"Undies" Infiltrate Europe
by Michael Lee
A co-founder of the Chicago Underground Film Festival (CUFF) a few years
back, Mark Siska has struck out on his own with Euro Underground, a sort of
mini-CUFF on wheels, or "an international lollapalooza in a dark small
comfy room," as described by one American in attendance.
Siska's idea is simple: to bring American - and European - underground
films to European audiences. "Underground," as defined by CUFF and Siska,
is a pretty broad category unified mostly by non-commercial often
controversial topics and extremely low budgets - which often, though not
always, translates into a much greater emphasis on story and concept than
production values. They are in a sense what indies were before they became
a big-buck industry. So call them "undies."
This year's inaugural undie tour, a sort of mini-pilot version in three key
cities, debuted two weeks ago at at the Tilsiter Lichtspiele, a restored
1920's cabaret in the heart of East Berlin's as-yet-still-not-gentrified
"We got off to a kind of slow start the first couple days," said Berlin
co-organizer Stefan Brün. "It was the middle of the week, and we didn't
have much money for publicity, mostly free press and posters. Berlin is a
happening city. There are so many events to compete against." But the last
night, a Friday, drew a full house. Some even stayed for the whole program,
nearly ten hours long.
The American entries were a fairly typical CUFF mix, ranging from Susan
Jacobson's "Mary Jane's Not A Virgin Anymore" to Adam Davis' "Killing Time"
(one of the best student films I've ever seen) to work by George Kuchar,
always a CUFF favorite.
Into the stew as a sort of multilingual spice went undies from Russia,
Germany, Poland, and Bulgaria, including a healthy serving of Bulgarian
animation, and a special program of shorts from Prague by directors of five
different nationalities, curated by SahemSyours truly. Among the Prague
shorts, particular favorites were Pavel Jech's "Hit Men", a nine-minuter
building with picturesque sweetness to its final gag, and Samur Frigali's
"The Archaic Procession", a TV-length documentary about the installation of a
series of enormous steel-mesh sculptures by a Lebanese artist on Prague's
Manesuv Bridge, facing the world-famous 12th century Charles Bridge with
its rows of stone saint statues.
At Krakow's Klub Pod Jaszczurami, the response was better and
more consistent, which Siska says he expected. "It's a smaller city, but
very intellectual and receptive to things coming from abroad. And they love
film, especially ones that remind them they have enough resources to make
Next year's EuroUnderground will be a two-way exchange, with a spring
showing of European undies in Chicago as well as a similar EuroUnderground
sidebar at the regular CUFF. Siska also plans to expand the European half,
adding screenings in, at a minimum, Prague, Budapest, and a city in
Western capitals such as London, Paris, Brussels, and Madrid are notable by
their absence from this list. This is not for a lack of desire, Siska
insists, just simple economics: "We've found it easier to get sponsorships
in the East, probably because costs are so much cheaper. And people in
those places are real receptive to underground art. I guess they're used to
having limited resources and making do. It'll take time, but my dream is to
bring films to every country in Europe, and take theirs back to Chicago."
And, says Siska, it's also just a coincidence that the initials of the
festival are EU.
EuroUnderground '97 continues and closes Dec 11 through 14, at the Cinema
House in Sophia, Bulgaria. Drop by if you're in the neighborhood. Bring a
printout of this article and Siska says he'll let you in gratis.
[Michael Lee is a writer/filmmaker/former Trafika editor still stuck in