Chicago is a city of long-term institutions, in theater, in print and in film. It’s also one where founders often stay in control, sustaining their efforts one way or another. But post-pandemic, every field is in transformation, with live theatrical performance being one of the most volatile in recent months.
Nevertheless, some founders are holding on while aware of the passage of time. Bryan Wendorf, artistic director of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, has just turned sixty and has been looking back, but also forward as the scrappy effort, the oldest underground festival in the world, turns thirty, pivots to its own nonprofit status, and makes a move from its ten-year home at Logan Square’s Logan Theatre to the newly refurbished 107-year-old Harper Theater in Hyde Park.
You just told me CUFF has just become a nonprofit on its own, and that soon after, you received your first grant.
Yes, right after the 2019 festival, IFP Chicago made the decision to merge or dissolve and be incorporated with Stage 18 [independent film advocacy group] and create a new organization called IFA, or the Independent Film Alliance. That gave us all a chance to reassess things. And IFA decided that within their model for what they were doing, a film festival wasn’t something that they had the bandwidth for. So it reverted back to me. Which actually wasn’t a bad thing! I mean it was a challenge. For ten or maybe almost fifteen years, the festival was a program of IFP Chicago, and that’s about half of its life. Then we got hit with the pandemic, and we had to reconfigure the festival for online screenings for a year, come back slowly with a much smaller festival. So each year since 2020 has been a move toward back to the festival as it had been. Then last year we became an independent 501(C)(3), not-for-profit, federally and with the state of Illinois. And I started for the first time applying for grants on our own instead of working with an existing nonprofit, which has been a large learning curve, but also very satisfying. It means that we are now in a much better position to talk about ourselves as a festival, and control our own identity and communication about how the festival is perceived across the board. And I’m not saying anyone we worked with misrepresented the festival. But those organizations have their own agendas, their own goals, which weren’t always completely aligned with ours. They’re not out of sync with or opposed to ours, they’re just, you know—it’s much easier when you’re responsible for yourself, you have much tighter controls over the messaging of what you want to be. And the fact that we did receive this Illinois Arts Council grant this year showed that, you know, what we’re doing on its own and on its own merits has, has artistic value.
Or maybe artistic value isn’t the word because we’ve always had that! We’re applying for city and federal grants, too, and we hope we’ll receive some of those. Obviously with grant writing, the more you get, the easier it becomes. The NEA, it’s very competitive. So if the NEA sees you getting support on the state level, that is an indication that you might be more worth their consideration.
So that’s just the last year of a total of thirty years.
Yeah. Fifteen of those were working with IFP Chicago. I mean, CUFF was its own nonprofit entity prior to merging with IFP. But it reached a point where I was trying to do too much on my own. And the nonprofit element had fallen by the wayside. Since I wasn’t able to keep up on all of these things, I made that decision to merge with IFP. Things are in a much stronger position now. Our board right now is small and we are looking to expand it, bringing more diverse voices to the board as well as more skill sets that can help the organization and the festival grow.
And this year moving venues. You’ve changed status, but you’re also moving neighborhoods, you’re moving eras. The festival has a Wicker Park-Logan Square association.
Yeah. And that’s big! That’s a big change because the last ten years, we had been based in Logan Square at the Logan Theater. It’s the longest time we had ever been in one location. As you may remember in the early years in the nineties and mid-2000s, it seemed like the festival was moving every year. It was at a period where theaters were really struggling and we would be at a theater for a year or maybe two, and then that theater would fold and go out of business.
What theaters were they?
You know, the 3 Penny theater [where Lincoln Hall is now], the Fine Arts Theater [on South Michigan]. The first couple of years of the festival we weren’t even in movie theaters! The first two years, when we started things with absolutely no money, we had no way of renting movie theaters. So for those first two years we held the festival in hotels downtown, an idea that [co-founder] Jay Bliznick took from going to horror film conventions and using that as a model, convincing the hotels to allow us to hold the festival there and maybe they would make their money by booking enough hotel rooms from out-of-town filmmakers. For the first two years that worked pretty well, then we moved to the Theatre Building, which used to be on Belmont, which was a stage theater space. And we brought in film and video projection equipment for three years. But bringing in your own equipment into a space, any kind of DIY situation like that, has its substantial challenges on the technical side, bringing in video projection, bringing in film projection.
The first year that Penelope Spheeris came to the festival, premiering her latest “Decline of Western Civilization” film, a bulb in the projector blew about an hour before the screening. We had to send someone across town to Wicker Park to [projection expert] James Bond’s loft, where James had left a replacement bulb on his front steps. And someone had to pick that bulb up, bring it back to the theater and get it installed in the projector in time so we could have Penelope’s screening. So things ran late!
That was about the time that Jay had decided he had had enough of doing the festival and turned things over to me. I wanted to move things into actual movie theaters and try to be more like an actual film festival. So let’s see… We were at the Village Theatre, The Fine Arts Theater, the Biograph Theater, the 3 Penny.
A regular theater killer!
Yeah! You know, that was not lost on us. Then we had some years at the Landmark Century, a couple of years at the Music Box, a couple of years at the Film Center, even a couple of other years that were back in more DIY-type spaces. And then the long ten-year run at the Logan Theater. We could have returned to the Logan this year. When we originally planned this year’s festival, we were going to go back to a June date, like we had been doing for most of the years of our history prior to the pandemic. And the Logan was willing to have us come back, but they were not keen on the June dates, so we started looking into other theater options. Nothing was really working out right for us, and at a certain point, the challenge of finding a theater meant there was no way that we could meet the June dates. So, we made the decision to delay the festival to September. And at the very end of our search, we had one last conversation with the Harper in Hyde Park and the prices that they quoted us were attractive enough to make us decide to give this a shot.
Hyde Park is an entirely new neighborhood for CUFF.
Yes, it’s much further from where we’ve ever been, on the South Side. There was some consideration about whether our existing audience would be willing to follow us that far south. I talked to a number of filmmakers in Chicago about it and the general consensus was that the CUFF audience will go where CUFF is.
It’s a destination. It isn’t an event that depends on foot traffic.
No, I don’t think it is. I am hoping that being in Hyde Park will open us up to new people from the area who might not have come to the festival when it was in Logan Square. So we hope to get our core audience to follow us and some new audiences. The theaters at the Harper are smaller than at the Logan, but we’re using three screens and just about every program will get multiple screening times. There are a couple of special presentations that that isn’t going to work for. And because of logistics, the program with 16mm films is only to screen once, but in a primetime slot. It’s an experiment.
And you’re learning about a new neighborhood in the city of neighborhoods.
We are having to learn a lot, where to hold parties—we’re reaching out to businesses in the area, having meetings with Hyde Park arts organizations and businesses. There’s a record store in Hyde Park called Miyagi Records. We’re holding one of our afterparties in a space adjacent to their store. We learned, talking to them, that the owner of the store also has a side business doing street-team work, postering and flyering. So we hired him to distribute our posters and flyers! We’ve also met with the owner of Silver Room, who had been in Wicker Park for some time and now has been in Hyde Park for quite a while. So he’s been helpful in telling us more about the community and outreach there.
We’re doing a party at the Promontory. Coincidentally, we first reached out to the Promontory and we didn’t know who to talk to there. And then I remembered that last year, I ran into Jake Austin from the band The Goblins and publisher of the zine Rocktober. He’s a CUFF alumni, but he’s now the booker at the Promontory! I had forgotten this, but he gave me his card last year.
Auspicious all around.
Yes! We’re doing a Saturday night party on the border between Pilsen and Chinatown. So a little further north than the theater, but [CUFF producer Taila Howe] met a guy through her other job, who has been doing these underground art parties in Los Angeles and other parts of the country called ClusterFuck, so we’re basically doing a Chicago installment of ClusterFuck, an underground visual arts party connected to the festival on Saturday night.
It’s all different from ten years in Logan.
Yep, we had places that we had, besides the theater, pretty longstanding relationships with. Elastic Arts is a prime one, you know, years of CUFF parties, an organization that’s been very supportive of the festival and very easy to work with. I’m hoping that we can build the same kind of relationships with new organizations on the South Side, if this works and we want to stay in the Hyde Park area.
So everything we’re talking about is revitalizing CUFF as an organization, but programming still has the same approach?
We didn’t know any of these changes were going to happen when we were working on the programming. So that was never something we thought about, right? We weren’t programming the festival for Hyde Park. We were programming the festival.
It’s a Chicago festival wherever it lands.
Yeah, we’re also an internationally recognized festival. For as small and scrappy and often underfunded as we are, when I travel around the country to other festivals or meet programmers from other festivals or talk to filmmakers from around the world, CUFF has a reputation..
Thirty years does that.
Yeah, and thirty years of a very specific type of programming with filmmakers of a certain type who are making a certain kind of work and pushing boundaries. In recent years at the festival I’ve seen this fluidity of genre. About ten years ago, around the time we moved to the Logan, I stopped listing genre categories in the program book. You won’t see a film being described as a narrative short or a documentary, say, because it got too hard. There are these experimental documentary narrative hybrids, and that lack of categorization is one of the things that defines what I consider what the underground is in 2023. People making work that incorporates elements of lots of different things together and making uneasy or easy mash-ups of them.
How does the opening-night film reflect that? It premiered at the Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival), and you’ve described it as “a fable-like collage film depicting the psychotropic spectacle of American politics from 2016 to 2021.”
Yes, the opening film this year, “Hello, Dankness,” is the third feature by the filmmaking duo Soda Jerk, two sisters from Australia, based in New York. I met them around 2010, I think. I went to the Revelation film festival in Perth, Australia, curated by CUFF’s good friend, writer Jack Sargeant [“Deathtripping,” “Flesh and Excess”], and saw their work then. They were about to make a move to the United States. So Chicago Underground was the first place in the U.S. to screen their work, we showed their first feature, “Hollywood Burn,” in 2012, several shorts, and they made a trailer for the festival. Their second feature played in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art when Christy LeMaster from the Nightingale was programming there. But clearly their feature ties into ideas of what underground filmmaking in 2023 is, using digital technology to mash up pieces of existing Hollywood films of the past to construct their own narrative. They’re constructing a narrative that is a satirical retelling of life in the United States from 2016 to 2022 or twenty-one, from the election of Donald Trump through the pandemic, through the last presidential election and doing it in a really funny and insightful way. So it’s an accessible film, as well as a challenging film. [It plays at the Gene Siskel Film Center on September 13.]
It’s an underground film!
Yes, and it seems like the perfect opening-night film for the festival. And they have a long connection to the festival. And it’s building off a tradition of work that people like Bruce Conner had been doing in the 1960s. People like Craig Baldwin, Bryan Boyce—
The original culture-jammers.
Yes, this has been an ongoing strand of underground filmmaking way before CUFF’s existence. But technology has definitely allowed the form to evolve to ways that couldn’t have been done in earlier times.
The use of preexisting images in art, in détournement, is well-established, as are films shown at CUFF that take the work of others and then pee all over it.
All of these things have been happening at least since the 1960s in underground filmmaking. So it’s a long tradition that they’re taking it into new territory and you know, that category that’s not a category. “Narrative experimental documentary features”!
In “Hello, Dankness,” Tom Hanks plays a Bernie bro using clips from films with Tom Hanks, all the way back to “The ‘Burbs” and “Cast Away.” So I think it’ll set the tone for this year. And we’re all still coming out of these pandemic years, right? Things have reopened, people are starting to go out again, but things haven’t gone back to anything quite like what was considered normal, nor has the world not gone back to anything quite like what was normal. This may be a weird thing to say, but I think maybe the world has caught up to CUFF. CUFF’s always been playing with the weird and now the world has gotten weird.
And the film scene has changed, too. Chicago’s been a place where so many institutions that have lasted a long time have often stayed in the hands of the earliest directors: Barbara Scharres at the Film Center for so many years, Miloš Stehlik at Facets, Michael Kutza left Chicago International after half a century, Brenda Webb at Chicago Filmmakers, who’s turned seventy. There’s such a thing as personal legacy, but also there’s something about wanting to sustain what you and the institution have accomplished.
Yeah, I just turned sixty myself this year. So I’m definitely thinking about those things. This is one of the great things about working with Taila, who is younger and has…
What is her title and what is her role?
Her title is festival producer. She’s about to turn twenty-eight, her birthday is close to the time of this year’s festival. Her role is as festival producer, so she is right hand to me in every aspect of the festival outside of the programming. She does have some influence on the programming, but I’m the primary programmer. She does everything from hiring staff to determining where the parties are going to be, all of the operations and logistics and organizational things surrounding the festival, including choice of venues.
Another set of eyes a couple of generations down.
Yep. She doesn’t come from a film background, so she’s an event organizer and looks at things from that perspective. We’re hiring, we’re bringing in younger staff. A lot of the staff we brought in this year are from the area where the festival is moving to, to help us with the outreach of making the neighborhood that we’re moving into aware of us. There’s a mix of people, festival alumni, programmers from other festivals. I want to be able to keep the legacy of what the Underground has been in the past alive and teach that to a younger crew, and it’s a communication that goes both ways, right? There’s the younger generation of people involved with the festival teaching me about their ideas of what underground is in 2023 and me giving them history lessons and you know showing them what the festival has done in the past, what underground was even prior to CUFF’s existence, and not just John Waters and Jodorowsky and Doris Wishman and Kenneth Anger.
A younger generation may not know the art movements or specific texts or films that might be alluded to, but younger programmers and artists are magpies in their own way, what passes for a canon or a useful influence at any given time is gratifyingly fluid.
John Waters did that in a sense. He was taking inspiration from people like Herschell Gordon Lewis and these filmmakers who were considered trash. And he was making his own version of trash! John Waters also understood that the only way to really know good, bad taste was to also understand good, good taste. The 1980s and 1990s Cinema of Transgression filmmakers were a big influence on CUFF in the early days, and they weren’t as influenced by the more avant-garde art side of underground film. Richard Kern was not particularly influenced by Stan Brakhage, for instance. But as much as he was influenced by those things, he was influenced by grindhouse cinemas on 42nd Street in New York in the eighties, all kinds of exploitation, kung fu, splatter. One of Kern’s early films is even called “Goodbye 42nd Street,” which is him with his Super 8 camera, just filming the theaters, knowing that this era is coming to an end soon.
And now 42nd Street is literally ground-zero Disney. So what do you think, in the simplest terms, is the festival about in 2023?
What the festival intends to do is largely what it always intends to do, which is give a snapshot of underground filmmaking—however that term can be defined in the moment—and look back at the influences and look forward to where it may be going. That’s our goal every year! In terms of trends in things this year, I noticed that certain new technologies, as always, underground filmmakers are looking at whatever is happening technologically that they can exploit and interrogate. So we do have a few films this year that are using artificial intelligence. We have a short that was entirely scripted using artificial intelligence and all the camera angles and directorial decisions were also made by AI. But it’s doing it in a… it’s using, it’s almost a Samuel Beckett, like “Waiting for Godot”-inspired kind of absurdist piece.
So what are all the filmmakers talking about or afraid of?
There was a period in the nineties where it was a running joke of how many Burning Man documentaries would the festival receive in any given year! And you know, we programmed a few of them. But at a certain point, I made the joke that if you went to Burning Man, you would see this infinite regression of documentary filmmakers filming one another. There are definitely those kinds of trends, and they’re there to be discovered at this year’s festival.
The Chicago Underground Film Festival runs September 13 through 17.