Connections, commitment lead to SXSW film debut

"Thompson shooting 'The Making of the Pool," pictured with Bollywood cinematographer Parthan Parvez Khan."

A film by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee alumnus Chris James Thompson (’06 BFA Film) premiered to rave reviews at Austin’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in March.

Los Angeles Times film critic Marc Olsen called Thompson’s film, “Jeff,” his favorite documentary at the festival.

“The film ‘Jeff’ paints a quietly unnerving portrait of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and his effect on the people of Milwaukee,” wrote Olsen.

Thompson calls the documentary a hybrid, with a mix of interviews, archival footage, fictional elements and animation. The film is not so much about Dahmer himself, as it’s about the way he changed the lives of several people involved in his case, and the case’s impact on average Milwaukeeans in the summer of 1991.

Not just ‘Dahmer, Dahmer, Dahmer’

“No one can possibly relate to the horrible acts Dahmer committed,” Thompson said in an earlier interview. “But to me what seemed scarier and more accessible was trying to imagine what it felt like to be his neighbor, his co-worker, or just someone who rode the same bus each morning.”

On the set of "Jeff"

The film includes extensive interviews with Dahmer’s one-time neighbor, Pamela Bass; former Milwaukee County Medical Examiner, Jeffrey Jentzen; and Patrick Kennedy (’09 PhD, ’00 MS), the lead detective on the case. Kennedy found his way into UWM’s School of Education after the charged racial dynamics of the Dahmer case led the Milwaukee Police Department to ask him to create a diversity-training program for police recruits. Kennedy is now a lecturer in UWM’s criminal justice program.

Each of them had grown tired of talking about Dahmer, Thompson told the Times. Getting them to open up about how the case affected their personal lives was challenging.

“They each had this list of things that had happened to them they just assumed no one wanted to hear,” Thompson told Olsen. “It had never been done that way, when they get to talk about every single thing from their own point of view. It’s always been Dahmer, Dahmer, Dahmer… it’s never been their side of it.”

Milwaukee, UWM connections prominent

Likewise, Thompson felt previous documentaries and articles gave short shrift to Milwaukee.

“None of it seemed like it paid the respect that the city deserved,” he said in the Times interview. “It was like it was told by outsiders and none of it felt like it did the city any justice. They never really got to the point of letting anyone from Milwaukee talk, about how it affected them or how they felt or what it did to their lives.”

Thompson has been working on “Jeff” since 2007, between and around other projects. He mailed the finished documentary to Austin on March 2, eight days before the SXSW premiere. He got a last minute boost from Kickstarter.

“All of my wonderful family and friends, as well as film-loving strangers showed me incredible support throughout my campaign which allowed me to finish the film in time for SXSW.”

A Mary Nohl fellowship he received in 2011 also helped. The Nohl fellowships, he says “are doing very important work supporting Milwaukee artists and helping them get work from Milwaukee seen everywhere.”

“Jeff” was executive produced by Chris Smith and Barry Poltermann. Thompson works for Smith’s Bluemark Productions, located in Milwaukee. As an undergrad, Thompson traveled to India as assistant editor on Smith’s film “The Pool.” And while a grad student at UWM, Smith made the seminal documentary “American Movie” with fellow film graduate Sarah Price. Actor Andrew Swant, who played Dahmer, also studied film at UWM and was a 2008 Nohl Fellow.

What’s next for ‘Jeff,’ and Thompson

Being invited to the SXSW festival was “incredibly exciting,” he says. “To have Janet Pierson (SXSW Film director) say she likes your film and wants it to play in Austin is an incredible honor, and a dream come true for any filmmaker. Being a first-time filmmaker makes it that much more sweet.”

The film played to nearly sold-out houses at all three screenings during the Austin-based festival.

“Many individual viewers told me after the screenings that they liked the unusual approach, and that they enjoyed having to work through the story as a viewer,” he says.   “My favorite documentaries tend to be a bit more challenging and open-ended,
leaving lots of decisions up to the viewer on where to place weight and importance within the story, as well as where the magic of film ends and the reality of the world around us begins.”

Thompson even appreciates the viewers who didn’t like “Jeff.”

“There’s always going to be people that don’t connect with your films – and surprisingly I’ve enjoyed getting to hear those critiques too.  I love movies and I want to make many more, so the whole thing has felt like another big step in that adventure.”

Now that the film has premiered, Thompson is working with an agent to figure out the best strategy to get the film out to as many people as possible, adding he plans to donate any personal profits from directing the film to a local charity.

“For now I just have to be patient and continue the festival circuit, and hope the best shakes out for us on the business side.”