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

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

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.

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