The challenge to putting together this year’s Cultures & Communities Festival was remembering the words in the title.
And remembering that those words can be complicated, said Geraud Blanks, chief innovation officer of Milwaukee Film, where he helped establish the festival’s predecessor, the Minority Health Film Festival.
“Culture is identity … ,” Blanks said, “but it’s not just one thing.”
Launched in 2019, the 2021 Cultures & Communities Festival begins Sept. 6 and runs through Sept. 12.
The festival, a mix of in-person and online screenings and events, is built on a foundation of diversity and equity for underrepresented groups. But it’s also about celebrating wellness, cultural heritage and communities of joy.
“I don’t want this festival to just become … a bunch of heavy (films and events) about the troubles of the world,” Blanks said.
That’s why the festival’s lineup includes movies like “Crip Camp,” the joyful, Oscar-nominated documentary about a 1970s summer camp for teenagers with disabilities, and also “Minari,” the emotional, loving drama about a Korean family trying to make a go of a struggling American farm.
“This is ‘cultures and communities,’ ‘Minari’ is,” Blanks said.
The blend of straight talk and celebration continues in the festival’s biggest in-person events. Former Destiny’s Child singer Michelle Williams is giving a talk at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 8 at Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall at the Marcus Performing Arts Center on “Getting Real With Depression”; and culinary historian and James Beard Award winner Adrian Miller is taking part in “Culture Clash: Fusing Culinary Traditions That Bring Us Together,” at 6 p.m. Sept. 9 at Dandy, 5020 W. Vliet St.
This year’s festival initially was envisioned as a mostly in-person event anchored at the Oriental Theatre. Milwaukee Film reopened the east side movie palace Aug. 20, and the festival was seen as a way to give the renovated theater a coming-out party.
But as summer wore on and COVID-19 cases started surging again, organizers began working on “essentially two festivals,” Blanks said — one in person, and one online.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Milwaukee Film launched Sofa Cinema, an online portal where members and other movie-“goers” could watch new and specialty releases. As the pandemic stretched into fall, the portal became the home for the Milwaukee Film Festival and the Minority Health Film Festival.
The all-virtual festivals helped Milwaukee Film iron out the technical bugs and educate viewers on how to use the site. They also showed how the festivals could be more inclusive, more accessible to those who might not otherwise be able to attend.
“The in-person was necessary because we have to reopen the theater, and we have to reintroduce people to coming to the theater to see films. It’s a literal part of the business,” Blanks said. “But my thing is (if) we learned anything from the pandemic, it’s to be adaptable and to be flexible. … We’ve already invested in this (virtual) platform. Why not offer it as well?”
Twenty-three movies, and three shorts programs, will be available online starting Sept. 6 through Milwaukee Film’s Sofa Cinema site and the Milwaukee Film app. Most of them are available for the entire run of the festival.
The Oriental Theatre is still a key component, with more than a dozen movies in the festival showing there. It’s also a subject of the festival: At 10 a.m. on Sept. 11, there’ll be a panel discussion on “Re-Orienting the Oriental Theatre,” a conversation designed to kick off a “multiyear interrogation” of the movie palace’s name and 1920s décor.
But there also will be movies in the Cultures & Communities Festival that are actually showing in the community. The schedule includes a free screening (complete with taco bar) of “El Bolero de Raquel,” a classic 1957 Mexican comedy starring screen legend Cantinflas, at 5 p.m. Sept. 9 at Latino Arts Inc., 1028 S. 9th St.; and a free dinner-and-a-movie showing of Spike Lee’s coming-of-age favorite “Crooklyn” at 4 p.m. Sept. 10 at COA Goldin Center, 2320 W. Burleigh St.
Over the summer, Milwaukee Film held community forums to ensure this year’s Cultures & Communities Festival addressed topics people in different Milwaukee communities were interested in.
There are several programs focusing on health and wellness, a dialogue on Black maternal health and motherhood, an Art of Coping youth showcase with TRUE Skool, and more.
On the virtual side of the festival, events — streaming live on Milwaukee Film’s YouTube and Facebook pages, and on the Black Lens Facebook page — include a conversation on “Stolen Youth: Milwaukee’s Crisis of Auto Thefts and Reckless Driving” (2 p.m. Sept. 9).
“I love the ability to facilitate the conversation. The movies are just the vehicle — they’re the candy — the thing to get people in the door,” Blanks said. “But then the conversation is what it’s all about.”
What to watch movies in the Cultures & Communities Festival — and how to watch them
Tickets for the in-person movies in the festival are $12, $9 for Milwaukee Film members; for the virtual screenings, they’re $9, $5 for members. All-access passes and an online-only passes are also available.
Here are some of the movies you should be sure to catch.
“Crip Camp”: This full-of-life documentary celebrates a summer camp in the early 1970s for teens with disabilities at a time when that wasn’t happening anywhere else. Noon Sept. 12 at the Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave.
“All the Streets Are Silent”: The interconnected rise of skateboarding and hip-hop in New York City in the late 1980s and early ’90s is the focus of this documentary, showing at 9 p.m. Sept. 10 at the Oriental. (An after-party, with DJ Why B, follows at Landmark Lanes next door at 10:30 p.m.)
“Minari”: Yung Yuh-Jung won an Oscar for performance as the no-nonsense grandmother in a Korean family pursuing their version of the American dream in Lee Isaac Chung’s moving drama. 12:15 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Oriental.
“9to5: The Story of a Movement”: The groundbreaking organization championing women’s rights in the workplace gets its due in this portrait. 7:30 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Oriental (also showing online Sept. 6-12).
“Summertime”: Carlos Lopez Estrada (“Blindspotting”) weaves together the stories of 25 disparate Los Angelenos, in dialogue drawn from spoken-word poetry written by high school performers in this multilingual drama with English subtitles. 9 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Oriental.
“And Then They Came for Us”: This documentary tells the story of the Japanese internment camps, and the connection to efforts to isolate minorities in America in more recent times. Available online Sept. 6-12.
“Devil’s Pie: D’Angelo”: The R&B legend, who all but vanished after reaching the top only to return a decade later, gets his due in this acclaimed but rarely screened portrait. Available online Sept. 6-10 only.
“Materna”: The lives of four women who couldn’t be more different intersect during an incident on the New York subway in this film-festival-award-winning drama. Available online Sept. 6-12 (Wisconsin only).
“Wild Indian”: A violent act buried in the past shapes the lives of two Anishinaabe men in this well-reviewed drama by filmmaker Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., who grew up on Indian reservations in Wisconsin and Minnesota and set (and filmed) this drama partly in Wisconsin. Available online Sept. 6-12.