Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Indiewire
April 1, 2008 5:52 AM
6 Comments
  • |

The Evolution of the Underground Film Festival: Changes at NYUFF, CUFF, BUFF...

A scene from "Heavy Metal Baghdad," opening the final New York Underground Film Festival on Wednesday. Photo provided by the filmmakers.

Fixtures on the fest circuit for many years, underground film festivals are facing major changes. Some events are closing down, while others are moving. In Illinois, IFP/Chicago will engage in a strategic partnership to head the Chicago Underground Film Festival (CUFF). Although the fest will primarily remain the same, it will move later into the fall to run in conjunction with IFP's annual filmmaker summit. But this isn't the only rift within underground festivals. The New York Underground Film Festival (NYUFF) is ending as it celebrates the launch of its 15th fest on Wednesday. And, across the river, the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival (BUFF) ended last year.

"NYUFF is ending in 2008 because we want to see it go out with a bang-we wanted to make sure it wouldn't fade, or disappear during an offseason," said NYUFF programmer Kevin McGarry of the closing New York Underground Film Festival, which will open on Wednesday with Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi's "Heavy Metal Baghdad" and continue through April 8th.

2007 saw the closing of Brooklyn's underground fest and Cinematexas, both prominent venues in the underground scene. But the organizers of these festivals claim that this in no way marks the death of anti-institutional filmmaking or distribution, but is actually part of an evolution in the cinematic landscape. They point out that new media technologies have afforded filmmakers countless opportunities in unregulated self-distribution and larger festivals have sprung up in recent years like SXSW, Slamdance and Tribeca, which programming more and more experimental works.

So what does this mean for the future of the small underground festival? More importantly, what does it mean for the filmmakers who rely on these festivals for exposure?

"What is 'underground' film anyway?" wondered Ed Halter, the former director of NYUFF and one of this year's special curators. "The term 'underground' is problematic because most people are under the misconception that 'underground, is synonymous with 'shock' cinema. 'Film' is another problem word as most underground filmmakers don't shoot on that format."

Halter admitted that the festival has seen its fair share of edgy films, but since the festival's inception in 1993 the programming has broadened from localized, low-budget films to a broader, more international selection. Halter explained that the content has also progressed over the years, moving away from "cinematic transgression" and into the realms of politics and art. Not just that, but more filmmakers are beginning to experiment utilizing multiple technologies such as those director Lance Weiler employed in his recent sensation "Head Trauma." The production featured a blend of film, theatrics, text-messages and e-mail, pioneering a new experience for the audience.

Ed Halter's latest project, Light Industry, is a series he co-founded with visual artist Thomas Beard, consisting of a weekly presentation which integrates various forms of media in attempts to explore new communication methods and ideas. According to the official website: "Through a regular program of screenings, performances, and lectures, Light Industry's goal is to explore new models for the presentation of time-based media." The series meets Tuesdays at 8pm in Brooklyn's Industry City.

McGarry and fellow NYUFF programmer Nellie Killian, are also due to launch the NYUFF spin-off, Migrating Forms. "We'll be working under the same non-profit entity and will continue to produce a festival in the spring," noted Killian. "One of the difficult things about running an "underground" film festival is that everyone has their own notion of what that should mean, and it can mean many things. We hope that with Migrating Forms, we'll be able to forge a unique identity, separate from whatever "underground" means and somewhat separate from the history of the festival. Programming will continue in the same vein as NYUFF, presenting challenging documentary work, video art, and avant-garde film."

But even with these new platforms many filmmakers still prefer the classic festival environment, perhaps because of the intimacy of the screenings and the excitement of the lineup. "I think what you're really losing here with the end of the NYUFF is the element of strong community rallying behind terrific underground and independent work," said filmmaker Josh Koury, whose film "We Are Wizards" is part of this year's NYUFF line-up. Koury was also the former programmer for the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival.

"When you come to a festival like the NYUFF, you get a very unique cinema experience," Koury added. "It's very different from larger festivals. It's much more intimate." Having said that, he admitted that there are many new outlets for filmmakers to display their work. He also noted that the definition of what's considered "underground" has changed over the past fifteen years as "larger festivals are accepting more experimental work, narrative films are using more experimental techniques and the documentary genre has completely changed as well."

"In our programming we're dealing with change by being as open to new things and ideas as possible," claimed Bryan Wendorf, senior programmer of the Chicago Underground Film Festival. "There has been some talk recently about how the underground is moving toward the gallery scene but I think it's important that these films get screened in venues where they will be seen by folks that don't go to 'high-brow' gallery openings."

This comes after the news that IFP/Chicago will take over the administrative duties of the festival while the programming aspects will remain the same. Wendorf, who will remain as the artistic director, continued: "The IFP/Chicago filmmaking summit will be folded into CUFF and our goal is to make this the leading independent film event in the Midwest. We're instituting some new programs that will be announced soon with the goal of long term audience building and education very much in mind."

Meanwhile, major distribution deals are extremely rare to non-existent at underground festivals and it's harder to draw new talent in an era where big festivals are making their "rags-to-riches" distribution deals more tempting. Also, Wendorf notices the recent generation of filmmakers are taking fewer risks with their work: "I've also noticed that today's crop of film students often have very little knowledge of the history and traditions of independent filmmaking, not to mention experimental/underground film."

Both Halter and Wendorf surmise that one of the reasons this change is occurring in New York is that it's a city already overly congested with arts events and film festivals, thus, prompting each to have an identifying characteristic that's exclusive to their event. In a broader sense the same is true for the international festival circuit: SXSW is known for being the festival for young directors and Cannes is known for selecting the "elite" of global cinema while Sundance has become the center of low-budget films which dream of becoming the next indie smash.

Thus, as experimental media moves beyond the big screen, the underground appears to be shifting concurrently. But the shift in no way implies the destruction of the underground and experimental, merely the progression of media into new territory.

The 15th and final New York Underground Film Festival will begin on Wednesday, April 2nd at the Anthology Film Archives. April 4 through 6 will feature a three-night retrospective comprised of highlights from the festivals past 15 years. For more information, please visit the festival website.

  • |
TAGS: New York
You might also like:

6 Comments

  • kinofist | April 3, 2008 2:01 AMReply

    Chicago Underground was the first film festival that I ever went to. I loved the films, the camraderie and the excitement of meeting my heroes, even when they couldn't be bothered to talk to me. I followed up CUFF with NYUFF and MIXfest NYC. These fests, not Sundance or Cannes, informed my idea of what a festival could be. They also helped propel me towards documentary film, as it didn't take me long to realize that the docs at underground fests were always at least pretty good, while the fiction was all over the map. I saw The Last Broadcast, Stoked, The Decline of Western Civilization Pt. III and Ladies & Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains - all at various underground fests.



    When it came time to start the True/False Film Fest, it was the underground fests that we looked to for inspiration and guidance. This does seem like the end of an era, but I'm sure that there is another generation out there waiting in the wings to storm in creat something new and powerful and truly underground.







  • kev5000 | April 2, 2008 6:06 AMReply

    I'm surprised these underground festivals lasted this long. I remember when NYUFF was suppose to be a backlash against Sundance. Years later I went to the festival and saw it was very limited in getting your film recogized. No one from the real film industry knew about it, mentioned it, or cared about it(exactly like what the film industry thinks of IFP). None of the films would ever be seen outside of their one screening day because the films never went to the next level of exhibition. Like going to video. People can say that the filmmakers were artist or not, but the fact is the outlet (the underground film festial circuit) these filmmakers were useing was of z-grade. Your film was booked with 200 other films for a one day screening. And one day screenings don't do anything except hopefully add to the marketing. If there is any. Whats even funnier is IFP taking over Chicago. Wow...talk about the politics of just getting your film accepted into a festival. Underground film festivals...good riddence...at least you tried.

  • ralph@film-program-cannes.coom | April 2, 2008 5:34 AMReply

    Yes I started making experimental films in 1963 and at that time we called it underground cinema because if we showed our films in the public we were always arrested for being obscene etc. Yes it is hard to beleive but that is the what it was, unlwful. Theater projects were busted for the same reasons, remember Michael McClure's "The Beard? Everytime it was preformed the police would be in the audience and arrest everone. Remember Lenore Kandall's "Love Book in San Francisco the publisher's book store outlet, City Lights was busted. All these endless cases ened up in long court cases which gave the now "Underground" film festivals wondering why they are called underground. Funny how it is never taught as though none of these film school teachers seem to know any of this history. Yes our older generations were arrested went to jail and went to trail. Sounds like an , Law and Order TV show with the filmmakers and arts the bad guys. That is why it is or was called underground like most unlawful activity it must be hidden to exsist. Me and most of my friends in San Frncisco took it for granted that we would face the "law" when we showed our films. Things are so mild now. Kenneth Anger with his trangressive films faced the coops often. Experiental, art and independent were then in many if not most cases unlawful expressions and subject to being arrested. I bet google even might have a rewrite of history.

    Ralph Ackerman, Founder and Director

    Film Program Cannes

    NY,NY

  • vagabond | April 2, 2008 3:20 AMReply

    I fell that these festivals are closing up shop because the majority of the young new filmmakers that are making films today aren't really looking to be artists they all want to be celebrities.



    i think underground film is about being an artist and being an artist means having a strong vision that won't be compromised. This is what independent film used to be but now that's been co-opted by the Napoleon Dynamite's and Juno's of the world. These new filmmkares are looking for the sundance, sxsw, tribeca, pipe dream of a festival hit, milllion dollar distro deal and then onto the next studios financed disappointment...



    Underground film can't be co-opted and seduced into the mainstream the way independent film was... and in this film biz-mess, if it can't be co-opted it must be choked... And it's that seduction of celebrity and the definition of success as defined by Hollywood standards that is killing off underground filmmakers and by virtue of that underground film festivals. Fuck capitalism and fuck money...



    But this is not just happening to film but to all the arts... Artists in NYC can't afford to live and do art in this city anymore. The weed of gentrification is choking out the ability to live lean and create art in this city. Something that was completely possible in NYC. And because it was possible to live cheap and think like an artist we got some great art and some great artists. And it's not just the artists that are being choked into thinking like capitalists in order to survive... it's the alternative art spaces that are being choked out of business as well. CBGB can't afford the rent. Charas the Lower East Side art and community center on 9th Street and Avenue B is sold to developers by the former fascist Guiliani. So where do alternative/underground/independent artist go when the venues they have are gone? To the internet?



    With $3000 rents looming over peoples heads the thought of creating something for the sake of expressing one's self becomes an absurd notion. Even if you want to think about being an artist in the purest sense it becomes practically impossible to do so with the cost of living rising putting the squeeze on you.



    i think that these festivals can't survive because the artists can't survive. And i think that those who have closed shop have made the right decision to not try and monkey wrench some marketing plan to go a little more mainstream with these festivals.



    art is the weapon,

    vagabond

    www.machetero-movie.com

    www.myspace.com/macheteromovie

    vagabond@machetero-movie.com

  • vagabond | April 2, 2008 3:19 AMReply

    I fell that these festivals are closing up shop because the majority of the young new filmmakers that are making films today aren't really looking to be artists they all want to be celebrities.



    i think underground film is about being an artist and being an artist means having a strong vision that won't be compromised. This is what independent film used to be but now that's been co-opted by the Napoleon Dynamite's and Juno's of the world. These new filmmkares are looking for the sundance, sxsw, tribeca, pipe dream of a festival hit, milllion dollar distro deal and then onto the next studios financed disappointment...



    Underground film can't be co-opted and seduced into the mainstream the way independent film was... and in this film biz-mess, if it can't be co-opted it must be choked... And it's that seduction of celebrity and the definition of success as defined by Hollywood standards that is killing off underground filmmakers and by virtue of that underground film festivals. Fuck capitalism and fuck money...



    But this is not just happening to film but to all the arts... Artists in NYC can't afford to live and do art in this city anymore. The weed of gentrification is choking out the ability to live lean and create art in this city. Something that was completely possible in NYC. And because it was possible to live cheap and think like an artist we got some great art and some great artists. And it's not just the artists that are being choked into thinking like capitalists in order to survive... it's the alternative art spaces that are being choked out of business as well. CBGB can't afford the rent. Charas the Lower East Side art and community center on 9th Street and Avenue B is sold to developers by the former fascist Guiliani. SO where do alternative artist go when the venues they have are gone?



    With $3000 rents looming over peoples heads the thought of creating something for the sake of expressing one's self becomes an absurd notion. Even if you want to think about being an artist in the purest sense it becomes practically impossible to do so with the cost of living rising putting the squeeze on you.



    i think that these festivals can't survive because the artists can't survive. And i think that those who have closed shop have made the right decision to not try and monkey wrench some marketing plan to go a little more mainstream with these festivals.



    art is the weapon,

    vagabond

    www.machetero-movie.com

    www.myspace.com/macheteromovie

    vagabond@machetero-movie.com

  • vagabond | April 2, 2008 3:17 AMReply

    I fell that these festivals are closing up shop because the majority of the young new filmmakers that are making films today aren't really looking to be artists they all want to be celebrities.



    i think underground film is about being an artist and being an artist means having a strong vision that won't be compromised. This is what independent film used to be but now that's been co-opted by the Napoleon Dynamite's and Juno's of the world. These new filmmkares are looking for the sundance, sxsw, tribeca, pipe dream of a festival hit, milllion dollar distro deal and then onto the next studios financed disappointment...



    Underground film can't be co-opted and seduced into the mainstream the way independent film was... and in this film biz-mess, if it can't be co-opted it must be choked... And it's that seduction of celebrity and the definition of success as defined by Hollywood standards that is killing off underground filmmakers and by virtue of that underground film festivals. Fuck capitalism and fuck money...



    But this is not just happening to film but to all the arts... Artists in NYC can't afford to live and do art in this city anymore. The weed of gentrification is choking out the ability to live lean and create art in this city. Something that was completely possible in NYC. And because it was possible to live cheap and think like an artist we got some great art and some great artists. And it's not just the artists that are being choked into thinking like capitalists in order to survive... it's the alternative art spaces that are being choked out of business as well. CBGB can't afford the rent. Charas the Lower East Side art and community center on 9th Street and Avenue B is sold to developers by the former fascist Guiliani.



    With $3000 rents looming over peoples heads the thought of creating something for the sake of expressing one's self becomes an absurd notion. Even if you want to think about being an artist in the purest sense it becomes practically impossible to do so with the cost of living rising putting the squeeze on you.



    i think that these festivals can't survive because the artists can't survive. And i think that those who have closed shop have made the right decision to not try and monkey wrench some marketing plan to go a little more mainstream with these festivals.



    art is the weapon,

    vagabond

    www.machetero-movie.com

    www.myspace.com/macheteromovie

    vagabond@machetero-movie.com