Film, Naples and Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Film Festival has come and gone. To me this was the first experience of the Festival, both as the Director of the Arts Institute but also as an academic who just moved to UW-Madison. Speaking as an academic, I was very struck by the choice of films and how this was nestled in a series of discussions, introductions, and other offshoots, some of which took a life of their own and emerged in other activities.

More so I was struck by how the community within and beyond the University takes an active sense of belonging in the Wisconsin Film Festival. I met people who have been attending the Festival since its inception, 19 years ago, and intend to do so for the next 20 years. I also met young as well as not so young enthusiasts who come together every year and renew their acquaintance with each other.


The Wisconsin Film Festival is one of those artistic events which articulate what art is all about in its sense of building forms of associated living. Its success reflects the need for people to get together, but also to engage in forms of dialogue that are characterized by all conceivable forms of art.

Film as a medium is the most dynamic we have had in the history of art, and it has catalyzed not only how we understand our visual abilities to engage and understand the world, but also in how we construct knowledge and the spectacles by which we learn how to live and adapt in an ever-changing world. Moreover, just like optics and photography before it, film has changed the course of art itself.

Still from L’Oro di Napoli

My attraction to film as an art form is mainly down to film’s all-embracing approach to the arts, and as a medium through which is for all intents and purposes open to an audience, where the audience becomes a catalyst of the success, effectiveness and ultimately that which gives the arts a democratic character.

I felt this very much when I was honored to introduce one of the films on offer this year at the Festival — De Sica’s L’Oro di Napoli, an old Italian classic which was released in the USA in 1957. It happens to be one of my favorite films, as it takes me back to a Mediterranean context which I share with many others.

I must admit that I was not expecting a big crowd, and yet I had to secure a seat because the Chazen Museum’s Auditorium was packed. Pleasantly surprised, I shared with the audience my own personal engagement with this film, and I could see that the audience engaged back not only in its attention but by how I could see everyone’s interest in a film which I thought would attract only fanatics of Italian cinema like me.

As the Director of the Arts Institute I now realize how much the Wisconsin Film Festival confirms the communitarian character of the arts in this university. This is a characteristic of the arts in UW-Madison which continues to surprise me. Here, one does not only experience the arts in their discrete disciplines, as offered by departments, but the arts in Madison also give us a sense of presence which is so seamlessly woven in the university’s way of life that we often take for granted.

As a relative newcomer to UW-Madison, and having had my first experience of the Festival, I can say that I am now more than ever conscious and indeed proud to lead this Division in the university. If I were to write in detail what I have learned in less than a year through the many experiences organized by the arts on campus, I wouldn’t know where to stop.


As we speak of a community, we cannot ignore how the arts play a central role in it. If not directly, in many cases it is in indirect, but frequent ways. Not to mention how the arts play a role in just about everything we do or the environment we live in (good, bad and ugly); the arts play a democratic role in a community that grows. We often forget that we do not think simply in words but we think in sounds, color, images, and the spectacles we create, share and inhabit.

The Barrymore Theatre during the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival. Photography credit: Aliza Rand

When artistic activity becomes synonymous with building a community, we also realize the responsibility we have as artists, arts educators, arts administrators, managers or funders. While some could see the ethics of medicine, or indeed the aesthetics of an architect who could embellish or ruin a town center; while we see the joined-up spheres of professions and forms of engagement which are not simply functional; we often forget that the arts play a major role in building this communitarian imaginary.

Arts Festivals are not simply forms of entertainment. Entertainment in itself is not just fun, but an activity where we engage with each other. Entertainment is an attempt at conviviality, where though we feel free as individuals, we also feel the need to share with others a sense of happiness, as well as sadness, compassion, and even senses which could leave us feeling quite lonely. This is where media like film bring all these elements together. As an art form, film gives us a sense of autonomy by which we make choices — important choices about how we read and understand the real world out there.

So when I stood there talking to my fellow members of the audience about a film that I love for my own personal reasons, I could not help reminding them that as we speak of personal favorites we also seek to understand how we share a personal approach over taste and beauty, and how we share our private feelings indirectly by gathering in a place and watch a film which may be only a month old or perhaps older than we are, and yet it helps us get a sense of affinity by which we communicate indirectly with each other, and where as strangers, we realize that we also know each other well.

I am so grateful to everyone who participated and volunteered in the 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival. More specifically, I want to thank our film specialist colleagues from the Department of Communication Arts who, together with our team at the Arts Institute as well as a wider community of volunteers and enthusiasts, made this happen. Next year will be the 20th year of the Wisconsin Film Festival, and that is yet another great milestone to celebrate. I also hope that the Festival serves as a model for other similar possibilities to come.