Film alumni debut new festival to increase diversity in Milwaukee cinema  

Amber McNeill (BFA 2023, Film) and Zoe Lufman (BFA 2023, Film)
Amber McNeill (BFA 2023, Film) and Zoe Lufman (BFA 2023, Film) | Submitted photos

The world of independent film in Milwaukee is expanding with the Milwaukee Illuminate Film Festival, a new event spearheaded by festival director and Peck School graduate Amber McNeill (BFA 2023, Film). McNeill, who is also lead programmer, is joined by fellow PSOA alum Zoe Lufman (BFA 2023, Film), who serves as operations manager and programmer. 

McNeill and Lufman met at UWM during their senior-year film course and immediately embraced their commonalities. Lufman described feeling “intrigued by another queer, tattooed, Jewish filmmaker [with] a lot more experience… we just started collaborating and the rest is history.”  

Following graduation, McNeill pursued creating her film festival: “I knew I wanted to do something bigger than myself with my BFA. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do something inclusive for all the artists and filmmakers whose work gets overlooked.”  

MIFF comes from a place of love for the film industry and a desire to see diversity improve at a faster rate than it currently is.  

McNeill has noted a desire to not have MIFF stand on its own, hoping that “other festivals like this pop up” throughout Milwaukee, the Midwest, and beyond. Additionally, with multiple times and screenings, their festival gives marginalized filmmakers the opportunity to socialize and build community. This is well represented in the festival’s program that allows marginalized filmmakers to apply for complimentary tickets.  

Their time at the Peck School was heavily influential to both McNeill and Lufman when running and operating MIFF. Both credit their experience taking an internship course with Milwaukee Underground Film Festival (MUFF) as playing a major role in how they approached their festival. 

“It provided actual work within the community and the ability to meet people that we still work with now,” she said, adding that learning how to program and collaborate with others on an event was among the most important aspects she took from her internship. 

Adding to Lufman’s comments, McNeill commented that “MUFF offered programming experience, providing the necessary bits and pieces needed” to make MIFF a reality. 

Outside of festival experience, they both acknowledged that working with 16mm film, an incredibly rare and unique opportunity that PSOA film students get, was one of their educational highlights. Lufman shot her entire Senior film on 16mm, not wanting to miss out on the unique opportunity.  

Peck School is well-represented in all aspects of Milwaukee Illuminate, including alumni and current students’ films being screened, a recent alum on the festival’s jury, and involvement from many other colleagues from McNeill and Lufman’s time at PSOA. 

Read more on the Milwaukee Illuminate Film Festival website.  

Story by Jason McCullum ’25