The Chicago Underground Film Festival, the world’s longest-running underground film festival, turns twenty-six, bringing the now-to-be-expected sharply chosen bacchanal of shorts, fiction features and documentaries, along with the long-notorious parties, music performances and art installations. We caught up with programmer and artistic director Bryan Wendorf for an overview of why the event is “underground” rather than “avant-garde” as the final additions and corrections were being made to the program guide. “In the over two decades I’ve programmed this work, independent, experimental and underground film has changed enormously,” Wendorf writes in his introduction. “I’ve changed a lot as well. I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way, but I hope I have learned from them. It’s still a struggle to make all the events come to pass. What makes everything worth it, however, is the films.”
CUFF has nurtured a large number of shorts filmmakers from their early career onward. Tell me about three 2019 shorts that took you by surprise.
Three shorts that stood out this year? “2000 Women Named Stacy,” “The Eddies” and “Swatted.” “2000 Women Named Stacy“ is an experimental video by local artist Jessie Darnell. I don’t know much about Jessie or her other work, but I was impressed with this piece. It’s about forms of fetishism involving women being submerged in quicksand. The viewpoint of the piece is clearly feminist, but it seems ambivalent toward these fetishes it depicts, neither celebrating or totally condemning them. There’s a lot to unpack in ten minutes and I’ve watched it multiple times.
I first saw “The Eddies” by D’Angelo Madsen Minax at The Florida Experimental Film Festival in February. The video explicitly deals with a queer perspective on masculinity in the American South, and like Darnell’s video, it is both critical and ambivalent, forcing the viewer to think for themselves and not spoon-feeding them a politically correct reading they are expected to take from what is presented. Both of these films are both progressive and transgressive, and are exactly the kind of things I want to present at CUFF.
The third film that took me by surprise is another film that I first saw at another festival before it was submitted to CUFF. “Swatted” was a revelation in the documentary shorts program at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival. Like quicksand fetish videos, I was unfamiliar with the concept of “swatting” before this film. Swatting is an extreme form of cyber-harassment that exists in the world of online gaming, where false reports are called in resulting in SWAT teams raiding the homes of innocent victims. Since this takes place during online gaming sessions, you actually see examples of swatting happen in front of you. It was both disturbing and fascinating to watch.
Can you pick a filmmaker you’ve programmed before who has a piece in the festival that shows remarkable growth or change?
I’ve shown work by British artist Beatrice Gibson many times in recent years and she has always had a level of sophistication and maturity, but she’s topped herself with her “I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead.” Taking its title from a poem by CA Conrad, who appears in the film along with Eileen Myles, the video is Gibson’s darkest and most urgent work yet, responding to the election of Trump, Brexit and the rise of right-wing nationalism throughout the world. Gibson presents her fears and anxiety in a palpable way, especially as they relate to her young son and the world he’ll inherit. However, she also points forward never succumbing to despair. The film reminds me of Nick Cave’s lyric in the song “Nature Boy” that describes “some ordinary slaughter, some routine atrocity” and ends by saying “in the end, it is beauty that is going to save the world.” I included the piece in a program that became a tribute to the late experimental filmmaker Jonathan Schwartz and I think it complements Jonathan’s final film in a profound way.
While the fest programming would largely be approved in all sorts of professorial circumstances, the CUFF thing seems to be, here’s five days worth of stuff, come to lots if you can swing it. Where is the boundary between being curatorial and being academic?
I’ve always had an uncertain relationship to academia as it relates to experimental and underground film. This is probably a big reason I embrace the word “underground” more than “avant-garde” or even “experimental.” I have a lot of friends in academia and have a lot of respect for what they do, but I’ve always thought that CUFF shouldn’t require a degree in film studies for someone to appreciate what we’re showing. We started this thing with a punk rock, DIY sensibility and that still underlies everything we do. “Punk” for me was a wide-open thing that included everything from the Ramones’ simplicity to Throbbing Gristle’s confrontation and Brian Eno’s art-pop experiments. It wasn’t just music for me; it was more than anything else an attitude that said, “If you don’t like the options being presented to you then make new options.” Some films are more accessible than others but I don’t want any viewer to feel excluded. We try to mix it up as much as we can. We put narrative work in the middle of experimental films in ways that hopefully might provide some guidance on how to look at the more esoteric things. Of course, I don’t expect everyone to love everything they see at a festival like this, but I always hope that people will be curious enough to give things that aren’t familiar a try. CUFF is a showcase for a lot of different types of things and more importantly, for the way all those different things interact when placed next to each other. Come for the Swans documentary or the Manson film, stay for the structuralism, queer video art and political theory! Or you can do it the other way around. Expose yourself to something unknown, if you find it isn’t for you then have a drink at the bar until the next program starts.
The Chicago Underground Film Festival plays Wednesday, June 5 to Sunday, June 9 at the Logan Theatre. Full details at cuff.org. Newcity film editor Ray Pride will present the ninth edition of CUFF’s freewheeling “Bar Talks” with filmmakers and filmgoers at 5pm on Friday and Saturday in the Logan Theatre lounge.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.