Jewish Russian immigrant producing film locally

 If the independent feature film “Give Me Liberty” makes it big, Jewish Family Services can take some credit.

Kirill Mikhanovsky is a Jewish Russian immigrant who came to Milwaukee with his family from Moscow when he was 18 years old. His early experiences here, helped in part by JFS, were the impetus for Mikhanovsky, in collaboration with award-winning playwright Alice Austen, to create this work of fiction.

The film is summed up this way: A naive immigrant teams up with a Russian thug, breaks the law to save his Alzheimer’s-stricken grandfather, forms deep bonds with a diverse group of iconic underclass characters, and finds love in the unlikeliest of places. Set in Milwaukee.

“Give Me Liberty” has been labeled a dark comedy: “kind of a cross between ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’” Mikhanovsky said. But he and Austen agree it is more comedic than dark. “We would be writing the characters for the script and all of a sudden we’d start laughing,” Austen said.

“We set out to write a dead-serious drama. We didn’t force the comedy,” Mikhanovsky said.
Now, with project in development with mass viewing scheduled for spring or summer of 2017, Mikhanovsky admits, “I would like to hear the audience explode into laughter, but also cry at times.”

Mikhanovsky’s father was a Refusnik, a Soviet Jew who was denied permission to emigrate by the former Soviet Union. The father, a civil engineer, spent about 15 years trying to get his family out of Moscow. When it finally happened in 1993, the family settled on Milwaukee’s East Side.

“We didn’t have it too hard, living in Moscow,” Mikhanovsky recalled. “But we did suffer a bit and as the family started being harassed, we wanted to leave.”

The family didn’t have it easy in Milwaukee either – Mikhanovsky’s father died before his family could get out of Moscow. But it availed itself of JFS. “JFS was great to my family,” Mikhanovsky said. “And I remember people coming to our door and leaving bags of groceries, and lots of immigrants became employed through Jewish families.”

He delayed enrolling in college and a JFS caseworker helped him get work at a McDonald’s where he began learning English. It wasn’t long before he went to work answering phones at Hotel Wisconsin in downtown Milwaukee, but because his English wasn’t good, there was a lack of understanding that made it “a very nerve-wracking job.”

The two jobs that most influenced the “Give Me Liberty” script came about while he was studying linguistics and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He drove a van that transported people with disabilities, and later became an interpreter with JFS, taking newly arrived Russian immigrants to their first job interviews, watching them get hired. “Competent professionals, proud and bread-winning back home, found themselves uprooted in America, reduced to the status of children who don’t understand adult language,” Mikhanovsky said.

Mikhanovsky calls being the van driver the toughest job he ever had. He recalls climbing a sign post at 4 a.m. to wipe off sticky snow and get his bearings while five clients with a cerebral palsy condition sat in the van patiently waiting for their clueless Russian driver to take them home. “No GPS or cell phone then,” he said. “The snow kept falling, sticking to street signs, as I drove on, literally lost at the crossroads.”

Austen attended Harvard Law School after running track at the University of Oregon. She became an international dealmaker, but her love of creative writing drew her to become a critically acclaimed playwright. She met Mikhanovsky in Milwaukee through mutual friends, and while they were working together on a different project, Mikhanovsky began telling her stories of his youth. A script for a movie began taking shape from those conversations, and they launched the “Give Me Liberty” project in November 2014 with a Kickstarter campaign in which $36,869 was pledged in 30 days. Austen said most of the Kickstarter money has been collected “and we have meticulously allocated it” in the million-dollar budget for the film.

A lot of Austen’s time is spent trying to attract other investors, some of whom were turned off by having Mikhanovsky and Austen insist the film be made in Milwaukee where there is a lack of tax incentives for filmmakers. “We were determined to be very invested in Milwaukee,” Austen said. “To make a world-class movie for Milwaukee, about Milwaukee and in Milwaukee. We didn’t want to compromise the integrity of the film by making it somewhere else.”

Austen and Mikhanovsky are working with producers in Los Angeles to lock in financing, but Austen noted, “It is critical to raise part of our budget in Milwaukee to offset the tax credits we lose by shooting the film here. We are hoping to help jumpstart a real feature film industry here, but we need support from Milwaukee to do that.”

Creative Artists Agency of Los Angeles will be handling all aspects of the film, including distributing it in all formats worldwide.

Production is scheduled to begin in February and last five weeks. But why shoot during winter?

“Winter makes Milwaukeeans,” Austen said. “Winter changes you here. It can be hard and funny at the same time.”

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At a glance

What: “Give Me Liberty,” an independent feature film to go into production this winter in Milwaukee
Schedule: Still in development, but slated to go into production in February and be available for mass viewing by spring or summer of 2017.
Budget: $1 million. The writer/producer team of Kirill Mikhanovsky and Alice Austen continue to seek investors.
For more information: GiveMeLibertyTheMovie.com, @GMLthemovie