Godsil. It is my understanding that only a handful of people know that you and Louis Fortis are co-founders of the Milwaukee International Film Festival, which originally was called the “Shepherd International Film Festival.” Might you share with our readers the story of how it came to pass that the idea of an international film festival in Milwaukee grew in your mind’s eye? When did the idea come to you? What were your first actions when the idea showed up? Who were your main partners in this project? What were the major starting challenges? What did you hope to accomplish? Are you satisfied with how things have turned out?
Luhrssen. It was always called the Milwaukee International Film Festival, but the Shepherd Express was integral to it. Without the financial and logistical support of the paper, and the influence we were able to wield, the festival would never have happened. Other people talked about doing a festival of this kind in Milwaukee. The Shepherd Express made it happen.
I can’t stress strongly enough, however, that MIFF is its own entity and will increasingly go its own way. It’s like the child Louis Fortis and I adopted and are prepared to set loose in the world.
The idea for MIFF was to give the people of this city more opportunity to see quality films from around the world on big screens—they way they are meant to be watched. We see it as entertaining and educational, a way to learn about the world around us at a time when no one can confuse ignorance with bliss. The educational aspect also includes secondary students in the metro area, for whom a number of specialized programs have been developed. Also important is the Midwest Filmmakers Contest, the first of its kind, which allows independent directors from the entire region to compete against each other in a juried process. It’s been a way to bring filmmakers together from across the Midwest.
Obviously, there is a potential for MIFF to become a tourist draw. To some extent this has already happened. But more important is the larger influence MIFF has on the city’s rising profile. Having a film festival has become a marker for the quality of urban life. Before Louis and I started MIFF, Milwaukee was just about the only significant city in the U.S. without an international film festival.
The impetus for MIFF was the Blackpoint Film Festival, a now defunct event in Lake Geneva that debuted in 2001 or 2002. If little Lake Geneva could host a film festival, it was embarrassing that the civic leaders of Milwaukee had never seen to it that our city had one!
Our plans began to roll at the beginning of 2003 and we were able to inaugurate the festival in the fall of that year. Our first important decision, aside from picking the time slot, was to hire Jonathan Jackson as programming director. I had known Jonathan from his time as manager of the UWM Union Theatre and was impressed with both his knowledge of film and his appreciation for marketing. By putting out the word about MIFF, we attracted a number of early supporters, including Chris Abele, whose Argosy Foundation has generously supported the festival, and Michael Wautier, who became our super-volunteer.
The problem was never finding enthusiastic and gifted people who wanted to lend their services to MIFF. The main challenge has always been finding money in an era when the financial pie is sliced thin. I’m happy with what we’ve accomplished and imagine that MIFF will continue to grow in importance as the years go on.
Godsil.What kind of specialized programs have been developed for Milwaukee area secondary students? What are the goals of these programs? What programs have been the most successful to date?
Luhrssen.From year one we included a program called Reel Flicks, designed to bring secondary students to the Milwaukee Art Museum to see selected films from the festival and enable teachers to incorporate them into their lesson plans.
Later we added the Student Screenwriting Competition, actor Mark Metcalf’s project to encourage screenwriting by producing a short film with professional actors based on a winning script by a local high school student. The quality of the work has been high.
The most recent addition to the lineup was Maxine Wishner’s My Milwaukee, which enabled inner city youth to make short videos documenting their perceptions of life. Their work was debuted earlier this year at Discovery World. And, finally, there is Spotlight Student Films, which I have not been directly involved with as much as the others.
Godsil. In the wikipedia article about the “Shepherd Express” I discovered that in 1987 you and Kevin Kinney merged a monthly music paper called “Express,” started in 1978, with the “Shepherd,” back in 1987. What was “Express” all about? How did you happen to found a music paper?
Luhrssen. Kevn Kinney and I met in high school study hall sometime early in 1978. We attended John Marshall, which at that time had nearly 3000 students. We were two of only four-five Marshall students who were into the nascent punk rock movement.
Naturally (and actually not without reason), we felt that local rock critics of that era were too old to understand the music of our generation. Instead of sitting around complaining, we decided to address the problem by starting our own newspaper, which would be focused on our music.
As I’ve grown older I’ve come to appreciate the insights of age, yet I still think we had a point back then that remains relevant today. Older people will always have a problem fully understanding the world of younger people. That’s why I no longer write about music geared toward generations younger than my own. The Shepherd Express’ music editor, Evan Rytlewski, is in his twenties—a perfect age to be a critic of contemporary rock’n’roll.