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Do Underground Film Festivals Have To Screen Only Underground Films?

Logo letters UFF that look like piping

It might seem like an obtuse question, but does a film festival that puts “underground” in its name under any sort of obligation to screen only “underground films”? And — as theĀ Underground Film Journal asked a few years ago — who’s deciding what’s an underground film, anyway?

First popularized in the 1960s, the term “underground film” was typically applied to the movies coming out of the New York City avant-garde and experimental scene. More importantly, the term implied that these films had elements that were dangerous to normal society.

Watching an underground film, it was assumed one could witness degenerate acts such as the queer vamping of Jack Smith‘s Flaming Creatures or the black mass rituals of Kenneth Anger‘s Invocation of My Demon Brother, or — hopefully — bare boobs.

Eventually, though, the degeneracy of the ’60s underground film scene gave way to the more formal, academic and structuralist type films that began their ascension in the ’70s. It wasn’t until Nick Zedd started publishing his Underground Film Bulletin in the mid-’80s that the term “underground film” started to rise back to its seedy prominence, leading the way towards Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland launching the New York Underground Film Festival in 1994.

However, by reclaiming “underground film” as part of their milieu and focusing on the types of films they did, Zedd and NYUFF were both reasserting the messy amateur quality of underground filmmaking as well as introducing the notion that traditional narrative filmmaking could be “underground” as long as those narratives included extreme, transgressive behavior.

Thus, the whole notion of what could be called an underground film expanded, further loosening the already strained non-committal definition of what was thought to be underground in the 1960s. In addition to traditional notions of what avant-garde and experimental movies are, “underground” would also now be applied to any low-budget production that included nods to fringe cultures, whether those cultures were actually transgressive or just not wildly acceptable to mainstream society.

The funny thing about fringe culture, though — i.e. any fringe culture — is that many elements eventually leak into the mainstream and become perfectly acceptable, if not downright mandatory. Eventually, the walls between what an actual underground film is and what may be just an oddball low-budget movie without a large audience have to break down completely.

Given that the weak definition of underground film has gotten progressively weaker over the past almost 50 years, it’s no wonder that all of the 18 festivals that have the word “underground” in their name that are listed on the Underground Film Journal’s festival index (as of this writing, anyway), each expresses a very dissimilar definition of what’s underground. Even the once definition-setting New York Underground Film Festival gave up on what it might all mean and transformed itself into something called Migrating Forms. And they’re not the only one, as fests such as the San Antonio Film Festival and Antimatter Film Festival dropped the word “underground” from their names years ago.

Underground fests range from the purely experimental Milwaukee Underground Film Festival to the punk-ass attitudes of the Boston Underground and Melbourne Underground Film Festivals to the artistic vibe of the always evolving Chicago Underground Film Festival. Although, it should be noted, that many of these fests do continue to partially program purely experimental and avant-garde work to keep that tradition alive.

But also for many of these fests, it’s not uncommon to see them program a film or two or three that include the participation of semi-mainstream figures, either B-movie type actors or cult movie producers, as long as the overall feel of that film is that it exists outside of popular acceptance. Underground filmmakers and fans typically don’t solely consume what they might consider to be underground.

For example, one insanely popular style of underground film these days is the appropriation, pastiche and homage to grindhouse and/or direct-to-video films that were never “underground” themselves, but enthused over by small, cult-minded audiences. So, it’s no wonder that the modern day homages to B-movie glory days might start attracting figures from that past to participate in their new neo-versions.

Ironically, this sets up a situation where modern underground films in the classic mold could, and do, get shut out almost completely of the new ever-widening definition of underground as found on the festival circuit. There are those that just aren’t experimental enough for the art crowd, nor extreme enough for the transgressive crowd and thusly feel like they have no place to call home.

So then, what’s an actual “underground film” and what’s just a low-budget indie film that hardly anybody has ever seen? That’s a question, despite anybody’s best efforts, will probably never be answered.


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