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Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011

A Long Run for the Milwaukee Short Film Festival

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If you had made a prediction based on its debut, you might have foreseen a very short run for the Milwaukee Short Film Festival (MSFF). In its first year, 1994, founder and local filmmaker Ross Bigley screened about four brief movies picked from a list of about four submissions. And then the event skipped a few seasons as it struggled for support. Nowadays, however, the festival has found secure footing and has even achieved a measure of global recognition. In its 13th consecutive year, MSFF will run for two days at the Milwaukee Art Museum and present more than 30 films from nine countries.

Four of those 30 aren't short at all, a token of the easier economics of indie filmmaking in the digital era. “Filmmaking has exploded in Milwaukee,” Bigley says. “In 1994 you had the UWM film department and that was about it. Now, MIAD has a film program and the Art Institute has one. There is more and more filmmaking energy here.”

And, apparently, the energy is all over the world. While MSFF remains committed to its hometown and will showcase work by no fewer than 11 Milwaukee directors in its 2011 run, Bigley received and accepted submissions from as far away as Syria and Brazil. International interest increased after MovieMaker Magazine named MSFF “Best Local Festival.”

Bigley programs the festival personally, but quickly adds, “I don't try to force my tastes on the audience too much.” Instead, he chooses a cross-section of films from the submissions.

“Three years ago we were getting a huge amount of 'gritty' hit-man dramas, but now people are trying to tell different stories—more personal stories,” he says.

The form and content of short films has gone well beyond where it was when MSFF started. “I'm seeing more and more completely polished work with gorgeous production values, good acting and settings,” he continues. “There's less of the experimental 'I shot it in my basement' stuff.”

MSFF gathers a jury of local filmmakers and industry professionals from outside the city to award prizes for Best Director, Best Actor and Best Wisconsin Film. The festival also grants the Pacesetter Award for contributions to local film culture. This year's winner: Appleton's Wildwood Film Festival. The Milwaukee Short Film Festival runs Nov. 4-5 in the Milwaukee Art Museum's Lubar Auditorium. For more information, go to festival.milwaukeeindependentfilmsociety.org.