The Underground Is Dead. Long Live the Underground.

03/19/2008 12:00 AM |

They say you never appreciate what you have until it’s gone, but, in an ironic twist, fans preparing for this year’s New York Underground Film Festival know exactly what they have — and precisely when it’s going to go.
    About a month ago, as the long-outdated web site of the 2007 Underground Film Festival (UFF) was finally updated with info about this year’s event, it became a point of both celebration and mourning: “15th and Final…” the site read, indicating this would be the event’s last year. That said, the 2008 festival — running April 2-8 at Anthology Film Archives, and featuring some 14 features and more than 100 shorts — looks to be packed to the brim with promising projects. (The lineup and schedule can be found at
    Heavy Metal Baghdad, a documentary by Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi about Iraq’s only heavy metal band trying to keep the music alive in the aftermath of the American invasion, will open the festival on April 2. The Juche Idea, the latest from NYUFF regular Jim Finn, has been selected as the festival’s closing night film.
While talking to Finn about the challenging, genre-bending, explicitly political nature of The Juche Idea — a movie about a South Korean video artist who finds herself pushed to make propaganda during a visit to North Korea, her story told through an array of supposedly found footage — he explained that the UFF, throughout its history, has been something of a safety net for filmmakers setting out to push their material beyond the mainstream.
    “What I love about the Underground Film Festival, and what’s sad about its going under, is that, no matter what I was doing, no matter what choices I was making as a filmmaker — if I was pushing my work in a challenging direction or making conceptual decisions I hadn’t made before — I knew there would be a sympathetic festival,” he said. “That my work would get a fair hearing, and get access to an audience that would similarly approach it with open minds.”
    Finn is just one of many directors to relish the open minds of the average UFF audience. Ben Coonley is another. One year, he fused together a 3-D project with a live, in-theater performance. In other years, he created video projects designed in part to replicate and appropriate the audience experience of being in a big-box movie chain — designing Power Point slides featuring “underground trivia” prior to the feature presentation. This year, he’s turned his focus to movie previews, crafting a faux trailer featuring “beloved icons of subway advertising.”
    Coonley has delighted in the community that comes together every year for the UFF. “What’s always struck me is that this isn’t a group of people trying to get a deal for their work”, he said, “but that the festival itself is the goal. Each year, you see teachers who just want to share their newest projects and guys like me who just want to take risks and see if they work.”
    Jeanne Liotta, who has appeared before in the New York Film Festival — and at the Whitney Biennial — returns to the UFF this year with Observando El Cielo, a 19-minute film crafted over seven years as Liotta traveled the country filming the night sky (“you could call it astrophotography”). She also enjoyed the unique perspective of sitting on the UFF jury a few years ago. “Some people hear ‘underground’ and think that it means ‘trashy’ or describes films that are low-fi, or made on the fly,” she said. “But serving as a jury member, you realize the wide mix of movies this includes, basically anything that’s underserved or underrepresented. It includes documentaries and installations and experimental films — the underground is a bigger place than some might think, and it needs a festival like this to bring it to the people.”
    With many left wondering where these filmmakers and audiences will turn once the festival is over, two of the UFF’s co-directors, Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry, have devised what they think is a promising Plan B: A new initiative that will continue organizing underground events across the city. Their new non-profit organization, Migrating Forms, “will continue to produce a film and video festival in the spring, with the addition of year-round programming,” says McGarry.
    Some see the transition as nothing more than simple evolution — the natural shift away from what things were in the past century to what they will be in the here and now. “The nature of film, of filmgoing, is changing,” Coonley said. “So why would underground film be any different? Or the underground filmmaker, or the underground festival? It makes sense that things change, especially in this city.”