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  • Writer's pictureElisabeth Gasparka

Local Film Production centers Milwaukee to tell a story of trauma and resilience

A director and cinematographer are captured on a film set in a black and white photo. The scene is a historic-looking bank counter.
Photo courtesy of Birds of a Feather.

Writer and Director Marisa Merkl is an observational artist, drawing on the stories of those around her to create her scripts. As “a deep listener,” over the course of her life, Merkl has found herself naturally serving as a confidante to many individuals for whom grappling with personal trauma, and its aftereffects, became an inflection point.


In the last several years, as Merkl began pursuing a long-held dream of writing and directing films, she found that the material “in her gut, and in her heart,” that she was most called to work on was a story about trauma and its acute and long-term impact. It came to her in the form of a story about a man named Gibbs and a child named Ruby, whose lives are brought together in Milwaukee when Gibbs becomes a foster parent to Ruby. Though drastically different individuals at disparate stages of life, their stories become connected through the common impact of childhood trauma on each of them, and how they grapple with coping and healing, together.

Writer/Director Merkl is smiling. The viewer sees the view panel of a camera which depicts a child and adult sitting in a diner booth wearing winter clothing.
Merkl on a film shoot. Photo courtesy of Birds of a Feather.

“I feel this responsibility to use creativity to service others and bring a topic like this into a realm where people can learn from it, can understand themselves, and build empathy,” reflected Merkl. Film seemed like the medium best suited to this task.


“Film storytelling gives you that ability to take all those intimate layers from more than one per person's journey of survival and blend voice with sound and arresting imagery,” reflected Merkl. “Trauma is multi-sensory. With the complexity that all of that brings, film really allows me to creatively capture the multitude of sensory and visual aspects of trauma versus only focusing one of those expressions. In other words, it’s a fuller recreation experience. And at the end of the day, I want to recreate as closely as possible what people go through in order to build connectivity with the audience.”

Writer/Director Marisa Merkl. Photo courtesy of Birds of a Feather.

Merkl hopes that through putting the audience in the shoes of the characters Gibbs and Ruby, viewers will glean understanding of the challenges faced by those who’ve survived profoundly adverse life experiences. In telling a story that centers trauma in such a direct way, audiences may come away with empathy for the invisible scars that impact peoples’ behavior and health in the present.

The purpose-driven nature of the production has helped Merkl to attract a roster of enthusiastic people from her wider network to support the project. Birds of a Feather’s Executive Producer is former fundraiser for Milwaukee Public Library Foundation, Kristine Petersen, and its Producer is DeChantel Helen Kosmatka—both of whom are part of the Milwaukee “diaspora,” as they each called Milwaukee home but now live in other cities. Their enduring love of Milwaukee, and their belief in Merkl’s vision drew them to sign on to working together a year ago over Zoom, despite living in radically different time zones (Petersen lives in Singapore and Kosmatka lives in California).  


Executive Producer Kristine Petersen. Photo courtesy of Birds of a Feather.
Producer DeChantel Helen Kosmatka. Photo courtesy of Birds of a Feather.

To her role as executive producer, Petersen brings knowledge of the philanthropic community in Milwaukee, and personal passion for the project. She’s been stimulated by the new “challenge” of pitching a project with social impact that has more diffuse, less measurable goals than children’s literacy programs.


Meanwhile, working on Birds of a Feather has deep personal significance to Kosmatka.


“I lost my mom at a really young age, and she was my only living relative.That left me with this overwhelming grief. It wasn't until a few

years ago that I started to confront this unprocessed trauma,” she reflected. Concerned with the fact that young people in similar situations to her own might slip through the cracks in communities where mental health services are not robust, she hopes Birds of a Feather will have an added positive effect of connecting more individuals with support services, no matter what stage of life they happen to be in—and regardless of when they experienced the trauma.


 “Also, the script is juicy as hell,” laughed Kosmatka.


The nature of the story helped the team to nurture an ongoing partnership with Wellpoint Care Network. The organization has helped with consulting on how mental health challenges related to trauma will be represented in the film and has offered to screen the film and host community talkbacks led by trauma-informed professionals in conjunction with its release.

Two young Black children wearing green Wellpoint Care tee shirts are smiling with their arms around each other.
Photo courtesy of Birds of a Feather.

As Merkl wrote about the characters of Gibbs and Ruby, Milwaukee also stepped into the foreground as more than just a setting—taking up the space of a character in its own rite. Birds of a Feather takes place across multiple seasons, for one thing. And as the character of Gibbs evolved, it was clear to Merkl that he was truly “of Milwaukee.” A proud blue-collar worker, Gibbs lives a quiet life of routine in his work, home ownership, and spending time in the local watering hole. That is, until Ruby enters the scene.


The wider community of Milwaukee has also embraced the film and the filmmaking team’s goals. Milwaukee Film is a sponsor. Toni’s Moody Blues—the beloved Bay View bar—has offered to be the location for the scenes that feature Gibbs at his neighborhood bar. Bliffert Lumber and Hardware has expressed willingness to help loan tools and equipment for the character of Gibbs. And this just scratches the surface of the Milwaukee culture “Easter Eggs” that Merkl envisions within the final film.

Photo courtesy of Birds of a Feather.

Now that they have primary actors and top line production staff, the team is looking to build out the crew further as they gear up for production, which they hope will commence in Milwaukee by the end of 2024. In order to get started with filming, they are seeking more financial support so that they can hire local crew and support staff at all levels. And Merkl is excited to activate and call in even more Milwaukee talent.


“Those involved in this production are going to range from seasoned filmmakers who all live in spaces of writing, directing, producing, crew and post-production — to local artists from an animator to musicians, bands and a composer — to those just dipping their toe in the industry like students,” offered Merkl. “And we’re thrilled to have people who once called Milwaukee home return to our city.”


Birds of a Feather has just launched a crowdfunding campaign that will be live for the next month to help them reach financial goals to begin production. Beyond financial support, they are eager to connect with more businesses, non-profit organizations, and individuals who have an interest in the film’s themes and want to be involved.

Poster image courtesy of Birds of a Feather.

 “We really are looking at the community at large, and that's everyone from a local business with something they can offer as an in-kind donation, to individuals who may find it more meaningful to come on board as an executive producer,” said Merkl.


Overall, Merkl and the producers are exuberant about leaning into the Milwaukee community’s potential to make the film all that it can be. The result, they hope, will be a shared success and piece of art that can change lives.


“It's really important to me that people are able to discover something about themselves that perhaps that they didn't realize was there,” offered Merkl. “I hope that people can watch the film and realize that if they have buried trauma that they’re not alone. And if they truly feel like they don’t, that they can come away with an uplifted capability to empathize with those that do so they can begin to ask ‘what happened to you?’ versus ‘what’s wrong with you?’”


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