Chicago Vs. Europe: Battle of the Underground Festivals
by Anthony Kaufman
Inter-festival rivalry is nothing new to the independent film world.
Organizers leave one fest to begin another, feuds begin, bloodshed ensues.
Well, not quite bloodshed. But take Jonathon Wells and Bart Cheever, who
founded the Low Res Film Fest together and now head up competing digital
festivals, ResFest and D.FILM respectively. In the South, SXSW and the
Austin Film Festival fight for recognition in the Texan indie film mecca,
while in Southern California, there’s the AFI Los Angeles International
Film Festival and the upstart Hollywood Film Festival that occurred almost
simultaneously last year (not to mention the popular LAIFF in the Spring).
Of course, Sundance competitors Slam and (who could forget last year’s
Slum) arose to try and steal some of the spotlight from their more widely
And finally, there is Mark Siska, a founding member of the Chicago
Underground Film Festival (CUFF), who left the fest to begin Euro
Underground (EU), a cross cultural arts organization exhibiting European
and American films in Europe and the States. But, while no one is going
to mistake a festival like Sundance with its “competition,” the problem has
become a reality for the two underground festivals. Siska’s three-city
Eastern European touring festival has been mistakenly affiliated with
Chicago Underground by many, including indieWIRE*.
“Euro Underground is his baby and has nothing to do with the Chicago
Underground Film Fest,” says Jay Bliznick, Director and Founder of CUFF.
Siska agreed: “I was one of the founding members of CUFF 5 years ago, but
have since left the organization to start Euro Underground.” No
relationship. No problem. But indieWIRE contributor Michael Lee, who wrote
the article “‘Undies’ Infiltrate Europe” in the 12.8.98 issue of iW,
alleges that the distinction between the two was not so easily demarcated
by Siska back in Berlin. “He did not imply a relationship,” says Lee, “He
called it, I believe, branching out.”
Lee also claims that Siska told him that the “Euro Underground event in the
states next year would come as a sidebar to CUFF.” This has been vehemently
corrected by Bryan Wendorf, CUFF Festival Programmer, “CUFF has no plans to
include a EU sidebar as part of the festival.” Wendorf continues, “We’ve
always welcomed submissions from all over the world but those films must be
submitted directly to us. Any Euro Underground screenings in Chicago will
be organized by Mr. Siska and will not be presented as part of CUFF.”
Several filmmakers have contacted CUFF to inquire about EU and Wendorf’s
response has consistently been “that CUFF is NOT affiliated with EU and we
have had nothing to do with organizing, programming or fundraising for this
event.” The only relationship Euro Underground has had with CUFF was Siska
ran a paid “call for entries” ad in their program, but as Jay Bliznick
reiterates, “this is the extent of our involvement in any way.” Confused
yet? It definitely doesn’t help that the e-mail address of
Siska’s Euro Underground is firstname.lastname@example.org.
But writer Michael Lee contends, “In no way did Siska ever state or imply
to me that it was anything other than a continued relationship in which he
was doing his own, but connected stuff.” Was Siska bending the truth a bit?
Was Lee misunderstanding an honest and straightforward Siska? To add to the
confusion, Lee reported Sarah Jacobson’s “Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore“
(which did play at CUFF) also played at the Euro Underground festival, but
all parties now agree this never took place.
Although there have been certain problems in the past between the founding
organizers, the two fests appear willing to bury the hatchet with Wendorf
wishing, “Mark success with his new projects.” With the confusion hopefully
sorted out, both festivals can now get back to business. Both are enjoying
the growing interest of independent and underground film worldwide with
CUFF in its 5th year and Euro Underground now expanding its slate of
Eastern European cities to seven. There would appear room for the both of
them (or rather the two are making room for each other).
* Read Michael Lee’s article “‘Undies Infiltrate Europe‘”
[For more information on the Chicago Underground Film Festival, check out
their website at www.cuff.org. Deadline for entries is May 15th.]
[For more information on the entirely different fest known as Euro
Underground, contact Mark Siska at 1-888-864-9644 or e-mail