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Are All Underground Film Festivals The Same?

Asking the question “Are all underground film festivals the same?” is a bit of a trick question. Of course, no two film festivals of any kind — underground, overground, international, mainstream, indie, whatever, whatever — are the same. But, with many festivals either having the actual word “underground” in their name or just saying they’ll accept “underground” films, there may be confusion that they all screen basically the same kinds of films. They don’t.

On the Underground Film Journal, I maintain a list of underground film festivals and regularly report on them: Calls for entry, official lineups, round-ups of online reviews and news reports, etc. As of this writing, on that list there are 17 festivals that have the word “underground” in their name. There are 18 others without the word, but I happen to think are underground-ish enough to include. Actually, several of them dropped “underground” from their name within the last year or two.

(An aside: That list is by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s one that I can manage by myself, i.e. I only put festivals on there I know I have the time to follow in detail to post Underground Film Journal news items. But, it’s a pretty darn fine list, I believe.)

Underground film,” as I wrote in another recent article, has never enjoyed a popular, public definition, so therefore just because some film festivals put the word “underground” in their name doesn’t mean that they all screen the same types of films. Also, in that previous article, I attempted a definition of “underground film” myself and came up with:

An underground film is a personal statement by one person and a film that dissents radically in form, or in technique, or in content, or perhaps in all three. However, that dissension can take on any number of forms.

Different underground film festivals do focus on different forms of dissension. Some of them pick films that dissent radically, while others pick films that dissent only marginally. Some festivals focus on just one particular type of dissension, and some pick a mix of films in how they dissent.

Plus, festivals are not static entities. They evolve from year to year. A festival trending in one direction, may trend in a very different one the next.

A good example of this is the late New York Underground Film Festival (NYUFF), which was founded in 1994 by Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland. NYUFF wasn’t the first true “underground” film festival ever, but it was the first one to include the word in its title. (As far as I know.) And that first year, NYUFF focused on the then popular transgressive school of filmmaking, i.e. films that dissented in content by including extreme, taboo subject matter, such as pedophilia in the documentary Chicken Hawk: The Men Who Love Boys.

The festival continued in that vein for a few years, but eventually Phillips and Gurland passed the torch to Ed Halter, whose interests leaned more towards the avant-garde and the experimental, with a bit of the shocking and the transgressive thrown in for good measure. By the early ’00s, the fest was an interesting mix of low and high art.

In 2008, NYUFF called it quits and a couple of programmers started Migrating Forms, which focuses exclusively on films that dissent in form and technique, to fill the void.

I’m not of a mind to go through the Underground Film Journal’s entire list of film festivals and describe what types of underground films each one likes to screen, but whenever I do a call for entries post I try to include a fest’s mission statement as I think they’re enlightening to what the fest director and programmers think “underground” means to them.

I’m going to post some of them below. Not all fests put up mission statements or festival descriptions. Plus, if you’re a filmmaker and you think your film fits into that mission statement, that still doesn’t mean your film will be accepted. Sometimes visions don’t jive even when it seems like they should.

Boston Underground Film Festival:

BUFF is a celebration of the bizarre and insane.
BUFF is uncompromising, unflinching film and video.
BUFF is hazardous to your health.

Calgary Underground Film Festival:

CUFF is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to programming films that defy convention. … We actively look to showcase titles in all genres, from horror, sci-fi and fantasy to comedies, thrillers and music-related films.

PDX Film Fest:

Focusing on non-narrative work that goes against the grain of mainstream entertainment, the PDX Fest showcases artistic, underground, quirky and challenging work that reflects contemporary culture, documents historic oddities, and is otherwise unclassifiable.

Milwaukee Underground Film Festival:

The Milwaukee Underground Film Festival is a student-run, international film festival dedicated to showcasing contemporary works of film and video that innovate in form, technique, and content. … We are interested in publicly presenting the best in artistic, experimental, original, humorous, political and visionary film and video work.

Lausanne Underground Film Festival:

The creation of the LUFF was inspired by the New York Underground Film Festival. Very much like its American cousin, its objective is to promote directors and musicians trying to push further the limits of music and cinema, endorsing a particular kind of production, at the same time challenging, entertaining and provoking.

ATA Film & Video Festival:

The ATA Film & Video Festival is dedicated to celebrate and support underground film exhibiting every year 2 original ensembles of short works by emerging and established film and video artists from all over the world.

Arizona Underground Film Festival:

Arizona Underground Film Festival is Arizona’s only underground cult film festival! Our mission is to showcase the work of filmmakers with defiantly independent visions. We want to represent every genre of independent film from across the world during this celebration of the artist, and their work.


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