Trailblazing filmmakers amplify diverse narratives at Milwaukee Illuminate Film Festival

Following a successful first installment, the biannual Milwaukee Illuminate Film Festival (miff.) returns June 14-15 at The Fitzgerald. Predominantly run and juried by graduates of the film program at the Peck School of the Arts, the festival seeks to illuminate the work of a wide range of marginalized communities.

Alum Amber Rose McNeill ’23 started miff. with a desire to do something with her BFA that would be inclusive for artists and filmmakers whose work is often overlooked.

“I felt very affirmed after the small but mighty success of our first festival,” said McNeill. “The staple feedback we received was how strong and diverse the programming was. We’re over the moon to be bringing even more films for a greater spectrum of artists for our upcoming festival.”

This year, several PSOA alums and at least one current student will have film screenings throughout the two-day festival.

Amber Rose McNeill

BFA 2023, Film; MA Candidate & Graduate Teaching Assistant, Women’s and Gender Studies | miff. Festival Director and Lead Programmer

McNeill, who is an accomplished filmmaker in her own right, will be screening three short films. First is “מײַנע הענט (meyne hent),” which translates to “my hands” in Yiddish. The film examines McNeill’s own intersecting identities of queerness, Jewishness, and transness, explored through the relationship with the femme body, in a loose adaption of the Celia Dropkin poem of the same name. 

“Two Minutes on High” is McNeill’s second film screening, which seeks to challenge traditional and normative gender roles, examining power dynamics and social conditioning that have been made worse by frequent media consumption. Finally, “[I Love You Very Much]” will close out Saturday’s short film block. This short examines a fantasy cycle of heteronormative romance, described through a ruthless looping mosaic. 

Still from מײַנע הענט (meyne hent)
Still from Two Minutes on High
Still from [I Love You Very Much]

Zoe Lufman  

BFA 2023, Film | miff. Director of Operations & Senior Programmer

Lufman is screening two short films this weekend. First is her silent film “Three of Swords,” which chronicles a young woman exploring her sexuality and spirituality until two love interests betray her trust. Second is “A Feast,” which displays the destruction of meals, contrasting how we connect with food. 

Still from Three of Swords
Still from A Feast

Elizabeth McKenzie Gorney 

BFA Film, current student

Gorney explores multifaceted relationships and explores nostalgia, joy, discord, and isolation in her film “Family Portrait.” Shot on 16mm film and using archival audio from her youth, a lesbian artist reflects on her identity, searching for an understanding of how that impacts her relationship with her family.  

Still from Family Portrait

Kiarra Jernagin  

BFA 2023, Film | miff. Festival Judge

The significance of the Black Hair Culture will be illuminated in Jernagin’s short film “Hair Care.” The short follows three African American women with unique backgrounds joining together to explore the intersections of race, beauty, and individual empowerment.

Still from Hair Care

Dontay Konkel

BFA 2023, Film | miff. Festival Judge

Konkel will be screening three short films during Saturday’s short film showcase: First is his film “Ambrosia,” which is described as a “love letter against the backdrop of loss.” This will be followed by “First Date,” a uniquely animated work depicting a cat and a skeleton going on a date. Konkel’s final short of the weekend is “Strange Sorrowful Pleasure,” a collage that explores the work and legacy of late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. 

Still from Ambrosia
Still from First Date
Still from Strange Sorrowful Pleasure

Thaya Manitkul

BFA 2023, Film | miff. Junior Programmer

“เป็นคนไทย (To Be Thai)” will be Manitkul’s first short to screen this weekend, in which a filmmaker confronts their mother, who is dying of cancer. The film embarks on a journey of reconciliation to better embrace family heritage before it’s too late. Manitkul’s second short is “Elizabeth Eau Claire: A College Drag Queen’s Journey” which explores Milwaukee’s titular drag queen as she struggles to balance her nightlife persona with her college life. 

Still from เป็นคนไทย (To Be Thai)

Natalie Rzepinska

BFA 2022, Film | miff. Operations Manager & Social Media Specialist

Rzepinska will screen two shorts this weekend beginning with “Never Fall in Love.” Inspired by “This Person,” a short story by Miranda July, this film uses clips from music videos, films, and YouTube videos to express a melancholic calling for loneliness and a nihilistic tale of love. 

Her second film is entitled “NOSEDIVE,” which sees a group of friends hosting a backyard summer party, with infatuation sparking between two individuals. 

Still from Never Fall in Love
Still from NOSEDIVE

Story by Jason McCullum ’25

EDITOR’S NOTE: This list is as accurate and comprehensive as possible at the time of publication. If we missed a PSOA alum, current student, or faculty member, please accept our sincere apologies. Contact us and we’ll gladly update this article.