Jayce Kolinski is currently living out of the back of their Subaru outside of Lake Tahoe, California, working on a project with another filmmaker/mentor. While the living situation is challenging, roughing it is worth it to Kolinski.

The Milwaukee filmmaker will be heading back to Wisconsin to participate in the Wisconsin Film Festival when What You Left Behind screens on April 9 (along with Only I Can Hear) as part of the festival’s Wisconsin’s Own programming. Both works were awarded the Golden Badger for films with Wisconsin ties.

What constitutes a Wisconsin’s Own film is wide-ranging. These films may be set in Wisconsin, or filmed here; they may be about someone from Wisconsin, or made by Wisconsin natives, or residents, or former residents, or alumni of the university, in creative roles including director, producer, screenwriter, cinematographer or actor.

This year’s Wisconsin’s Own films include documentary, narrative, experimental, dance, puppetry and animation; some are as short as one minute (the narrative short Respect Your Tenants) and others as long as 73 minutes (the gospel documentary Stay Prayed Up).

Kolinski’s story is indicative of why the Wisconsin’s Own program is such an important, and beloved, part of the festival. “When I started making this film, it was my sophomore year in college at UW-Milwaukee and I had all these big dreams of what I wanted to do,” Kolinski says. “For me to complete the film and have people watch it especially in Wisconsin, because it is very much a Wisconsin-based film, and being able to be here in person, is awesome. There are so many layers to how special I feel this experience is.”

The biographical documentary is about Kolinski’s father and his battle with substance abuse, specifically prescription drugs, as well as the devastating effects his death had on the family.

“I started to process my feelings by envisioning what the movie version of what I was going through would look like,” says Kolinski. “I knew I was going to make a film about losing my dad and learning more about him — I didn’t know that much about him when he did die. This film really just came out of the heart.”

Kolinski sees What You Left Behind as representing a certain kind of Wisconsin work ethic. The film also draws on Wisconsin’s weather and landscape. “I focused a lot on those little parts of Wisconsin identity — I don’t know if that gets communicated in the film, but there were a lot of things that felt important to me that I tried to put in there.”

The film was shot in part digitally, in part on 16 mm film, and partly on video with the old family VHS camera used to record childhood birthdays and Christmases: “It was really fun to take the archive [of footage] my mother shot and respond to it, on the same camera, and intercut the two shots and play with a sense of time, and the relationship I shared with my mom.” Both 16 mm film and the VHS footage foster a sense of nostalgia, while “digital has a clean directness, really beautiful for my current interviews with my mom.”

Flying back for the fest from California, Kolinski is eager to be involved in every way possible.

“I see myself as a professional filmmaker, an artist and photographer,” says Kolinski. “Those are core parts of my identity and if I get paid for doing them, great, but if I don’t, I’m still going to be making films.”

Zach Staads is from Eau Claire, and is currently living in the Twin Cities. Rosso, playing as part of the Wisconsin’s Own shorts compilation “Movers and Shakers” on April 9, is his directorial debut — with film, anyway. He’d been producing short films with Tim Schwagel, who usually directs, but for this one, they swapped roles.

Staads’ background is in theater, where he’s acted in and directed plays, but when the pandemic hit, he turned primarily to film. This fall Staads is heading to Los Angeles for a graduate program in creative producing, which he says is “more my speed” than directing.

He never had formal training with film. “We just know what we like and make it that way,” Staads says. He and Schwagel first started trying to get their short films on the film fest circuit in 2019.

“Every film fest helps. But with the Wisconsin Film Fest, and being one of Wisconsin’s Own, it means I can get the film out to people I’ve known all my life, friends in Madison, the community that we have in this state. “

Staads says that not only are the filmmakers from Wisconsin, but that Rosso “big time has things that go with Wisconsin. The short itself is about fishing, a staple Wisconsin activity.”

Without giving too much away, Staads says that the film “reflects the bad side of so-called Wisconsin nice, when people don’t want to have that hard conversation, or are kind of passive-aggressive or don’t let feelings out in a healthy way. I think there’s something important about exploring that. Culturally there’s a lot of stuff in Wisconsin that is ‘don’t rock the boat’ and if your boat gets rocked by somebody else, you have to take it on the chin. That’s something you grow up with. Rosso looks at the darker side of that.”

The film was shot digitally, with a setup of three fishing boats, two with cameras and one with the actors. The filming took place on Lake Wissota, outside of Chippewa Falls, “from 4 a.m. to 12 p.m.” in July 2020. Shooting from a boat was a challenge, says Staads, but one they wanted to take on.

“People should know we are a tight-knit community of filmmakers and we work hand-in-hand to make sure that we are making the best stuff and bringing out the best in each other,” says Staads. “It’s very important to me that people check out the work of the costumer, hair stylists, the production assistant — they are doing a lot of work for these films. We couldn’t make the film without all the people involved.” 

For other stories in our cover story package on the Wisconsin Film Festival see Back on the Big ScreenBehind the Scenes, and Swing Shift.

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