SUFF revels in the weird and wonderful, the avant-garde, alternative and experimental, in low-budget, DIY, independent and guerrilla, in “black comedy, dry comedy, and Japanese batshit crazy comedy”1 – as well as many other micro-genres and modes of production. It exists to provide an alternative to mainstream film culture. It particularly responds to Australia’s commercial industry, which has long been based in Sydney, along with larger mainstream events such as the Sydney Film Festival.
Describing their ethos, festival directors Katherine Berger and Stefan Popescu write,
The Sydney Underground Film Festival is dedicated to nurturing an alternative film culture through the promotion of independent and experimental films. The festival seeks to support filmmakers (especially those who operate outside established film industry infrastructures) by providing a platform for exhibition, exposure and critical discussion.2
On opening night at this year’s festival, Berger and Popescu emphasised this as they mused over their experiences as festival directors. In doing so, they illuminated SUFF’s ongoing grassroots and countercultural spirit, proudly declaring that that the audience “are the festival” and celebrating the fact they are “not motivated by the evil bottom line.”3
Though they have partnerships with some local film schools and production companies, the directors position the festival as an event that has gradually gathered its own momentum. This is partly due to their innovative (and sometimes challenging) programming. As Popescu and Berger stress, they aim to program “unique, quality independent films that transgress the status quo and challenge the conservative conventions of filmmaking.” They write:
The festival is devoted to renewing local interest in independent and experimental film as part of an international underground film culture and aims to change an ingrained culture of cinematic complacency and revitalise an enthusiasm for cinema.4
Indeed, the audiences at all sessions I attended were engaged, lively and receptive to even the most difficult films – though I should note this is a festival that has delighted past attendees with films that literally offend the senses. In 2008 they screened John Waters’ Polyester (1981) with original scratch and sniff cards, and followed this up with an even more visceral “Odorama” accompaniment to Pink Flamingos (1972) in 2009. The scratch and sniff cards for these films are some of my most treasured possessions.
In true Waters spirit, this year’s festival was like a cavalcade of perversions. Held over four days, in five cinemas within Marrickville’s Factory Theatre, SUFF opened with Todd Solondz’s Weiner-Dog (2016) and closed with a remastered, restored and re-released Waters classic: Multiple Maniacs (1970). In between, they screened a rich and strange selection of films – 16 features, 20 documentaries and seven sessions of shorts. They also hosted six workshops, an academic symposium and a cartoon breakfast party.
Solondz’s Weiner-Dog was a fitting way to kick off. Described as “Au Hazard Balthazar in the burbs or a twisted version of Lassie for misanthropes,” this is a black comedy about a small dachshund alternately named Weiner-Dog, Doody and Cancer. Each of the film’s four chapters traces a portion of the little dog’s life as she moves from owner to owner. She begins with a young cancer survivor with deeply unhappy parents, and ends with an elderly woman with an ungrateful family and deep regrets. In between, she lives with a sad loser who just loves dogs, a couple with Down syndrome who love hotdogs, and a failed and resentful screenwriter played by Danny DeVito. Tracing the dog’s life through these despicable characters, Weiner-Dog is incredibly bleak but somehow incredibly effervescent.
While many of the feature films on the program had screened on the international independent festival circuit, I noticed a few interesting crossovers between SUFF programming and the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). Notable inclusions were Beware the Slenderman (Irene Taylor Brodsky, 2016), The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016) and Baskin (Can Evrenol, 2016).
Though these crossover films might challenge SUFF’s claim to be outside of the traditional festival circuit, I’d prefer to read them as part of a broader desire for content beyond the mainstream. They speak more to MIFF’s broad programming than to SUFF’s conventionality.
Throughout the festival, the programming was rich and diverse. For the most part, I followed the short film stream, capping off my days with feature films and documentaries. Stefan Popescu and Nathan Senn programmed the shorts, and while they were diverse, I found that themes of female sexuality and self-harm ran loosely through most of the sessions.
A highlight of the shorts was the Ozploit session, which is been a staple of SUFF’s short film programming since the festival’s early days. Described as an “outrageously diverse session of short films by Aussie filmmakers,” this year’s session featured shorts about pregnancy (Femme Enfant [Bonnie Forsythe, 2016] and Kingdom [Sebastian Ulrikson, 2016]), sexuality (Liberare [Vittoria Dentice, 2016]), self-harm (Glory Holes [Emma Varker, 2016], Homebodies [Yianni Warnock, 2016] and Happy With Bear [Yianni Warnock, 2016]), mould babies (Out of the Mold [Michael Moon, 2016]), and the perils of public transport (Mrs Metro [Aggelos Pantoniou, 2015]). However, the most interesting film in this session was Tim Egan’s Curve (2016), an incredibly suspenseful short about a girl clinging for her life on a curved concrete surface above an abyss. The visceral close ups of her bloodied, broken fingernails will stay with me for some time.
Films in the Love/Sick session were framed by the following phrase: “Kinky is to use the feather, perverted is to use the whole chicken.” They certainly lived up to this insight. Notable films within the session were a about a semen collector (The Collector [Jason P. Williams, 2015]), a sexual encounter with a garbage troll (Gwilliam [Brian Lonano, 2015]), father-son incest for pay (A Reasonable Request [Andrew Laurich, 2015]), a disturbingly shifting power-dynamic between an actor and a director (Audition [Lovisa Sirén, 2015]), a possessed tampon (Tampoon [Jeanne Jo, 2015]), and a girl whose true nature is revealed when she steals the vest off a service dog (Dog Bowl [Gordy Hoffman, 2015]).
This strange subject matter filtered through to Reality Bites, a short program of real-life narratives. This session featured films about sex robots (The Lover [Drea Cooper & Zackary Canepani, 2015]), comedy subcultures (Roast Battle [Jason Reitman, 2016]), mass shootings (Nothing Human [Tom Rosenberg, 2015]), subversive street art (Miss Me: The Artful Vandal [Mohammad Gorjestani, 2016]) and masturbation (Solitary Acts #4 [Nazli Dinçel, 2016]). Along these were more mainstream topics such as music (Hi, How Are You. Daniel Johnston? [Gabriel Sunday, 2016]) and pets (Pickle [Amy Nicholson, 2015]).
SUFF’s LSD Factory is traditionally the home of experimental films. Described as a session of shorts that “will mess with your shit,” this year it featured several intriguing productions, including a hand-manipulated found-footage essay on fear and revenge in commercial cinema, entitled Over&Over (Michael Fleming, 2016). Also notable was Stefanie Weberhofer’s Dissolved (2015) in which microscopic processes are documented and film is presented in a state of constant change.
Also notable was the WTF Shorts session, described in the program as, “What the f*ck were these filmmakers thinking?” A great example of this was Calvin Reeder’s film The Procedure (2016), which won a Short Film Jury Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. It follows a man who is captured and forced to endure a strange experiment. He is shackled to a bed in a sterile-looking facility and his left eye is held open by forceps. Though he is alone in the room, a screen illuminates when he screams. It instructs him to be quiet. He screams anyway. After a few moments, the procedure begins. Above the man’s bed, a tile in the roof is removed. A half-naked man is lowered through the gap in the ceiling. His bare arse approaches the shackled man’s face with slow precision, stopping only centimetres away. He farts. He farts in the shackled man’s eye. The half-naked man is slowly elevated. The shackled man is released and the film concludes with a shot of him running off into the distance. WTF indeed.
A further highlight of the shorts stream was SUFF Shorts 2007–2015, a retrospective of “cinematic genius and idiocy from the past decade.” Within this session, Soda_Jerk’s After the Rainbow (2010) was a standout. This film investigates the temporal dimensions of cinema by re-editing and re-imagining The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939). It begins where The Wizard of Oz does: with a black and white image of a young and hopeful Judy Garland. She returns home after a visit to a fortuneteller and is followed by a tornado. In the original film, the foreground of this early scene sees Garland running to the safety of the family home while the ominous tornado approaches. In After the Rainbow, the background of the frame is replaced by images of burning celluloid. This filmic gesture echoes the detonation of an atomic bomb. This is not Kansas as we know it.
Following the narrative of the original film, the storm lifts the house and carries it to an unknown land. When the house crashes to a halt, we hear applause. As Garland tidies herself and walks toward the front door, we expect to step into the Technicolor wonderland of Oz, but we are instead faced with an image of Garland as a disillusioned adult in A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954). This confrontation between the young, hopeful Garland and her older, cynical self speaks not only to the tragic lives of film stars through time, but also to a broader confrontation between the golden age of the cinema and the contemporary situation we find ourselves in: an era when film, the object of our affections, is literally disappearing.
Among the feature films, AAAAAAAAH! (Steve Oram, 2015) was one of the most memorable, imagining what it might be like if the entire population of London looked like humans but acted like primates. It was ridiculous but strangely moving. We Are the Flesh (Emiliano Rocha Minter, 2016) was also of note as an example of extremism in Mexican cinema. Set in post-apocalyptic Mexico, it follows a vagrant brother and sister taken in by a man claiming to be an immortal sorcerer. He pushes the siblings to perform increasingly more depraved acts in his quest for transcendence. Sex, violence, cannibalism, incest, urination and defecation ensue.
The other memorable feature-length film that I saw was Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi (Neal Broffman, 2015), a documentary about a student who was, for a time, suspected of committing the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. When Sunil Tripathi had gone missing earlier that year, his family set up a social media campaign to help find him. Following the bombing, this campaign was co-opted by amateur online investigators who used blurry images to accuse Sunil of being responsible. His family were harassed relentlessly on social media and this quickly escalated to mainstream media outlets reporting that Sunil was a terrorist. Documenting all of this, Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi is a moving critique of the 24-hour news cycle. By illuminating Sunil’s story, the film questions journalistic ethics in the age of social media. Coincidentally, journalist Jonathan Holmes (the host of ABC’s MediaWatch program from 2008–13) was in the audience. He provided incredible insight into the ways that Australian media outlets handled the case.
For the first time in its history, SUFF was confronted with issues of censorship this year, having to pull Rick Harper’s documentary Room Full of Spoons (2016) from the schedule. Room Full of Spoons was a behind-the-scenes look at cult favourite The Room (Tommy Wiseau, 2003), which included interviews with the film’s cast and crew. While The Room’s director Tommy Wiseau participated in the documentary, he eventually distanced himself from it and has since threatened legal action toward anyone looking to screen it. As Popescu notes in an interview,
Ironically, this is the biggest censorship issue our festival has ever had, and it is not from the government – it’s from the man who has delusions of cinematic adequacy, Tommy Wiseau. Over the past decade, the festival has tirelessly petitioned, negotiated, side-stepped legal pitfalls and government censorship to bring the most contentious and outlandish films to our audience, so it has hit us from left field to have to pull our first film ever in a decade. Nonetheless, we see the humour and irony in being censored for the first time in a decade by the man who is reputed to be one of the world’s worst filmmakers.5
Despite the intrigue associated with this controversy, what interested me the most about this year’s festival was that it offered a multifaceted approach to underground film culture, partnering with Sydney Film School and Sydney College of the Arts as a means of highlighting both practical and academic engagements with underground and alternative cinema.
SUFF’s Masterclass Program, supported by Sydney Film School, introduced participants to a range of practitioners and sought to nourish underground film culture by providing participants with new skills, tools and insight to help them with future projects. This year’s classes featured Gordy Hoffman, George Gittoes and Hellen Rose, Ben Ferris, a DIY filmmaking panel, a drone workshop, and a session where participants learned to experiment with 16mm film on a Steenbeck editing desk.
SUFF also screened a session of 16mm films by experimental filmmaker Richard Tuohy, which was followed by a workshop with Tuohy on experimental colour film processes. Events such as this link the festival to the history of experimental filmmaking in Australia, which really began with the Sydney-based UBU Film group in the late 1960s.
Incorporating an academic engagement with experimental, alternative and underground cinema, the festival hosted Re: Cinema, a screening and symposium curated by Ryszard Dabek and John Di Stefano. The aim of this project was to examine how contemporary artists and filmmakers are engaging with the idea of the cinematic. It consisted of a two-hour screening of video works, followed by a round-table discussion featuring Dabek, Di Stefano and Melbourne-based artist/curator Simone Hine. On the whole, the video works were outstanding. Many of them were found-footage works that isolated something unique about cinema and experimented with it.6 For instance, Kirsten Coleman’s You Can See Me But I Can’t See You (2015) slows down a short segment from Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). Within it, a solitary woman tearily gazes into the camera. In Paris, Texas this scene occurs in front of a two-way mirror. A male figure sits on the other side – he can see her but she cannot see him. Coleman removes the male figure, shifts the dynamic of the gaze and presents a two-way mirror as a metaphor for cinema.
Following works such as Coleman’s, the ensuing discussion of “cinematic essence” was very thoughtful. All panel members discussed the screenings as a means of mining the history of cinema through the image, or of travelling through film history via the medium. It is incredibly exciting to be in an era where digital technology makes this a possibility, and where the same technology provides us with an opportunity to redefine what cinema can be. Surprisingly, many panel members seemed sceptical of newer technologies like Virtual Reality which they considered to stray too far from the ‘cinematic’.
The festival closed with the newly restored Multiple Maniacs, in which suburban women are lured into Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions, affronted by puke-eating freaks and robbed by psychotic criminals. It was received with riotous laughs from the audience. The person in front of me filmed the infamous lobster rape scene on snapchat and sent it to all their friends. It was a fitting end to a strange but stunning festival.
On the whole, SUFF’s tenth year was enormously successful. However, the scarcity of Australian films in this year’s program was slightly concerning. Of the 36 feature-length films presented, only one was Australian. There were also three local documentaries. While the short film stream had one session devoted entirely to local productions, and one session focused on the work of Australian Richard Tuohy, the remaining sessions were largely devoid of local content. As a retrospective of the past decade of the festival and of underground film culture in Sydney, the SUFF Short Films 2007–2015 seemed to trace a shift in approach. An inward-looking beginning has given way to the contemporary outward-focus. Of course, rather than reflecting a shift in priorities, this could be reflective of broader shifts in film culture, marked by increasingly transnational flows and the dissolution of traditional markets. Despite this, I particularly appreciated this year’s focus on critical and practical approaches to underground cinema, the diverse mix of feature films, documentaries and shorts, and the festival’s emphasis on independent content that might struggle to find audiences elsewhere.
Sydney Underground Film Festival
15–18 September 2016
Festival website: http://suff.com.au
- Stefan Popescu in his opening night address ↩
- Katherine Berger and Stefan Popescu, ‘About SUFF’ http://suff.com.au/about/suff.html ↩
- Popescu’s opening night address ↩
- Katherine Berger and Stefan Popescu, ‘About SUFF’, http://suff.com.au/about/suff.html ↩
- Popsecu in Travis Johnson “Tommy Wiseau Doco Pulled From SUFF,” Filmink 13 September, 2016 https://filmink.com.au/2016/tommy-wiseau-doco-pulled-from-suff/ ↩
- A complete listing of the works can be located on the Re:Cinema website: www.recinema.net/2016/ ↩