MILWAUKEE — For two weeks, Milwaukee film fans are in heaven. The Milwaukee Film Festival, using the historic and restored Oriental Theatre as its home base, brings movies and filmmakers to independent theaters across the city.
The festival runs through Thursday with some great programming. I’m crushed that I can’t make it Tuesday to see a revival of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” with Ray Wise and Cheryl Lee (Leland and Laura Palmer) doing a Q&A afterwards. The full schedule is up at mkefilm.org/schedule.
I had hoped to hit the festival two or three times this year, but car trouble (2003 Toyota Camry R.I.P.) kept me from making the trip to Milwaukee until Sunday. Here’s what I managed to catch.
If anything at a film festival would seem like a turn-your-brain-off break from the heavy stuff, a documentary about the 2000 song “Who Let The Dogs Out?” would be it. The one-megahit-wonder Baha Men turned a simple hook about dogs, their lack of confinement, and holding those responsible for their release accountable into a song for the ages, still enjoyed by children and minor-league baseball team audiences the world over.
But Brent Hodge’s film is a head-spinning, globe-trotting trip into the convoluted origins of a seemingly simple song. It played on Sunday afternoon at the Times Theater and screened at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Oriental.
The film is really the journey of Ben Sisto, a self-described superfan who went on a quest to discover exactly where the song came from. From the start, the story confounds expectations. The Baha Men did not write the song, but had it brought to them by an American record producer. The record producer got it off a homemade CD by a British record producer. The British record producer heard it from his hairdresser.
And so on and so on and so on, as Sisto (who wrote the documentary) goes deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole trying to find the first recording of the song. Part of what makes the hunt so much fun is that it all pre-dates the internet, so Sisto is digging through mixtapes, homemade CDs, and 3.5-inch double-sized floppy discs looking for clues. Every time Sisto is convinced he’s found the person who invented the “Woof woof woof woof” hook, along comes somebody with a recording from a year or two earlier.
Producer Aly Kelly, who moderated a Q&A after the screening, said that Wisconsin played an unexpected role in the film. Kelly and Hodge were on their way to Milwaukee to screen their documentary on the TV show “Freaks and Geeks” when Sisto learned about a possible lead involving a Michigan high school fight song. Since they were already on the way to the Midwest, they scheduled a detour to the high school to film a scene, and it ended up being a key part of the film.
“Who Let the Dogs Out?” touches on issues of cultural appropriation and copyright law, and provides a surprisingly nuanced answer to the question “Who owns art?” The question it does not answer, however, is “Who let the dogs out?” That answer has been lost to the shifting sands of time.
I’ll admit to being a sucker for a movie like Alex Thompson’s “Saint Frances.” Low-budget, likable indie comedy-dramas about real people going through real stuff — especially when they’re Midwesterners — is my bag.
“Saint Frances,” which screened Sunday at the Milwaukee Film Festival, begins as a fairly familiar but engaging example of the form that gradually deepens in both theme and tone as it goes on. Kelly O’Sullivan (who also wrote the screenplay) plays Bridget, a directionless 34-year-old Chicagoan who takes a job as a nanny for a lesbian couple in wealthy suburban Evanston. The couple is expecting another child, and stay-at-home mom Maya (Charin Alvarez) needs help with their 6-year-old daughter, Frances, while her other mom Annie (Lily Mojewku) works long hours.
The strong-willed Frances runs circles around the under-equipped Bridget at first, but much of the movie’s sweetness springs from their growing friendship. As the summer goes on, Bridget becomes more intertwined with the lives of the family, and sees Maya is struggling with post-partum depression and the isolation of new motherhood. Alvarez is really a standout here at showing how a smart, kind woman becomes a stranger even to herself.
That struggle hits home for Bridget, who feels like her life has stalled out. She's also conflicted about whether she wants to start a family, and has in fact had an abortion after an accidental pregnancy, a decision she insists doesn't bother her.
At first, I thought the crux of “Saint Frances” would be for Bridget to re-examine her life choices and finally accept responsibility in her life. But it’s a much more empathetic and truly non-judgmental film than I expected. It's less about what choices women make, and more about the importance of women supporting each other no matter which choices they make.