Back in July, I ran into Jonathan Jackson, the CEO of MKE Film, in the stairwell of our building. He was juggling papers, a portfolio, coffee, and lunch - and I was so dumbstruck trying to recover from my film nerd memory the most appropriate, film-savvy quote for the moment (now, having a few weeks, to think about, it would have been Godard saying, “Good films get smaller audiences but more of the viewer.”), that I forgot my manners to help him with the door. As a testament to Jonathan’s generosity, he still agreed to meeting for breakfast a few weeks later.
At breakfast, he shared a little bit of the future for MKE Film, which was grand, inspiring, and so clear about what a film institution could do for our city.
Learning about their programming, the film and creative infrastructure, and different opportunities for support, I found myself yearning to be once again in my 20’s trying to get various film projects off the ground here in Milwaukee today rather than in Los Angeles in the early 2000’s. I guess timing is everything.
At the end of breakfast, Jonathan shared his enthusiasm about Give Me Liberty, a film that would be coming out later this summer. It received incredible receptions at Sundance and Cannes - which almost never happens - and it was made in Milwaukee, with mostly a cast of regular, non-actor Milwaukeeans, by Milwaukee filmmakers, and received early seed funding from MKE Film and many of the key funders for Imagine MKE, and he noted that this was a prime example of the incredible talent right here in our city that can flourish with just a right support.
Give Me Liberty opened in Milwaukee this weekend and I got a chance to see it on Sunday in a packed house at The Oriental. The film tells the story of one crazy day in the life of a medical transport driver in Milwaukee and Jonathan did not lie. It’s terrific.
Directed and co-written by Kirill Mikhanovsky, whose first job as a Russian immigrant to Milwaukee in the mid-90’s was as a medical transport driver, the film is so incredibly generous, big-hearted, and non-judgmental that it is able to portray the lives of our friends and neighbors living in Milwaukee, and their wisdom, anxieties, and challenges, which we don’t typically get see in the movies.
Emblematic of this is a scene at the Eisenhower Center, an organization that provides training and jobs for people with disabilities in Milwaukee, where the people who participate in the organization’s programming put on a talent show. Rather than making the dreaded, yet all-too-common misstep of patronizing the people at the center or having the main character level up his/her humanity by learning about what people with disabilities can do, the film chooses to portray its main characters simply interacting with the center’s people, which allows the talents of the people with disabilities to rise to the fore.
This same sensitivity is given to how the budding romance between Vic and Tracy, the two main characters, is set against the backdrop of the Sherman Park uprising in 2016 and the continuing challenges our city has with race and segregation.
The film offers no easy answers or clear resolution to these questions or challenges. Rather than providing pat answers, the filmmakers opt to remind us that the bonds that draw us together - our shared humanity, how we care for each other, and the creative force that is in all of us - are so much for powerful that the forces that seek to divide us. Paradoxically, it’s honoring the ties that bind us as family, friends, neighbors, citizens, humans that give us the ability to be truly free; to truly have liberty.
The film’s signature colorful tree drawings are by Gregory Merzlak, from The Eisenhower Center, and they end the film with a sense of overflowing abundance.