What’s the use of the underground? If Google has any say in the matter, there are plenty of engineering, water, city planning and transport advantages to subterranean spaces. But when it comes to the big (and small) screen, the underground is rarely studied beyond the fact that it’s simply there. It fills a need for curators, filmmakers and audiences to find their own niche. But is that a bad thing?
The festival takes place in the Anthology Film Archives (www.anthologyfilmarchives.org) in the East Village. Founded 34 years ago, by current artistic director Jonas Mekas, Jerome Hill, P. Adams Sitney, Peter Kubelka and Stan Brakhage, who passed away last week, the church-like building worships at the altar of offbeat cinema. It pays homage to ‘established’ avant-gardists such as Maya Deren, Carl Dreyer and the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative, and provides a launch pad for new filmmakers, who get the chance to screen their shorts. So the location is the natural home for the New York Underground Film Festival (www.nyuff.com), which began as an alternative to independent festivals like Sundance with 60 films screened over three days in 1994, and celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
After all, it’s not like there is a wealth of talent out there in the independent sector getting cruelly ignored by L.A.’s axis of evil. Gone are the days when Tom DiCillo premiered Living in Oblivion (1995) at the Berlin film festival for a sold-out audience, or when Richard Linklater shot Before Sunrise (1995) in Vienna because the Europeans were falling over themselves to work with him. US indies were so hot in the early ’90s that they could even overplay their hand: writer-director Nick Gomez demanded such a high fee from European distributors for his poignant debut Laws of Gravity (1992) that most ended up passing on the film altogether.
Younger generations of filmmakers who look up to Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino seem to be inspired by those directors’ preference for a verbosity with which European audiences have little patience. Budding filmmakers aspire to the cult status of their heroes while forgetting that they need to have a story to tell first; if they’re lucky, the career will come later. During a NYUFF Q&A, one teenage audience member asked a director: ‘Do you think I should be a filmmaker?’. ‘What kind of film would you want to make?’ asked the director, to which the reply was ‘Like, something between The Matrix and Clerks’.
If the US indie scene does not appear to be producing new talent that could be of interest outside the country, then perhaps the underground might have more to offer. The NYUFF’s opening film The Weather Underground answers that question straight away. If you manage to cut through the self-congratulatory vibes of the über-hip crowd, you will find an uncynical festival team that has its fingers on the pulse. And coursing through the veins of the US underground is roaring dissent in documentary form.
While Bowling For Columbine is welcomed by mainstream audiences the world over, desperate to find out what makes the current US tick, there are plenty of other documentaries waiting to be discovered. They are perhaps not as eloquently and skilfully made as Michael Moore’s feature-length film, but in an age where the US media is essentially an extension of the White House press office, documentaries can be a powerful tool to raise issues ignored by other media.
The Weather Underground by Sam Green and Bill Siegel examines the rise and fall of homegrown terrorists like the Weathermen, who grew out of Chicago university activist groups. Like the much-lauded German documentary Black Box BRD by Andres Veiel, it studies the phenomenon of high morals and bitter infighting with a cool and balanced eye. Also shown is the 1976 film Underground by Emile de Antonio, Mary Lampson and Haskell Wexler – a series of interviews conducted in 1971 with members of the fugitive Weathermen. The documentary is just as eloquent as its university-schooled subjects, showing the broader context of their actions. For a moment, everything seems to make sense. But despite the smooth-talking justifications of being on the run (‘it was our decision, we weren’t forced into it’), the infighting depicted in The Weather Underground is already rearing its head, as the women complain about their male counterparts basking in the media limelight.
To those growing up in the despondent ’80s, activism seemed an insignificant hobby of previous generations. But now the circumstances that prompted the activist movement the first time around seem to have returned. Heavyhanded US authorities and corporations make their presence felt in every aspect of life. While the rest of the world was free to demonstrate, New York peace marchers were forced to stand around, fenced in by metal ‘pens’ and hyped-up cops. In the short Antiwar Update from Ohmsmedia (www.ohmsmedia.org) you can even see mounted policemen driving their horses into the peaceful, quiet crowd for no apparent reason. These images were not shown on national television because most mainstream media decided to ignore the home-grown anti-war movement. Even New York’s local station NY1 declined to report on the march, preferring to show repeats of a pre-recorded art show.
This today seems to be the real use of underground cinema in this country: to show what can’t be seen elsewhere, just as in the good old ’60s when the counterculture media blossomed. The Antiwar Update was shown as part of the Unamerican Film Festival (www.unamericanfilmfestival.com) segment of the NY Underground fest. Unamerican co-founder Esther Bell announced on stage that they will be showing their programme in Cannes next May for the second time: ‘they seem to like self-deprecating Americans over there’. Sceptic Yanks are not only welcome in France; they were also embraced during the latest Berlin film festival in February and they have screenings planned in Tokyo, Denmark and possibly the UK.
Their programme shown in New York consisted mostly of alternative newscasts by the Guerilla News Network (www.gnn.tv) and trailers for longer documentaries such as Life of Liberty by Konrad Aderer, which was about Middle Eastern US citizens being deported after 9/11. Metal of Dishonor by The People’s Video Network explored the tragic results of using depleted uranium in the Gulf War. Another film with strong cinematic qualities, thanks to its creative editing and black humour, is Gods, Penises and Pills by Josh Katcher – a personal essay about circumcision, the Middle East (‘can’t we unite in our refusal to eat bacon?’) and the pharmaceutical industry (‘this film has no harmful side effects’.) Katcher sets out to show what we are taught not to feel in a country where antidepressants and drugs for hyperactive children are routinely advertised during day-time soaps.
Some kids prefer not to be drugged into submission, like the subjects of the well-made documentary Between Resistance and Community, The Long Island DIY Punk Scene, which was shown in the ‘Useless, Resistance’ sidebar of the NYUFF. The harder the US enforces its mainstream on the masses, the more teenagers refuse to buy into the cheerleader version of the American way. Millions find refuge in music genres like nu-metal, punk and goth which allow them to celebrate ugliness – a safe haven for the awkwardness of adolescence.. The makers of this 44 minute video documentary, Joe Carroll and Ben Holtzmann, are hardly older than their 20-year old subjects, but they have made a surprisingly tight and well-balanced portrayal of kids trying to jam their way out of suburban hell in their parents’ basements.
If you want text-book underground, there are the esoteric Sixpack shorts from Austria and the obligatory porn director-turned-undie star (Joe Sarno). NYUFF regular James Fotopoulos showed a black and white feature about Mid-western sheep and non-conversations (Families), which could have been interesting if the actors expressing the non-sequitur dialogues had been less self-conscious. Like the Long Island punk scene, the underground circuit may be more interested in providing a warm, safe place for its members than producing singular talents that might thrive in the ‘outside’ world; but in this day and age, and on this continent, producing strong voices of dissent is worth its weight in gold.