FESTIVALS: Introducing XENO, New Euro Underground Hits New York
by Aaron Krach
American film festivals usually feature only two different kinds of films: American Independents and European art house fare. A new festival, the XENO International Film Festival, opening Friday in Brooklyn, New York stakes claim to the space between the rival camps. Subtitled "Cinema from the New Europe," XENO is comprised of ten new features and 50-plus shorts with heavy emphasis on the experimental and the avant-garde. The festival runs from Friday October 22nd through the 31st.
XENO is organized by the New York Underground Film Festival in collaboration with the BAM Next Wave Festival, an annual, high profile performing arts series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. XENO has taken the best of both of its parent organizations, combining established experimental, avant-garde filmmakers with do-it-yourself, underground directors in one festival. Coming only a few weeks after the conclusion of the New York Film Festival, where experimental work is relegated to a low-profile sidebar in a smaller theater, XENO emerges as a welcome venue for avant-garde film.
"We were kicking around the idea of doing an international version of the NY Underground Festival for a couple of years. Andy Lampert, NYUFF programmer, and I were increasingly aware of great underground work being done overseas. But we had our hands full fitting in all the great stuff we got from North American submissions," says NY Underground Film Festival director and XENO curator Ed Halter. "After the last NYUFF, BAMcinematek Curator-at-Large Adrienne Mancia [who founded Cineprobe at MoMA] approached me with the idea of doing an avant-garde/underground event at BAM."
The fest opens and closes with two of its more traditional features. Opening night's "Slidin' Bright and Shiny World" is an omnibus feature directed by three Austrian directors, Barbara Albert, Reinhard Jud and Michael Grimm. Ripe for domestic distribution, "Slidin'" combines accessible stories about teenage ambivalence without the nihilism often seen in Amerindies, but with a great soundtrack of euro-house and trance to drive the action. Closing night is not for the weak, "Nightfall" by Fred Kelemen is a rigorous, bleak, and well, very German film, about two desperate lovers living an Orwellian future. Kelemen combines extended long-shots on film with hand-held close-ups shot on video.
Digital video is present in all genres of the fest, features, docs and shorts, and with sometimes stunning results. Six of the ten features were shot on DV including three by Dutch director Ian Kierkhof. "Shabondama Elegy" is a drop-dead gorgeous if conceptually unoriginal treatise on doomed love among the pornographically inclined; "Roxy: No Other Drugs Required" is a highly experimental documentary about the influential Amsterdam nightclub, which may be too experimental for audience members who have never visited the club on their own; and "Beyond Ultra Violence: Uneasy Listening by Merzbow," a collaboration with Japanese noise composer Merzbow.
"International festivals tend to be very highbrow, high culture events. We wanted something more fun, and programmed only the most adventurous films we could find. I think people will be very surprised that there's such a vibrant do-it-yourself movement going on over there," says Halter.
The DIY aesthetic is quite visible in two shorts programs, one highlighting new British shorts and the other new Irish shorts. The Irish program leans more towards the formally inventive, like Moira Tierney and Giles Packham's elegant, double projection super-8, horse show flick, "Ride City" and Reynold Reynolds and Patrick Joly's austere "Seven Ways Till Sunday." The British shorts, perhaps unsurprisingly, are more eccentric and humorous -- in line with much new British art. For example, Arthur Lager's "Rape of the Arthuropords" is a nightmare vision of plastic lobsters run amok and Duncan Reekie's "Destroy All Mobsters" is a low-art/high-art manifesto about artists' ethics.
A recurring theme in many of the docs is popular music. The most insightful and entertaining must be "A Secret History of European Music Video" by Jim McDonnell, Craig Spencer and Mary Wharton. One part of what is to be a comprehensive documentary on the music video, "Secret History" contains incredible examples of brilliant music videos from the last 50 years. It cannot go unnoticed that the most inventive shorts of the entire festival can be seen in this program. Other music themed docs include "Goldie: When Saturn Returnz," John Akomfrah's video about the drum-n-bass star Goldie, and Peter Sempel's "Punk and Glory" paying tribute to Nina Hagen and Nick Cave.
"Our goal is to make this a yearly festival, a fall, sister-festival with the NY Underground, and each year focusing on a new part of the world," says Halter. "Next year we are already looking at films from Japan, where there is a mini boom in indie/avant-garde production, but little of it gets seen stateside."