Pushing the audience: the Sydney Underground Film Festival

The Sydney Underground Film Festival (SUFF, 14–17 September) is dedicated to cinema that challenges conventions, screening films that are narratively, stylistically and, perhaps, morally transgressive. Stefan Popescu, the Festival Director and Program Director, is passionate about broadening the cinema that people have access to. ‘Pushing the boundaries and challenging is really important’, he says. ‘I try to push our audience’. For its eleventh year, the festival is bookended by two Australian premieres that Popescu contrasts as ‘PG versus bordering on X’. On opening night, Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher bring The Found Footage Film Festival here for the first time, showcasing the strange discarded videos they have been collecting for almost twenty years. The festival ends with Kuso, which gained a reputation at Sundance for being so disgusting there were mass walk-outs.

SUFF seeks to program independent international and local films that won’t make it to a cinema. But this does not mean that they are all low-budget, lo-fi or unheard of. ‘We have titles we thought were huge but never made it to cinemas because they’re too conservative, concerned about making sure they sell tickets’, says Popescu. ‘We’ve had films from Cannes, we’ve had films from Berlin and South By Southwest – these are films that have played at major world festivals – it’s not the sideshow part of the film festival. Here, they are marginalised.’

The festival has secured Australian premieres for titles by recognisable filmmakers, like Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void in 2010, Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog in 2016 and Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno in 2014 and Knock Knock in 2015. Popescu also points to Oliver Stone’s South of the Border (2010) as an example of the politics of screening. Stone was widely criticised for his documentary on Venezuelan president Huge Chavez, South American politics and US media bias. Popescu recalls coverage of the controversy it caused at Venice – ‘as soon as I saw that I thought, “That’s going to be our opening night film because no-one’s going to touch that film, it’s going to die in the water”’. Not only did they have the Australian premiere, the Venezuelan ambassador came to present it.

This year, they have Kuso, the directorial debut of Steve Ellison, aka Flying Lotus. ‘Kuso was a no-brainer for us’, says Popescu. This experimental series of interwoven vignettes featuring stomach-turning imagery fits firmly into the festival ethos of challenging material. But Popescu insists that it is doing something special. ‘If you can sit through five minutes of it, it will change you’, he says. ‘It becomes a transcendent experience.’ He likens it to Story of the Eye (1928), where Georges Bataille ‘used the form of narrative to write his philosophies, he wrote story as philosophy. I didn’t really understand that until I read the book … It’s about transcending those ethical and moral boundaries and it just kind of erases or resets your mode of judgement – it lets you understand that you’ve been constructed’.

Popescu compares the phenomenological and affective nature of Kuso to Noe’s Irreversible, which was about ‘exploring the idea of violence and violent in every respect’. He continues that, ‘Salo would use those shocking scenarios, or even A Serbian Film – there’s a basis in reality then you move into those shocking moments. [In] Kuso, its whole reality is abject – there is nothing beyond disgusting, so the world that you enter is like a madman’s mind, it’s gross and insane from the onset, it resets your filmic reality … you don’t see the grossness after a certain point.’ He then quips, ‘once you kind of burst into the film, if you will, it’s actually really funny’.

As a festival dedicated to cinema that pushes the boundaries, they frequently come up against the problem of legality: are these films suitable to be screened in public? Australia has a long history of banning films. Some have had these decisions reversed, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Romance (1999), and others have been released in a cut version, like Pink Flamingos (1972). The current list includes Nekromantik (1987), Baise-moi (2000), Ken Park (2002) and A Serbian Film (2010). If the Australian Classification Board finds a film to ‘offend the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults’, it refuses classification, meaning it can not be shown publically. ‘Usually this has got to do with the meeting of sex and violence’, explains Popescu. ‘We have never had a single film banned, and I’m really proud of that because we have shown some really risqué stuff.’ He points out that they work hard to get there, especially before the restrictions were relaxed two years ago. ‘This year we’ve got stuff that would’ve been banned three years ago, like KFC.’

One of the most controversial films in the festival’s history is the Princess Diana documentary Unlawful Killing (2011). Popescu said that they chased this title for two years. Exploring the inquest into the death of Princess Diana, filmmaker Keith Allen insists that there was a widespread cover-up of the royal family’s involvement. It showed at Cannes, before being banned in the UK and shelved due to legal issues. Now it’s available on YouTube, Popescu points out, but at the time it was incredibly difficult to screen publically.

They also choose films that are challenging in form rather than subject. This year that includes Dawson City: Frozen Time, a documentary about a collection of unearthed early twentieth-century films. Popescu has a personal connection to Dawson City, where he shot his last two features. He remembers a dinner party there in 2007 when he was told about these films, which had been dug up from beneath a swimming pool. ‘We knew they story of the film and we knew that someone took the footage to do something with it, and we had loved Bill Morrison … we [just] didn’t know that Bill Morrison got the footage.’ Another surprising documentary this year is Where Is Rocky II? (2016). Obsessed with a fake rock that Ed Ruscha hid in the Mojave desert in the 1970s, filmmaker Pierre Bismuth hired an investigator to search for it, and two screenwriters to turn it into a story. ‘It kind of folds in on itself’, says Popescu, ‘it’s the most underrated film at the festival’.

When asked why the festival is important, Popescu insists, ‘We shouldn’t be able to exist … I don’t think there should be a Sydney Underground Film Festival, I think it’d be nice to get to a point where these sort of films were being played at every mainstream festival, and film was seen for what it is: it’s not real, it’s something on screen, and culture that incites discussion. But unfortunately, in Australia there is still a bit of conservativism that allows us to exist’.

Is this changing at all? According to Popescu: definitely. ‘There was a point we were actually a bit freaked out – it was the year that Nashen [Moodley] started running the Sydney Film Festival – the programing was just insane, I loved it’, he says. ‘I think there is a mentality that these are marginal films and I guess you’ve got to look at the gatekeepers.’ As gatekeepers of their own niche audience, Popescu explains that the festival has developed a strong core audience who trust the programming. ‘Early on, people were reactionary’, he admits. ‘People who say came in 2008 and got really affected by it, saying “I can’t do this again”, were back in 2011 going “Yeah, I’m in for a ride!”’


Image: Still from Liberami / Dir. Federica Di Giacomo

Kate Robertson

Kate Robertson has a PhD in Art History & Film Studies and has written about arts and culture for publications like the Atlantic, Vice, Marie Claire, i-D, Junkee and Senses of Cinema.

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