Madison may not look like a city with a swiftly developing film scene, but University of Wisconsin-Madison film students continue to exhibit unmatched spirit and perseverance in their efforts to redefine their community as the place to go for film.
Jared Rosenthal, film student and Badger Film Group founder, said Madison’s film community stands out because of the Midwest people and culture that surrounds it. But Rosenthal said what really makes Madison a good place for filmmaking is the fact that its students are able to connect with the community while still staying true to themselves.
UW’s Cinematheque, a theater located in Vilas Communication Hall, stands as a physical example of Madison’s position within the film world as the city begins to host a plethora of new film festivals and attract more film students. The Cinematheque screens a large variety of lesser-known arthouse and international movies, ranging from 35mm French classics to high-definition stories from Nigeria.
It’s a refuge for filmgoers in a local theater industry decimated by recent closures.
“We’ve lost 11 theatrical screens here in Madison, so we at the Cinematheque have sometimes been the only theatrical exhibitors of independent cinema,” said Jim Healy, Cinematheque’s director of programming. For the Cinematheque, this means more of a student presence at their screenings.
International, indie films drive Cinematheque’s success
Healy believes the draw of the Cinematheque, even beyond the pandemic, is the selection of films offered.
“By not being a multiplex cinema that shows whatever is going to make the most money that weekend … means to stand apart from a monolithic culture, and that is represented by international cinema,” Healy said. “Multiplexes don't regularly show movies from Iran or France.”
The Cinematheque rarely screens modern, box-office hits. Instead, they focus programming on smaller films that represent the American indie film scene and showcase the success and creativity of international pictures.
Every story is unique as each culture and filmmaker approaches their work with diverse perspectives and styles that wouldn’t necessarily appear in more commercially-oriented films.
Rosenthal feels exposing student filmmakers to international films illustrates unique film techniques and serves as valuable inspiration for students to push the envelope of film.
If students see avant-garde, oddball indie films as successful works of art, they may be more willing to get experimental with their own art and film things they are truly passionate about.
“It all comes down to just creativity and being diligent,” Rosenthal said. “Whether it's international or not, obviously there [are] different values in different cultures and countries. Taking inspiration from any film is going to help create your own style.”
These personal perspectives are reflected in film students at Madison. The Cinematheque’s roots in student culture sets it apart from other schools, especially for students like Rosenthal.
Much of Madison’s independent film community stems from the school itself and the connections students make with each other through pathways like the Cinematheque and the Madison Film Festival, which Rosenthal launched in August.
Their efforts to provide students with a broad, globe-spanning agenda of independent film fosters a desire to learn from different film cultures and forges connections between local and international ideas.
“Students understand the culture and what the community needs. It’s about finding the balance between telling your own story and also finding a way to get a community to rally behind that story,” Rosenthal said.
Coming-of-age genre films lead Madison’s renaissance
The exploration of coming-of-age themes in student productions points to the continuity between student filmmakers and films shown at the Cinematheque.
Coming-of-age films explore characters who must grapple with the world they live in, decide what they stand for and how they’ll fight for it. Healy said this can be an extremely isolating experience, especially in a world that praises conformity and silences against-the-grain thinking.
“It’s something cinema can portray, not just loneliness … but the idea of standing up against something that seems monolithic and overbearing,” Healy said.
Although Rosenthal said plenty of Madison student filmmakers experiment with coming-of-age films, he and others have worked on films about war and jazz, too. No matter what project he’s focused on, he puts all his energy into it — a quality other UW-Madison film students share.
These filmmakers have a perspective very similar to the ones depicted on screen, he said, and their work feels more authentic as a result.
“At the end of the day, it’s really just make believe with a few cameras, so every story is unique in its own way,” Rosenthal said. “Give it everything you got, and that means fighting through the pain because there are inherent struggles to every single film you make.”
Rosenthal knows building Madison’s film reputation will take time. But he’s optimistic that as Madison film students go on to bigger and better things, they’ll give back to the community that supported their success, further cementing Madison as the hot new place for film.
Until then, Madison will continue to harbor a plucky indie film scene.
“With this unified sense of community effort of creatives coming together here over the last few years … it makes sense why people would want to tell stories and learn and grow here,” Rosenthal said.
Maybe this is just because it’s a small, growing community of eager film students with unique perspectives on film, but UW-Madison film students will tell you this is because it represents the key virtue behind indie film: authenticity.