While small independent film festivals gradually become fewer, the Chicago Underground Film Festival (CUFF), now in its twentieth year, remains a cultural outpost in part by refusing to define (even if it were possible) the nature of its programming. "The key is to keep being open to all possible ideas of what "underground" can mean and show the best examples of that work that we can," says Bryan Wendorf, CUFF's director. Could so simple a philosophy be what has allowed this member of an endangered species to survive into the age of YouTube?
CUFF, which opens Wednesday, March 6, is one of the only places where a certain type of film is screened for a public audience, according to Andrew Lampert, curator of collections at Anthology Film Archives. There are few venues left in which to show experimental and decidedly non-commercial work. Of course the Internet is where it can now be found. Filmmakers may gain an audience there "if they're lucky," says Lampert, but what they'll never have is the more vibrant forum of live screenings to engage with their viewers. And what other underground film festivals don't have (or didn't have when they were running) is a willingness to ignore politics in the construction of its identity. CUFF is not a place for queer film, black film or feminist film alone, but any one of them might be represented in the programming.
Jack Sargeant, director of programming at Revelation Perth International Film Festival, defines "underground" as being of the counterculture, but admits that the underground is always changing — by definition. He also notes the value of not limiting festival programming too much, and even expanding its definition to include some genre or indie or cult films because they "a) won't otherwise get seen and b) guarantee an audience."
In addition to a dogged executive director and staff, some of whom have for years volunteered their time, this widening of the scope of programming has been used by CUFF to great effect. Wendorf's goal as a curator, it seems, is to include work that is not so esoteric that it's alienating. One documentary in the 2013 CUFF is about nuns and clergy who burglarized draft offices during the Vietnam War and destroyed records. It attempts only to do what documentaries do: bring to light something historical that has been ignored. Also this year, in a very different attempt at broader programming, is Untitled, which incorporates the film projector itself and brings the projection out into the audience in a genre appropriately named Expanded Cinema.
One of the best and probably the most obvious definition of what it means to be underground also comes from Sargeant. In the case of film, it is work that is challenging and subversive, either thematically or aesthetically. The opposite of conservative. This year's A Body Without Organs is "one of the more daring and personal" films Wendorf has seen in some time. In this unflinching documentary, the director follows his family and how it has been affected by the removal of his father's cancerous colon. CUFF programming coordinator Lori Felker calls it perhaps the most underground film she has ever seen. CUFF is the first festival to accept the film for screening.
Then there is the short film The Stairway at St. Paul, part of the festival's retrospective celebrating its 20th year (Stairway screened in 2002). In it, the Dutch filmmaker records himself singing "Stairway to Heaven" phonetically backward while standing on the steps of Saint Paul's Cathedral in Amsterdam. He then plays the footage in reverse, sounding as you might expect as if he were the night's entertainment in the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks. Another retrospective is work curated by Amy Beste including Miranda July's Getting Stronger Every Day. Like other films by July, it's an intensely sentimental and symbolic, and at least partially narrative, work. The variety in the festival's program is as evident in the festival's programming over two decades as it is in this year's lineup.
July isn't the only filmmaker who has had work screened at CUFF and later gained fame, and Wendorf points out that often what is considered underground simply has not yet entered the mainstream. But, at least for a time, "you still have to seek it out," he says, which is what the festival really promotes. The underground film scene, locally and around the world, holds CUFF up as one of its crown jewels, and the community surrounding it is strong. In addition to the fact that it has lasted longer than any other festival like it, the annual event has borne fruitful collaborations, fascinating rivalries, lasting romances — and new fans.
CUFF's organizers, naturally, have the survival of underground film in mind. The myriad types of it to be found at the festival, the requisite festival panel discussions and the parties are not just meant for people in the scene. The festival's program of screenings and events has that air of celebration that anyone can relate to, and what CUFF wants is to make converts who will strengthen the community. Because, you know, new and exciting art contributes to society's vitality, and like any scene, it needs year-round participants. CUFF is a very, very important part of the underground film community, but Wendorf is modest: "Maybe people will come to CUFF to see a film because it's entertaining, and they'll see all of this other stuff, too."