Underground Film Festival Director Roundtable: What Is Underground?
After the Underground Film Journal published an editorial last week entitled “Do Underground Film Festivals Have to Screen Only Underground Films?, Bryan Wendorf, the Artistic Director of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, initiated a conversation on Facebook amongst a few of his fellow festival directors around the world.
With their permission, we have reprinted that conversation below. It’s a frank and candid discussion that should help filmmakers gain an insight into exactly what considerations go into programming a major festival.
Bryan initiated the dialogue by asking for comments, Wolstencroft was the first to respond:
Richard Wolstencroft (Melbourne Underground Film Festival)
I have been criticized for playing a lot of genre cinema at MUFF. To me, anything outside the mainstream and the ‘normal’ qualifies. Well done, edgy Genre can be as exciting as any traditional underground cinema and equally avant-garde at times. Adding transgressive genre cinema from all over the world broadens the words “underground cinema.” What do you think, Bryan?
Bryan Wendorf (Chicago Underground Film Festival)
I’ve always tried to avoid any strict definition of what is “underground” when programming CUFF. I let filmmakers decide if they want to submit and then I choose the best/most interesting work to screen. I think there is a place for exploitation/genre films in what we do, but CUFF isn’t interested in just showing gore/horror films and you don’t see a lot of those on our schedule.
I’m also not interested in the festival just being an avant-garde/art film event although we probably program more of that sort of work today than anything else (especially in our shorts). I think the key is to be open to all possible ideas of what “underground” can mean and showing the best examples of that work that you can.
Nina Riddel from the Brisbane Underground Film Festival replied on Twiiter that, for her, “underground” includes high brow (experimental/art films) and low brow (exploitation/trash/gore) with NO middlebrow. I’ve said similar things myself when describing CUFF. I would’ve said at one time that CUFF would never show a romantic comed,y but in some ways that’s exactly what The Color Wheel is. [Ed. note: Alex Ross Perry‘s The Color Wheel tied for Best Narrative (Feature) at the 2011 CUFF.]
Jack Sargeant (Author, curator and programmer at Revelation Perth International Film Festival)
The underground is by definition always changing, it is fluid, it defies categorisation by need and necessity. Historically, many people who have been defined as underground reject the term (especially the avant-garde filmmakers of the ’50s). But I think that there’s a link to the counter culture which has been pretty important over the years (beats, hippies, zinesters, whatever).
I also think the underground is about budgets and production values and access, etc. While I don’t like the notion of a ‘real’ underground (which implies a fake one) I do think that low budget, limited distribution, etc. is all part of it. I would suggest that as curators and programmers Bryan, Nina, Richard and myself have to expand the definition periodically, certainly I think Richard, Bryan and Nina (and at Revelation myself, too) curate indie / cult / genre movies because 1) otherwise they don’t get seen in many cases and 2) they guarantee an audience. Are these films underground? Probably not, because part of the underground would come from the counter culture by definition and be low/ no budget and where as indie and genre movies are feature-length, budgeted movies.
Nina Riddel (Brisbane Underground Film Festival)
Yeah, “otherwise they don’t get seen” is a big part of my motivation for playing films.
Underground does not (and can not) include many high brow art movies, Nina and Bryan, because these are (in the UK and Europe and Australia) funded by the government. I think that Duncan Reekie‘s book Subversion: The Definitive History of Underground Cinema is really good on the histories and roots (and there’s many) of the underground and also offers a solid criticism of art movies produced in the UK as an official and exclusionary avant-garde.
You’re right, Jack. I do think how the films are financed is a part of it. Although a lot of experimental films get small arts grants today and I don’t think that disqualifies them. I do think access to distribution and audiences is just as, if not more, relevant than where your money comes from.
What I try to do at Revelation (and am doing this year again) is screen expanded cinema as much as possible, which is something that seems to me to be crucial to the underground in terms of its breaking down of the boundaries between film and audience.
Absolutely, I want to include more expanded cinema elements in CUFF as well.
Bryan, you need to read Duncan’s book because it’s specific to a particular situation in the UK. But I do think that the institutional high art avant-garde is often slow moving compared to the no budget underground.
The institutional nature of the high art avant-garde also carries a weight of supposed cultural value that the likes of Jack Smith and Tony Conrad, et. al. were vary unhappy with. Have you read Beyond the Dream Syndicate?
I think expanded cinema, installation and performance is a crucial aspect, and it’s something that I have always tried to include when curating a season or full festival program (at Revelation and Sydney Biennale, for instance). The roots of the underground are in part in performance and literature of course and spread to glitter theatre and so on via Jack Smith etc.
I have Duncan’s book, Jack. It is very good. You’re right about it being very specific to the UK but it is an essential chronicle of a specific underground scene. I haven’t read Beyond the Dream Syndicate yet, but really need to. I agree about the problems surrounding the institutional/academic nature of the avant-garde. I don’t think you should need an advanced degree in film theory to understand underground film and, if you do, it is an indication that it probably isn’t very good work.
Great discussion. I share the general feelings expressed here of Jack and Bryan. To me the “underground” is in a sense what great cinema used to be. Before Hollywood and often even many ‘art house’ films became so cookie cutter and bland. This is, of course, not always true as some good work is done in the mainstream still, just less frequently. One well is drying up, but a new spring pours forth bountifully elsewhere.