They don’t call it the Milwaukee Film Festival for nothing. In addition to screening some of the best films in the world, the annual fest gives plenty of love to local films and filmmakers. The highlight of the Milwaukee-centric Cream City Cinema program is the ultra-Milwaukee-centric “Milwaukee Show,” which features the city’s best short films. The always-popular series has been expanded into two installments this year; before part one screens Monday, September 29, 8 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre, Milwaukee Record spoke to some of the directors behind this year’s shorts.
The Death Of Corey Stingley (dir. Spencer Chumbley)
Milwaukee Record: What was your initial exposure to the case?
Spencer Chumbley: I remember reading about it in passing. What it really came down was that more and more of these instances continued to happen in a couple-year period. You had Corey Stingley, Derek Williams, you had Darius Simmons. You had three young black men, not necessarily related, but whether it was police or some sort of vigilante justice or unfortunate circumstance—there was very little being done, and an extreme lack for respect in a sense for the family members and the actual situation that happened. When I moved to New York in fall of 2013, I had an opportunity to work on this series Crime And Punishment. I had a chance to do some documentaries on whatever I wanted to do, which kind of the amazing thing about VICE News. I started looking back at Milwaukee, and I started reading more and more about the Stingley case, and I reached out to Craig Stingley and that was kind of the beginning of it all.
MR: Why did you want to bring it to a larger audience? What’s the importance of bringing this particular case to national attention?
SC: The situation illustrated in The Death Of Corey Stingley is a story that we’ve all heard before. Either we’ve seen inklings of it in different incidents—whether it be Ferguson just recently, Trayvon Martin, and other things that have happened—and I felt that the chance I had to hang out with Craig Stingley, Corey’s father, gave me a really interesting opportunity to show the other side of that story that didn’t really get a lot of national attention. Let’s flip that over and look at it from the perspective of a father. That’s a perspective that a lot of people don’t get. By the time you heard of Mike Brown or heard of Trayvon Martin, it had blown up significantly, and you’re watching the fallout and watching the protests. But what gets lost in that media noise is the pain and the actual reality of what it means to lose a family member, or lose a son, or lose a brother. I think that’s the crux of the film: you don’t ever really meet Corey, but you meet Craig and through following his struggle, you kind of get a new perspective on an issue that is, unfortunately, plaguing the country.
MR: Once you looked a little bit deeper into the case and you started doing some interviews, what are some things that you learned in the process of speaking to his father, his girlfriend and others in Corey’s life?
SC: I learned a lot about who Corey was. Everyone agrees that Corey shouldn’t have died from this incident. People do not like to speak about incidents that make them uncomfortable, and I believe this is a situation that I believe really made most of West Allis uncomfortable—in terms of the media, in terms of the police force, in terms of the first responders, in terms of the community possibly not wanting to come to terms with what actually occurred there. Being uncomfortable, there’s no real community discussion or no real reconciliation process with what happened in their city boundaries. The way that we learned this was through calling and calling and calling to get interviews with first responders, police officers, and, really, some of the critique of the gentlemen is there’s not enough balance, but what people don’t know is we tried to call the three gentlemen involved in the incident. We tried to talk to the store owner who was there that night. We did talk to the person, but he wouldn’t go on camera. We did try to talk to firefighters on the scene and the police officers who responded. We tried to talk to everyone involved from a city perspective, and none of these people were interested in speaking with us. The people you see illustrated in the film are people who were interested in speaking with us. The D.A. kind of told us we’ve already talked enough about this issue. It wasn’t until we showed up at his door before we got an interview. It kind of represents an open wound in my opinion. There isn’t a conversation going on, not only in West Allis, but there’s no conversation about race in Milwaukee and changing demographics in suburbs.
MR: In your opinion, has the film resulted in any change or any advancement of the case itself?
SC: I think the response to the film was “Wow, that punched me in the gut” and “Wow, that was really powerful.” I think it made people feel uncomfortable, which I hope spurs action. Honestly, the film hasn’t made an impact in the case. I know Craig is still fighting for justice. But hopefully it elevated the case where people say, “This was a large issue. This really was a problem.” I hope that’s the takeaway. I think it legitimizes that this really is an incident that really needed to be investigated further. We highlighted an issue that’s very, very local and made local residents realize that it’s more connected to a national issue than they ever could have thought, and hopefully raised the profile and the importance of looking at this incident, learning from it, and moving forward.
-Interview by Tyler Maas
Little America (dir. Kurt Raether)
Milwaukee Record: What inspired you to make a short film about Little Amerricka, of all places?
Kurt Raether: I was in a rut for new movie ideas last fall, so I took a trip around the state to see if I could find some inspiration. I stumbled onto this amusement park in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been a huge fan of amusement parks since I was a little kid, and I really wanted to learn about the history of the place. I spent the winter reading up on the history of America’s Kiddielands, and then on Memorial Day weekend my girlfriend and I went in with a camera and a microphone to capture as much as we could.
After I read more about the genesis of amusement parks, I learned that they really fit into John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” idea: an idea is part of the fabric of our nation’s ideology. An ideal place without perfection that would be looked upon by the rest of the world as an example of utopia. An amusement park is where you can escape away from reality into a construct of how the world “should” be.
Of course, America is no utopia, and neither is Little Amerricka. The attractions are mismatched, there are no fences, and the mechanics of the rides are laid bare for everyone to see. It’s really the scrappy attitude and spirit of the people running the place that keeps it together. So the park is a microcosm of a lot of things in my mind. I try to throw them in subtly.
MR: The park’s creator, Lee Merrick, died in 2011, but his shadow seems to loom large on the park. Did you get the sense while filming that Little Amerricka is being carried on simply in his honor?
KR: The whole place is awash in memory and ghostly shadows. That contrast is a huge element of the film. You have a park next to a cemetery, comprised completely of resurrected rides from shuttered Kiddie Lands, whose purchase was funded by the profits of a dead animal processing plant.
Lee was by all accounts an energetic, booming personality, and his spirit clearly lives on in the park. He’s buried right next door to keep a watchful eye on his kingdom. I think that certainly helps inspire everyone that keeps it going. However, the park has a personality beyond Merrick. Generations of families in the area love the park and come back year after year. The nostalgia is potent.
MR: The star of your film, Derrell Klomaker, mentions that one of the park’s biggest challenges is letting people know it’s there. Was there any intention with your film to jog some people’s memories of the park, and maybe drive some business its way?
KR: Darrell is actually a huge reason for the park’s success. He was Lee’s right-hand man from the time the park opened to Lee’s death. The famous conductor in the TV commercial: that’s him. I open with that TV commercial because everyone I know in Southeast Wisconsin remembers it playing on Saturday mornings, and I wanted to drive the audience into a nostalgic mood out of the gate.
I didn’t make this documentary to drive business to the park, but I’d like to think people will walk away with a good impression. I wasn’t sure what to expect initially, but after three days of soaking in the honest-to-goodness fun of the place, I would recommend it to anyone. So yes, if the film could drive some extra people through the gates, I’d be okay with that.
MR: What’s next for you?
KR: The trip across the state I alluded to earlier also planted the seeds for some other projects I’m slowly developing. I’m also helping friends wherever I can to make their projects come to life. It’s a great time to be filmmaking in this city.
– Interview by Matt Wild
The Kenny Dennis (dir. Wes Tank)
Milwaukee Record: How did you and Serengeti meet and what led to you working together?
Wes Tank: We got hooked up through Gel, who is one of his producers. I was doing a video for Gel and I went to a concert that was Serengeti and Gel. At that show, a speaker fell off the stage and landed on my foot, and broke my foot. That kind of got all their attention on me. That doesn’t really have anything to do with it, but it happened. I didn’t really know any of them yet, and I was there to talk to them about these videos. I was supposed to do a video for Serengeti and I was waiting on him to pick a song, but instead of a song, he started sending me these scripts. They were for this character that he had called Kenny Dennis.
Kenny Dennis was a [fictional] semi-famous early ’90s rapper who was on Jive Records and with the rap group called Tha Grimm Teachaz. He feel from his fame when Shaq dissed him on stage at a show, starting a beef. Shaq was also on Jive Records at the time. The fans sided with Shaq, so his career kind of went dismal at that point. We have a script that tells the origin story of Kenny, but this piece doesn’t really do that. It’s more for people who know the backstory a little bit more. I think when people come into this, they won’t really know that, but it’s still funny I think.
MR: I know where you filmed it, but when was it filmed and what was the budget, beyond bratwursts?
WT: It was filmed in December. I don’t know what the budget was. I just kind of paid for just about everything. Everybody contributed what they could, like the art director was going to Home Depot—he actually built the strip club stage.
MR: Did you have to pay an actual stripper to be in it?
WT: No, no, she’s actually a local model. She does real modeling. She’s not a stripper at all.
MR: How does it feel to be recognized in your own city among all the other filmmakers?
WT: It’s such a great honor. I’ve submitted stuff before and have no gotten in, so it makes it more meaningful when you do get in. I’m friends with most of the filmmakers and hopefully will become friends with the people I don’t know. It’s nurturing the film community because we all see eachother a bunch. It’s a good time.
MR: What are you working on now, and what’s coming next from you?
WT: There’s a lot. I just got off tour with Serengeti. He has a script for a full-length pilot that includes the origin story of Kenny Dennis—the full backstory, told very quickly. This will be part of that pilot. I’m working on the Hellfyre [Club] documentary, which is deep into edit and post production. I’m working seriously on two separate scripts right now with a couple of different writers co-writing with me. Other than that, I have this continuing project called Basketball Weather that I’ve been working on for years. It’s about my hometown—Dodgeville is my hometown—and about my relationship with my dad.
MR: Anything else you’d like to add?
WT: I just really like the Film Festival. I’m excited to use my filmmaker pass to not even know what I’m seeing and just go. If I have a day off—I remember last year I went to see Notorious at noon and just staying at the movie theater all day. I like using this as a time to reflect. I write movies in my head while I’m watching movies. I get lots of ideas and lots of thinking done during that time. I’ll just jot down ideas. It’s really inspiring.
Last year was the first time I had a filmmaker pass. It just reminded me of why I want to make movies. I had started to get really bummed out because everything people do just gets released on Vimeo or YouTube and gets lost in the shuffle. To sit down and have that cinematic experience in a quiet scene, it’s noticeable. There’s a lot more weight given to films.
– Interview by Tyler Maas
Other “Milwaukee Show” highlights: Kara Mulrooney spends a night—or is it a decade?—at Angelo’s Piano Bar in the bittersweet An Evening At Angelo’s; and Nathaniel Heuer channels M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village in the video for Hello Death’s “Settlers.”