A Look Back at the 23rd Chicago Underground Film Festival

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The following article was written by Nelson Carvajal. Check out his excellent articles and video essays on his official site and on Vimeo.

“This is the year of Jordan!” exclaimed filmmaker Amir George before a bar talk discussion on the state of underground cinema at the Logan Theatre during this year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival, which ran from June 1st through June 5th. The “Jordan” reference George referred to is of course Michael Jordan, and his original Chicago Bulls jersey number 23, which paralleled CUFF’s 23rd year as the world’s longest running underground film festival. There was an excitement in the air; in an age of over content-creation and endless online oversaturation of films, a niche movie-going event like CUFF seemed more vital than ever.

CUFF exists as a self-sustaining real life network of older, radical filmmakers exhibiting their works and also discovering the younger voices in underground cinema. And then, in between screenings, there are a plethora of social activities, from musical performances to after hour’s drinks at local establishments in the neighborhood. In other words, it’s an independent filmmaker’s wet dream; here is a fest that exists outside the boring guidelines on what a film festival should “be” or “show,” and diligently strives to find a more obscure cinema—for lack of a better term; something that altogether challenges the norms of what a narrative is supposed to be.

For example, George’s film “Shades of Shadows” is a collaboration piece with the soul band The O’Mys and it uses archival footage of various ritual sacrifices and acts of mysticism that illuminate the African diaspora. Eugene Sun Park and Sara Zalek’s “Spawned Seeds” jarringly presents a vision of kabuki theatre that looks to be rendered through the mind of David Lynch. Andrés Passoni’s “Campeón” seductively manipulates a greyhound dog race track meet to be an almost slow motion pornographic experience, punctuating in on the movement of a dog’s mouth and its body transformation in various stages of the race. A personal favorite entry is Carol Nguyen’s “This Home Is Not Empty,” which observes a small white cardboard house, and the room(s) inside. The ominous ambient score eventually gives way to a splice that takes the viewer out of the house and forces them to stare at handheld photos from the filmmaker’s own childhood—presumably in the actual rooms that the cardboard house recreated. It all climaxes with the cardboard house getting set on fire. It’s simple yet delicately woven together, so that it feels like more than just a visual diary. There’s a vision and a confession here.

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Inevitably, with a festival like CUFF, a non-festival goer might shrug and ask, “What is underground cinema? What does it all mean?” It’s not clearly defined. Many of this year’s entries are hardly similar to one another. For me, underground cinema is more of a spirit, a personality even. In the general arena of movies, “underground” is dirtier, sexier, more profane and ultimately naked with its voice and feelings. It’s hard to summate it as simply “off-kilter cinema.” A good example of what I’m talking about happened at the opening party at the Elastic arts center, where visual artist Bruce McClure was getting ready to perform his dual film projector piece—a film projection that permeated and literally shook to the trance-like thumping bass coming from the speakers. I had never seen a McClure live film performance prior to this and I’m glad I stuck around.

Why did I stick around? Moments before McClure went on, CUFF’s programmer and artistic director Bryan Wendorf spotted me finishing my beer and walked over and said, “You’re going to want to see this. It’s going to blow your f—king mind.” It was that kind of direct elation and unabashed glee to share something exciting and different—something that you simply cannot just watch on YouTube—that is at the core of why an underground film fest like CUFF must survive and endure. It provides an offline experience that makes viewers seek out new voices online after the fact; yes, a lot of underground cinema exists online, but how do you know where to look for it or what voices in underground cinema call to you? It’s in dipping your toe in the waters of CUFF that you’ll be see how far out into the waters of experimental cinema you’re able to swim in; and that sure beats sitting out on the dry, sandy beaches of conventional movies all day. That would be boring.

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