From Video Activism to Charles Manson: the 11th New York Underground Film Fest
by Karl Beck
In its 11th year, the New York Underground Film Festival, which ran March 10-16, began with some significant changes; Kendra Gaeta has taken the helm as Festival Director while Ed Halter, former director is now the Executive Producer. The two were omnipresent at the highly successful and busy fest, which ran at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan's East Village. While each are committed to their own specific festival logistics throughout the year, Gaeta and Halter continue to fully collaborate (along with others) for the festival programming. With approximately 1,400 submissions, the final program featured more than 130 films that varied vastly in form, content and aesthetics.
Bobby Abate and Peggy Ahwesh's melodrama "Certain Women" made its North American premiere as the opening night film and world premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival, it is based on the populist writer Erskine Caldwell's 1957 pulp novel of the same name and will screen at MoMA later this month. Using primarily non-actors and location shooting, the narrative content of the film waivers in its believability and tone, frequently bordering on camp but with sentimental intentions. Reflecting on the McCarthy era during which the novel was written and the current climate in the United States, Ahwesh commented after the film, "When editing, we were very reflective, we questioned how far have we come, (the tone we chose) is a comment on the despair of the moment." In contrast to its bleak narrative content, the other half of the film's footage revels in scenic beauty of sunsets, landscapes, dawn, dusk, and night traffic. This proves to be the films strongest and most exciting feature. Shot on VHS and spy cam the color saturation and aesthetic of the particular video format (specifically surveillance camera) is frequently breathtaking and visually stunning, while contributing to the intended reflective and melancholy tone.
Indeed, sentimentality and sincerity were themes that festival executive producer Ed Halter cited as distinguishable and noteworthy at this years fest. "It seemed that this year there were films that could really make you cry," Halter said. Citing not only the opening night feature, but also Roddy Bogawa's closing night bio/doc hybrid "I Was Born But..." and indie filmmaker Sarah Jacobson's memorial retrospective.
Opposition to the war in Iraq and the Bush administration was another prevalent theme, especially in the documentary category. "About Baghdad" directed by Suzy Salamy, Maya Mikdashi, Sinan Antoon, Passam Haddad and Adam Shapiro follows Antoon, an exiled Iraqi writer who returned to Iraq in July 2003. Composed mainly of street interviews, and footage of war-time destruction, the film puts a much needed face and voice to the victims of first Saddam Hussein, and now, American imperialism. On the American side of the anti-war documentaries was the powerful and wild "We Interrupt This Empire." Made by a collection of filmmakers, under the title The San Francisco Video Activist Network, "Empire" presents a collection of street footage from San Francisco when the major bombings of Iraq began and protestors effectively shut the city down. Footage of high school students sitting down in intersections, massive groups forcing back police barricades, rioting anarchists, and reporters getting pies in the face, "Pies for your lies," are juxtaposed with interludes detailing the connections of the Bush administration's personal cronies and economic supporters (Bechtel, Halliburton) who are contracted for the 600 million dollar 'rebuilding' of Iraq.
Other noteworthy documentaries included Hrönn Sveinsdottir and Arni Sveinsson's documentary "In the Shoes of the Dragon." The very personal documentary follows Hrönn as she enters the Miss Iceland 2000 pageant. At times juvenile, the film is redeemed by the subject's sense of humor and the portrait that ultimately emerges of a young woman coming of age, realizing her own strengths, weaknesses, and ambitions. Three short documentaries, "Roswell," "Confederation Park," and "Mountain State" each separated by 5 years from whence the were made, offer an encompassing look at the work of filmmaker Bill Brown. Comprised mainly of rural and scenic 16mm footage, Brown narrates his film in a distinct prose reminiscent of New York poet Jim Carroll, achieving a distinct tone that is both thoughtful and calming. While Matt McCormick's "American Nutria" is a look at the Argentinean rodent introduced to the United States in the 1930's. Initially marketed and farmed as an alternate to mink fur, Nutria eventually made their way into the ecosystem and have most recently been labeled as an ecological threat. McCormick effectively presents the Nutrias' story as if it were a 1970's children's documentary, making it difficult by the time the film ends, to not find some cuteness in the orange-toothed rodent.
Friday night's screening of Richard "Big Pinky's" "The Best of TV Carnage," sponsored by Vice magazine, presented a best-of compilation of Big Pinky's obsessive compiling of 'bad' excerpts from thousands of hours of television footage. Think painfully awkward snippets of girls in bodysuits performing their dance routines, terribly ugly "80s looks, cheesy action films, and video about how to hunt, skin and cook your own squirrel melt (like a tunamelt). In between switching the reels, Big Pinky and Vice magazine founder Gavin McInnes staged a faux altercation, including verbal accusations and wrestling, with McInnes was able to shout out his typical and tired trademark shock comments of 'faggot' and 'nigger'. Though far more poignant and insightful was the audience member who kept shouting for the faux-fighting men to kiss.
Proving that the underground breeds brilliant comedy, "Wizard People, Dear Readers" played to a highly responsive and packed late night Saturday audience. Brad Neely, of Creased Comics, created a complete narration meant to be played over the first installment of Chris Columbus's "Harry Potter." A-la "The Wizard of Oz"/"Dark Side of the Moon" combo, Neely's commentary and dialogue syncs evenly with the events as they take place on screen. With few names and narrative elements left in tact, Neely manages to keep the 2 1/2 hour escapades hilarious throughout and it remarkably never wears thin. Initially made for his friends, the cult status and public awareness of "Wizard People, Dear Readers" is destined only to grow, raising the question of what will happen when non-understanding studio execs catch a whiff, regardless of Neely's not-for-profit, just for laughs motivation.
Continuing to grow in notoriety, the short film "Pretty Things" presented a best-of compilation drawn from the L.A. cable access show by Michael Lucid and Amanda Quinn. Low budget and very funny the sketch comedy incorporates primarily black comedy and on the mark caricature impersonations. "Hillbilly Doomsday" directed by Bob Ray, and based on a true story, begins as a joke but quickly escalates to an intense thriller as two Texans believe that Y2K has actually occurred and that it is essential for them to procure firearms.
Audience favorite "The Manson Family," directed by Jim Van Bebber, offered a wholly unique and unsettling retelling of the infamous maniac and his followers. With excellent performances on all counts, the film presents faux interviews set in 1996 and the 1970s. In conjunction with the 1996 interviews is a sub-plot about neo-Manson freaks that aim to seek revenge on a "Hard Copy" style producer they believe is defaming Manson. The re-enactments of the summer of 1969 are well crafted, and effectively build up to the Tate-LaBianca murders. Complete with orgy footage and graphically gory violence, "The Manson Family" avoids feeling exploitative and the artistic inflections instead seem appropriate to the subject and the Americana culture it evokes. Far more disturbing is the eerily real depiction of the new school Manson acolytes who were a later addition to the 10 year plus project, and whose presence make it shockingly clear that a phenomenon similar to those of Charles Manson could easily be repeated.
Also contributing to programming were numerous guest curators including Michael Bowen and Gary Huggin's Andy Milligan retrospective; and Dave Franklin, Jason Thrasher and Andreas Trolf's touring skateboarding compilation "Underskatement."
The 11th annual New York Underground Film Festival featured a remarkably diverse program of documentary, narrative, and experimental film and video. Festival Director Kendra Gatea was very pleased with the success of the festival, citing numerous sold out screenings and a large participation and presence of attending filmmakers. Halter said, with no arrogance and only pride, "Over the years we have built up a name for ourselves," Halter noted that major media coverage has also helped the festival gain in recognition and prestige. But even more important feedback came from the numerous filmmakers who told indieWIRE that NYUFF was a friendly festival and a great forum for filmmakers to see work by their fellow colleagues, mentors and peers.
[Karl Beck is a contributing indieWIRE writer, film festival guru, and Brooklyn-based freelance gadabout.]