing twice.

Read all of our Milwaukee Film Fest 2018 coverage here.

First things first: I really loved Riverwest Film & Video, Emir Cakaroz’s engaging documentary, and I think I’m going to see it again next Wednesday, its final showing at the Milwaukee Film Festival.

The 64-minute movie is a fly-on-the-wall look at a store and gathering place for film-lovers and filmmakers, many of them connected with UW-Milwaukee’s film department, that is also a community center for Riverwest’s wide-ranging creative class and grassroots community. The documentary is also an investigation, in the words of Cakaroz, “of a space in which the public and the private merge.”

The store, which rents videos and sells film equipment, is also the home of Riverwest Radio, which during the shooting of the film (2013-2015) was an internet-only station with an eclectic group of producers. Since 2016 it’s been a low-power FM station, WXRW-LP, 104.1 FM, which broadcasts in about a 5-mile radius from its East Center Street studios. Cakaroz, who knew the store as a UWM film student and a Riverwest resident, chose to film before the regulations governing broadcast radio worked their professionalizing influence on the station.

The film offers a minimum of explanation of what’s happening. The first names (or in at least one case, the nickname) of the main characters are shown when they’re first introduced – and lists their full names in the credits at the end – but to tell you the truth, I couldn’t remember most of the names as the film progressed. Cakaroz is heard interacting with his subjects – and at one point we see his hand holding that of a Jewish commentator in Muslim-Hebrew solidarity during a radio show (the camera presumably is in his other hand). But there’s no voice-over commentary from him, explaining what’s happening in the scenes.

To me, the scenes were endlessly entertaining. The inside of the store, and its back room, are packed full of signs (“DVD for Dogs,” “We Sell Fake Blood” and the vintage “Mrs. Karl’s Bread Tastes So Good”), videos for rent and broadcast equipment. There’s a room in the back where a guy they call Rabbi cooks for the assembled crowd, and at one point he presides over a Passover dinner. In a discussion after the film Wednesday night, someone mentioned that Rabbi had been homeless in the past, and Xav Leplae, the store’s proprietor, said Rabbi had slept in the store during some of the time when the film was shot. Rabbi and Leplae himself are shown bedding down there (separately) at one point.

Leplae is the calm center of all the film’s activity, often looking bemused but also acting as organizer and master of ceremonies. At one point he’s in a conversation about the history of surrealist film with a professor from UWM. At another we see him revising a big chalkboard listing of all the shows during the week; among the programs: “Thoughts,” “Levity Radio” and “Smoke with Ya Boys.” Notably, the volunteer broadcasters reflect the diverse nature of Riverwest, a fact noted in this article on Huffington Post.

There’s a vast variety of radio shows in the film, including a guy playing the cries of seagulls, and two young women on the air engaging an older man walking in off the street with his dog: “Your beard is amazing!” Viewers at Wednesday night’s showing seemed to care about the characters (though a few people did walk out during the screening), so much so that one woman asked during the audience Q&A afterwards how everybody was doing now, three years later. (They’re okay.)

Jonathan Jackson, CEO and artistic director of Milwaukee Film, gave an enthusiastic introduction to the film, saying that the store was “an important space for me” when he was first a film student at UWM. And after the film, Jackson invited five of its participants, including Leplae, up front to discuss it. Leplae said he was uncomfortable watching himself in the film, and he came in at the end of the show because, he said, it made him squirm to see himself. I don’t think he has anything to be ashamed of.

Meet Filmmaker Emir Cakaroz

Riverwest Film & Video is Emir Cakaroz’s biggest project to date. Cakaroz, a documentarian who teaches filmmaking at UW-Milwaukee and Lake Forest College in Illinois, is a Turkish immigrant who studied film in Turkey and got his MFA at UWM.

He’s done documentaries on Wisconsin farm auctions and on his own family, ethnic Turks who moved from Bulgaria back to Turkey in 1970. His next project, a short film about his father who died in 1990 when Cakaroz was 9, will complete a trilogy of family documentaries. This one, which he plans to produce here, will be script-based, and he’ll do voice-over, unlike some of his earlier observational films, including Riverwest.

How did he decide to film a video store?

“I live in the Riverwest area. That’s my neighborhood,” he says, adding that Xavier Leplae, the store’s proprietor, is a close friend of his and his wife’s, and that he always bought filmmaking equipment there.

“It’s a very special hub for filmmakers. Everyone that’s associated with filmmaking [in Milwaukee] knows that space.”

Cakaroz said the project took him almost five years – filming in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and editing for 18 months after that.

Go See It: Riverwest Film & Video

  • Wednesday, Oct. 31 | 4 p.m. | Oriental Theatre East



Tom Tolan is managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine, where he's worked since January 2016. He spent 24 years at The Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a copy editor, assistant metro editor and reporter. He lives in Shorewood.