FESTIVALS: Chicago's Underground Marketplace -- of Fun & Ideas
by Scott Petersen
"The film festival for all the brothers & sisters who've had enough of the man," spits the cover of the 6th Annual Chicago Underground Film Festival's program guide. The cover also features a cartoon drawing of an African-American woman in 70s garb flipping the bird, presumably to that unseen Man (in this case, the motion picture industry establishment). If you had not seen CUFF's listing of films, this gives you a good idea what CUFF's all about: different movies for different people.
CUFF took the above reference from Melvin Van Peebles' 1971 black-stud-on-the-run picture "Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song." "That's a significant film, both for self-distribution and as a commercial success," says Festival Director Bryan Wendorf. CUFF gave its annual Lifetime Achievement Award to Van Peebles who, unfortunately, was unable to attend. Wendorf and Festival Programmer Wendy Solomon promised a Van Peebles visit to Chicago in the near future so he could officially accept his award.
CUFF staged this year's offering of distribution-doomed productions on three of the four screens at the Village Theater from August 13-19. As for that fourth screen, well, that elderly Asian couple must have been a bit confused as they approached the theater to purchase tickets for Joan Chen's "Xiu-Xiu: the Sent Down Girl," only to encounter a mish-mash of punk rockers, rave kids, and other "alternative-lifestyled" CUFFers hanging out under the marquee.
Moved this year from the makeshift Theatre Building to an actual movie house, Wendorf admits to some "growing pains." CUFF experienced some common festival problems: a few late starts and a slightly inefficient -- at least on opening night -- ticketing system. Overall, however, the fest was well publicized and most snags were minor.
Festival sponsor Camel, however, provided an unusual difficulty. The five screenings sponsored by Camel were 21-and-over affairs, in essence locking out a particular audience. This is fine, I suppose, for "Wadd," the documentary on porn king John C. Holmes, but a few kids (and older folks without identification) were turned away from Jon Reiss' fine techno subculture doc "Better Living through Circuitry." Kind of a drag for "Circuitry's" under-21 audience. After Reiss rightfully complained, Camel and Wendorf mutually agreed to let Camel go home for the evening. At some of the events and parties, the Camel folks played the outcast, like a sad and lonely drug dealer sitting in the corner trying to make eye contact with anyone who passed by.
However, attendance was up and an expanded fest allowed for "more chances with programming." A few pictures were granted multiple screenings, including an unprecedented three for the popular opening night feature, "Amerikan Passport." Several impressive projects had their Chicago premiere and the nearby Hospitality Lounge at Germania Place offered an expansive, if swanky setting to meet filmmakers and drink.
As is the case throughout the independent/underground world of film, the docs at CUFF were generally better conceived, executed with more skill, and more thought provoking than the narratives. Opening night kicked off with former Chicagoan Reed Paget's Slamdance-winning doc "Amerikan Passport" (previously known as "A Beerdrinker's Guide to Global Politics"). Paget's multi-year odyssey through a variety of the planet's political hot spots is a rich essay on American imperialism, sacrifice, immortality, and the "paradoxical nature of the world," even if you don't agree with the politics.
Several other docs should become festival favorites. Jonathan Berman's "My Friend Paul" smartly uses freeze-frames as a doorway to and from the past in the story of two childhood friends, one who grows up to be a filmmaker, the other, a manic-depressive bank robber. Paul is an especially fascinating and engaging personality and, similar to Chicken John from CUFF '98 entry "Circus Redickuless," quite a con artist. His charm turns tragic, however, as his disease threatens his mental stability.
CUFF recognized Richard Sandler's "The Gods of Times Square" with its top doc prize. Acknowledging the extraordinary clash between the holy and profane in the place he calls "ground zero for the secular world," Sandler spent several years documenting street preachers as Disney came in and swept away the riff-raff. Sandler's background as a still photographer pays off handsomely as he frames his shots to question who the real gods of Times Square are. In the background of one interview, a shirtless and buff Marky Mark stares down from a Calvin Klein billboard, looking like a Greek god. Some of the gods of Times Square, it appears, aren't religious figures necessarily, but advertisers and multinationals like Disney. As with "My Friend Paul," "Gods" is one of those rare documentaries that combines a cinematic eye with a compelling and genuine narrative. This is what doc filmmaking is all about.
Other notable pictures include: "Night Train," a supremely shot black-and-white cross between "Touch of Evil" and "Repo Man" that is only marred by cheesy post-dubbed sound, and Todd Verow's "The Trouble with Perpetual Deja Vu," which, despite some technical problems, is a provocative, non-linear study of a group of doomed and reckless people. "Hill Stomp Hollar" is a very slickly edited doc on blues label Fat Possum Records, and "The Target Shoots First" is an entertaining, but slightly cutesy personal doc on the filmmaker's experience of working at the Columbia Record and Tape Club as it tried to capitalize on the grunge phenomenon in the early to mid-90s.
Stimulating and vital films filled CUFF's '99 lineup, making it a place where the market is ignored, yet the marketplace of ideas reigns. Since Chicago lies outside the radar of industry folks in Los Angeles and New York, CUFF can focus specifically on the films and running a festival that is, above all, a good time. Wendorf explains that the biggest compliment he gets from filmmakers is that they had fun. "We see a lot of the same faces every year," says Solomon. As for next year, Wendorf and Solomon need more help. "We have the same number of people that we had six years ago," says Wendorf, when the fest ran only a few days. Send those resumes now.
CUFF's website can be found at: < http://www.cuff.org >
[Scott Petersen is a documentary filmmaker in Chicago. His next project is "Killing a Revolution," a documentary on the 1969 murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton by the FBI and Chicago Police.]