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A look at the heartbreak & victories of programming the Milwaukee Film Festival

Illustration by Sam Island
Milwaukee Magazine
The Milwaukee Film Festival is returning to local screens for its 16th year featuring 300 films from local, national and international filmmakers.

Starting on April 11, the Milwaukee Film Festival (MFF) is returning to local screens for its 16th year. It features 300 films from local, national and international filmmakers that show off a wide array of topics and formats.

With such a lineup comes a ton of work in order to prepare, choose and make an entire festival program that gives viewers the opportunity to enjoy a film during the festival.

Cara Ogburn is Milwaukee Film’s artistic director and her work in programming the festival is featured in this month’s issue of Milwaukee Magazine, giving a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation process.

"So prior to 2018, when we were predominantly a film festival [the preparation process] would really be about nine months. But now that we operate a cinema, we're kind of always looking at films," notes Ogburn. "So, you can really say kind of year-round even overlapping."

As expected, the process requires watching a lot of movies, even up to six a day. Ogburn and her team also closely monitor festivals from other cities to see what films are being featured there and to gain some possible ideas. In doing so, the team has to be very attentive to the details and nuances of each film and watch them from the perspective of searching for something that would be a good fit for a festival setting. The festival strives to have something that everyone can enjoy.

"[Screenings require] being attentive to the detail and being able to step outside of yourself and think about other audiences that aren't you or that maybe don't resemble you," explains Ogburn.

Once a potential film is found, it may not be a foregone conclusion that it will be in the festival. Oftentimes, extenuating factors prevent films from being included. "A real challenge is that we may fall in love with a film and feel like, 'This is perfect!' The film distributor or the filmmaker has different plans, [so] we hear 'no' a lot. So as much as filmmakers get rejection, programmers also get rejection ... they hurt, they sting. And you have to be able to sort of like give up, move on, fall in love with something new pretty easily."

Despite those challenges, the MFF has been successful for so long that it has built a strong reputation that resonates with filmmakers. Nowadays, multiple filmmakers will return when they have another film out according to Ogburn, who credits Milwaukee audiences for a lot of that success.

"I'm very impressed by Milwaukee. Not that I was not expecting a lot. It's just that, compared to other cities and other festival audiences, we're very lucky to have an audience that is curious and open to something maybe unexpected. And is willing to explore widely, and that's to the credit of this audience, for sure," says Ogburn.

Ogburn's film recommendations

Of the 300 films that will be presented in this festival, Ogburn points out a few choice recommendations:


This film tells the story of the government company town in Richland, WA, which is next to the Hanford Nuclear site. It takes a long view of the place and the people in the way that nuclear research impacts culture. Ogburn says, "It's a thinker, but it's also so beautiful. It's not challenging you in an aggressive way - it's challenging you in a really meditative way."

"We Dare to Dream"

The MFF's "Sportsball" program is back, and Ogburn says a handful of films in this category can hep audiences gear up for this summer's Olympics. "We Dare to Dream" tells the story of the refugee Olympic team that began in 2016. "This tells the story of them going to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and sort of the challenge of having left your home country but still competing in a sport and doing so as an independent. It's very exciting," says Ogburn.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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