BY RICHARD OSTROM
The year has come ‘round again to the cool and collected days of November, time of initial holiday gluttony and, as always, a truly fitting time for a little local film festival madness.
Movie geeks take note, just about 30 minutes northwest of this Fox Valley thing, (most of) you readers call home, lies the quiet, unassuming city of Weyauwega. Here (in the Main Street-placed Gerold Opera House) can be found the annual Weyauwega International Film Festival. In years previous, the W.I.F.F. has played gracious host to such rich cinematic jewels as John Frankenheimer’s seminal 60s haunter Seconds, the loopy art-house sensation from France Holy Rollers, the clever and highly clandestine Disney theme-park phantasmagoria Escape from Tomorrow and such Wisconsin-generated gems as West of Thunder and Dead Weight.
Audiences were treated to a wide selection of film types; documentaries, dramas, comedies, action and even some low-brow, grindhouse-worthy horror (Don’t Go To the Reunion or Billy Club anyone?) and the whole thing looks primed to grow ever bigger with each coming year.
This year, the fourth episode of the fest will unfold (beginning on Wednesday, November 12, and wrapping up on Saturday, Nov. 15) in high style. It all kicks off with some ambitious non-fiction cinema in Wait, about a creative team (one filmmaker, one musician) wandering through the varying cultures and communities of South America, guided by the mutual pull of something out of their collective past, and the epic character study Old Man by fest veteran and award winner Dan Schneidkraut. This puppy charts the highs and lows that befall a father/son tandem set against the impending fate of a long-standing Minnesota-based record store. Director Schneidkraut is expected to be in attendance to discuss the merits of his 170 minute (!) opus. Old Man rolls at 4:30 PM.
To slot out the remainder of the fest itinerary W.I.F.F. masterminds Ian Teal and Kathy Fehl have pieced together another collection of intriguing prospects for any devout cinephile to blissfully devour. For handy example, one can take in promising options like 100: Head/Heart/Feet which covers the uber-obsessive nature of something termed “ultra-running,” wherein a set of athletes compete in a 100-mile marathon, running or walking or crawling without reprieve for as long as 30 hours!
My name is Jonah is a portrait of a self-designed “mythic cult hero” who turns out, in real time, to be a rather less-than-average Joe (or Jonah). Wisconsin Mining Standoff, originally produced for Al Jazeera’s Faultlines series, could prove to generate a high level of in-state related controversy and healthy debate (and you can expect our golden boy Slick Scotty Walker to figure into it all).
In Oracles of Pennsylvania Avenue we get an opportunity to witness, via the decades-long persistence of three relentless activists, the origins of what is now commonly branded (and sometimes smugly dismissed as) the “Occupy Movement.” Proof positive that many a solid non-fiction film is set to unspool for your educational benefit.
Also a part of the mix is the Russian-bred festival and critical darling The Fool (W.I.F.F. takes great pride in pulling entries from all over the globe into their total program), an earnest and, at times, tragic dramatic piece of social commentary focusing on a poor, good-natured maintenance man faced with the moral dilemma of how to save the population of a woefully neglected apartment complex. That film is set to bow on Saturday at 5:30 PM.
Further still, each of the W.I.F.F. installments likes to indulge in a bit of film-nerd nostalgia on a Thursday afternoon. This year’s entry is The Men from 1950, directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, From Here to Eternity) and featuring the debut big screen performance by some guy named Marlon Brando as a crippled war vet who must struggle to regain control of what’s left of his, now civilian, life. Admission to this throwback feature is free and is again accompanied by the presence of area film scholar Dr. Jack Rhodes. It starts at 1 PM.
A very rich smattering of short film packages will be shown alongside all the heavyweight features. On Friday, starting at 9 PM, the fest will showcase a fat block of short films by Wisconsin filmmakers exclusively. Plus, at other spots during the fest Dan (Ed Gein-the Musical) Davis will appear as the star of the emotion- based Beyond Goldenhill (Saturday, about 12:30 PM) and Oshkosh superstar John Pata will make a return to Weyauwega for yet another screening of his searing Pig Destroyer-influenced punch to the gut Pity (Thursday in the area of 6:30 PM). Many (if not all) of the folks involved in these locally born projects should be on hand to engage in some sweet movie talk afterwards.
The main event (as it were) and festival closer this time is a seemingly light-hearted little something entitled Bucky and the Squirrels, an odd-duck retro-satire of sorts about a 1960s one-hit-wonder pop group (out of our own Appleton, of all spots) who went missing shortly after breaking big. Ages pass into the present day and the lads are unearthed from the frozen confines of their Swiss Alps imprisonment and brought to consciousness.
This strange concoction was, for the most part, lensed on location in and around the Appleton area by a well-seasoned pro named Allan Katz. Katz is a writer-producer-director-actor who has finessed his trade in (mostly) old- school sitcom television. He has taken part in many a greatly adored classic like M.A.S.H., Sanford & Son and Roseanne only to switch gears a bit to script and star in the instantly obscure, now chic cult film Big Man on Campus. In recent years Katz has taken to sharing his accumulated knowledge and experience as a teacher of all things in relation to putting on a show at various universities, one of them being Appleton’s own Lawrence University.
See, Mr. Katz has connections to Lawrence by way of several key alumni he forged lasting relationships with years back. At the beginning of his career, Katz toiled at an advertising agency where he first crossed paths with a certain chap, Tom Hurvis. Hurvis and his wife, as fate would have it, are both successful end products of the Lawrence University educational system and years on down the line they would call on Katz for a favor; they asked him to bring some industry know-how to their beloved alma mater.
Paired with another alum, Catherine Tatge, who was working to jump start a viable film program on the campus, Katz was asked to oversee a short-film writing and production course that worked to immerse students in the specifics of film production. From there things progressed toward the proposal of crafting a full fledged feature that would involve students and allow them to gain hands on experiences on a real, thriving film set. The production would also serve to work as much local Appleton flavor into the blend as possible as a way of paying tribute to the positive spirit Katz says he found quite commonplace around the school and throughout the surrounding area.
This heavy incorporation of Fox Valley bodies and real estate makes this Bucky and the Squirrels thing the must see Wisconsin epic of, probably, the whole festival. The Saturday evening screening (8 PM) of Bucky and the Squirrels is actually the official world premiere for the film (a move by Katz to pay tribute to the productive Wisconsin backbone the film is founded on) and the man himself told me by way of a quick phone chat, that he will be on the scene to share in the fun and bond with folks afterwards.
To follow up all this movie watching and related banter there will be the concluding festival awards ceremony and socially rewarding after party with all the beer drinking, dancing and whatever else people do after a full slate of serious movie digestion has been put to rest.
Any and every inquiry related to the Weyauwega International Film Festival can be directed to this lovely web savvy address: wegaarts.org. Ticket pricing, finalized schedule layout, directions and the like will be on hand for those who (I hope) will develop the curiosity needed to make the trek to this year’s edition of the little festival that could.
May the urge reach you, one and all, to take in some quality cinema out there in wonderful Weyauwega.