New York Underground Film Festival Invokes Spirit of Activism in Trying Times
by Joshua Sanchez
It's hard to believe that the New York Underground Film Festival, which ran March 5-11, is 10 years old. Ever the controversial presence at the East Village's Anthology Film Archives in the early spring, the festival has come a long way from its first year in 1994 which ran a mere three days and screened 60 films. The festival now runs six days and has garnered a reputation as a major showcase for new experimental and documentary work. A decade and 1,500 films and videos later, the festival seems as frisky as ever; pushing the boundaries of commercial filmmaking and celebrating the lo-fi, avant-garde, musical, provocative, sleazy, hilarious, and increasingly political.
The festival kicked off with the opening night East Coast premiere of Sam Green and Bill Siegel's "The Weather Underground," which premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival in January. The film tells the story of the infamous Weather Underground, a group of young, mostly white, student revolutionaries who sought the violent overthrow of the U.S. government during the Vietnam War. Centered on the lives of Underground leaders, most speaking publicly for the first time, the film paints a multi-dimensional portrait of violent political acts and how they affected the lives of Underground members then and now. The screening was bookend-ed by the showing of Emile de Antonio, Mary Lampson, and Haskell Wexler's 1976 documentary "Underground," which was shot while many key members of the Underground were still in hiding. The cautionary tale of the Underground seemed eerily relevant and contemporary set against the backdrop of impending war with Iraq and also set an unspoken tone for the rest of the festival -- in times of war, the underground becomes the voice of dissent.
Thursday night's "Unamerican Film Festival," a traveling group of short documentary and experimental works critiquing American politics, curated by Esther Bell and Ted Passon, began with a short segment of President George W. Bush's press conference, shot minutes earlier off of a television with a video camera. Bush's comments disregarding anti-war demonstrators only enhanced the power of the shorts that followed. The program highlights included Konrad Aderer's "Life or Liberty," following a group of Middle Eastern Americans detained and deported after September 11, and Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler's "Tulia Texas, Scenes from the Drug War," which investigates the arrest and imprisonment of 10 percent of the black population in Tulia, Texas by a corrupt police officer.
The "No War" stickers being passed out at the hospitality desk of the festival soon became impossible to ignore as political sentiment continued to be showcased in the strong doc contingent. Laura Dunn's visually impeccable "Become the Sky," offered a lyrical examination of the Texas energy industry. Part road movie, part political documentary, the film attempts to detangle the web of unadulterated capitalism and political power that has infiltrated the energy industry of Texas over the past decade. Dunn presents environmental decay of the Texas landscape and calls attention to the corporate scandals of Enron and George W. Bush's financial ties with the energy industry.
A more light-hearted, yet equally relevant and thought-provoking note, was struck by legendary underground documentary director Jeff Krulik ("Heavy Metal Parking Lot"). His endearing audience-favorite "Hitler's Hat" follows the reunion of the 42nd Rainbow Division and charismatic, Jewish-American G.I.-turned magician Richard Marowitz's account of his division's liberation of the Dachau concentration camp during World War II. The division was assigned to raid the Munich apartment of Adolf Hitler and Marowitz kept one of Hitler's top hats as a souvenir. The film illustrates the camaraderie of soldiers during times of war and provided an important subtext to the dialog going on in America about the war in Iraq. Showcased with "Hitler's Hat," Seth Grossman and Judd Frankel's uproariously disturbing "American Pork," examines the modern breeding techniques of the swine industry, including a riotous sequence documenting the collection of pig semen.
Perhaps the most talked about screening of the festival, and the anniversary centerpiece, was the highly-anticipated revival showing of Adi Sideman's documentary "Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys," which opened the 1994 NYUFF to a storm of controversy. Credited by NYUFF Festival Director Ed Halter as the film that "gave momentum to the festival," "Chicken Hawk" is the thoroughly disturbing and confrontational story of the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), a support group for pedophilic men who desire young boys and plead for lowering the legal age of consent. Among the subjects of "Chicken Hawk" include an ex-Mormon who actively cruises boys in the neighborhood and tells eerie tales of camping trips with his young companions, an ex-Bronx High School teacher who is fired for his association with NAMBLA, and a pixie-like New York City man who draws portraits of boys in the nude and distributes pro-pedophilia flyers on the streets. Aside from the obvious name-dropping of Michael Jackson, the audience seemed equal parts amused and frightened as the grainy documentary plunged into the depths of morality. Jon Nothin's "God Hates America" and Bill Brose's 1965 educational film "Meeting Strangers: Red Light, Green Light," which played before the original theatrical release of "Chicken Hawk," preceded the film and served as humorous background text for the feature presentation. "God Hates America" re-visits the protest of the 2002 NYUFF by Christian fundamentalist Reverend Fred Phelps, while "Meeting Strangers" reminded us all of the difference between "good adults" (teachers, policeman) and "bad strangers" (creepy old men hiding in the bushes) to hysterical laughter.
In the feature category, Jon Moritsugu's "anti-digital video" "Scumrock" effectively put the "lo" back in lo-fi. Shot entirely with analog Hi-8 video gear and edited on linear VHS, the film looks and sounds like 1982 all over again. Centered around two San Francisco artists, a struggling punk-rock bassist and a pretentious, aspiring filmmaker, who are uncomfortably approaching age 30, "Scumrock" tells a poignant story while relishing in the true aesthetic spirit of underground cinema. The film brought to mind underground classics such as Richard Linklater's "Slacker" but takes the look and feel of lo-fi a step further by fully embracing visuals that most filmmakers would find ugly and flat.
What would the NYUFF be without a little gratuitous sex? Not the festival we all know and love that's for sure. And sex there was as the "In the Shadows of Smut: The Outsider Sinema of Joe Sarno" retrospective began its three-night ribute to sexploitation director Joe Sarno. Beginning with the 1966 film "The Sex Cycle," the tribute attempted to illustrate Sarno's movies not just as Times Square skin flicks, but stylistically diverse explorations of the nature of sexual desire. And while the sex scenes in "Abigail Leslie Is Back!" created a dark vision of suburban desire, with actress Carol Adams' striking resemblance to actress Julianne Moore, the audience mostly laughed gleefully at the bubbly dialog and wild group sex.
The festival's experimental films and videos offered unique access to a wide selection from the avant-garde. Filmmaker James Fotopoulous' two feature-length films "Hymn" and "Families" both played at this year's festival to enthusiastic audiences. "Hymn" uses elements of painting, sculpture, sound, light and video of hardcore sex to create a challenging meditation on perception, art, and technology. The experimental short program "Signal to Noise" explored rhythm, sound, and movement in pieces such as Sandra Gibson's "Outline" which used hand stenciled film to create a visually stunning texture. Space, time, and environment were the theme in the "Spaced" program, as illustrated in Francesca Telenti's piece "The Planets," self described as "9 planets, 1 trip." Other highlights included "To Re-Edit the World," David Sherman's documentary film that chronicles the history of the Bay-Area avant-garde film scene, which was complemented by the showing of 1950's Bay Area experimental director Christopher McClaine's haunting masterworks "Scotch Hop," and "The End." Both films are rarities among experimental film buffs and were a treat for the audience.
Women were represented in force at this year's festival, in particular with the program "Girls Gone Wild" featuring Becky Goldberg's "Hot and Bothered," which explored female makers of for-women porn that celebrates their feminist values. Kerri Koch's "Don't Need You" documents the 1990's Riot Grrl movement of the Pacific Northwest through interviews with its key players. Goldberg served on the vivid panel discussion "Women and Features: Featuring Women" which also featured directors Helen Sticker ("Stoked") and Melodie Calver, whose film "The Cucumber Incident" also screened at this year's festival.
The panel discussions also included "DVD: Production to Distribution" a lively chat on DVD authoring moderated by filmmaker Greg Gilpatrick and featuring filmmakers Jem Cohen ("Benjamin Smoke") and Plexifilm's Gary Hustwit. The panel discussed the pros and cons of distribution on DVD, the technical aspects of authoring DVDs, and how this new technology will affect the future of independent film.
As is tradition at the NYUFF, the closing night film was reserved for the skaters. Rick Charnoski and Coan "Buddy" Nichols, directors of the pool-skating documentary "Fruit of the Vine," showed their new Super-8 skateboard documentary "Northwest," a road-movie that evokes the surfing classic "Endless Summer." The program included a selection of skate shorts curated by Charnoski and Coan that invoked the skater lifestyle in all its stoney splendor.
The dense variety of films at this year's NYUFF perhaps showcased the best of what underground film can offer. From the political to the shocking, the NYUFF should be commended for selecting a program that was as diverse as it was relevant.
[Festival winners are expected to be announced next week. For more info, please visit: http://www.nyuff.com.]
[Joshua Sanchez is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and student at Columbia University's Film Division.]