FESTIVAL: Homegrown: 2nd Seattle Underground Provides Haven for the Gritty and Oddball
by Karla Esquivel
(indieWIRE/ 10.20.00) -- The Seattle Underground Film Festival (SUFF), still a babe in the cinematic circuit, garnered considerably more attention in its second outing this year. With three times the audience and twice as many films than last year, SUFF is gradually establishing itself as the alternative festival that experimental and low-budget filmmakers dream of: it's gritty, no-nonsense, and sets out to do one thing -- get oddball films exhibited. More than likely, only a small quantity of the films will find even minor distribution. But what matters to the SUFF founders/filmmakers Jon Berhens, Steve Creson and Marc Burgio is that the festival caters to an audience that has underground cinema in its bones.
"There are a lot of festivals out there that call themselves alternative but they really aren't. They ultimately cater to the mainstream," says Jon Berhens. "We're all basically a bunch of artists with no money and with a big passion for the medium. One filmmaker took a Greyhound bus up here all the way from Austin just to see her film. To me, that's dedication."
Based out of Cinema 18, the truly subversive SUFF's funky microcinema located on Capitol Hill has all the charm of a worn-in pair of slippers. The projector housed in the kitchen and the resident cat intermittently slinking down the aisles lent the festival that bohemian, homegrown element. "It's not high-tech," says SUFF co-founder, Steve Creson, "but at the same time it really appeals to people. The space, for the most part, evolved over the past two years and really created itself."
The Good, The Strange and The Ugly
The festival opened up with LA-based filmmaker Tom Putman's hilarious film "Shafted." The film keenly parodies the blaxploitation classic "Shaft" and is actually a heck of a lot more entertaining than the remake. While feature length spoofs like this are hard to pull off, Putman's campy script is tight and his comedic timing is just right. "Shafted" was recently picked up by Hollywood Video's independent label First Rites and has been available on VHS and DVD since September 2000.
Of course SUFF's film selection ranged from the somewhat abnormal to the just plain strange. Short films like Armando D. Munoz's "The Killer Krapper" and Julie Gaw's "Shit - The Movie" had the audience roaring with laughter and nearly incited a riot John Waters would've been proud of. Marcus Roger's obnoxious film, "The Widower," which was kicked out of the Vancouver Film Festival, found itself a voice at SUFF. With cameos by punk legends Jello Biafra and Joey Shithead, this Canadian feature length black comedy ruminates pure kitsch (though ultimately a bit overbaked).
Noah Stern's moody but humorous film, "The Invisibles" stars Portia de Rossi and Michael Goorijan, a drugged-up model and rock star who have escaped from drug rehab and attempt to detox themselves in a Paris flat. Shot in stark black and white, the film feels like a generation X Godard flick. The quirky road movie, "Some Place New," from Austin-based filmmaker Zach Phillips, has an excellent script, great dialogue but a few technical difficulties. The film has potential, but lacks the funding to make to it out to the mainstream. Other noteworthy films included "The Cat Killers," an eerie film from LA-based director Colin Drobnis and "Eyes to Heaven" from Oregonian filmmaker Shane Hanks. As well, Sophie Dia Pegrum's "Dogstar" and Erik Gunneson's "Milk Punch" became instant audience favorites.
Another surprise came in writer/director John Mendoza's "Blasphemy." The film stars Carlos Leon as a young man who dares to question the existence of God to his over-zealous Mexican-American Catholic family. It's an admirable, taboo little comedy filled with lots of quirky characters reminiscent of those found in the works of Almodovar. "We really are having a hard time getting support for the film due to its controversial nature. People are really afraid of the subject mater," Mendoza told indieWIRE.
Documentaries and Shorts: The Horrors
The festival featured not only a substantial share of indie features, but also a handful of documentaries and a wide variety of narrative and experimental shorts. There was also more of an international flavor this year. "We felt the need to include so many narrative shorts this year because there are so many good ones out there being made that rarely get seen," says Marc Burgio, festival co-founder.
And some good films they were, many with an inexplicable horror theme. The 15-minute "Chuck" by New York filmmaker Alex Turner is a darkly comic film about a door-to-door serial killer. Hollywood's Greg Chwerchak takes the urban myth one step further with his amusing film "The Hook-Armed Man." While not what you would think of as horror, the 25-minute "Georgie Porgie" by Benjamin Meyer aptly looks at a couple caught in a frightful, but realistic relationship. Many of these shorts, like San Francisco-based director Kurt Keppler's complex film "Metalman" and New York's Brian Sechler's "Criminal Obsession" have the dexterity to become feature-length sensations.
Documentaries were new to SUFF this year. Most notable was "30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle" by Seattle-based filmmaker Rustin Thompson. It's the better of the WTO documentaries. Smart and resourceful, Thompson lends an inviting personal touch to his work. "Butterfly" by San Francisco's Doug Wolens documented environmental activist Julia 'Butterfly' Hill's two-year stint in a redwood tree. Quite a feat for any filmmaker who had to lug all that equipment up 180 feet.
And The Winners Are