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Experimental, subversive, visceral…underground

Katerina Sakkas: Interview: Stefan Popescu, program director, Sydney Underground Film Festival 2015

Love Love
There’s a compelling array of features, documentaries, shorts and workshops in store at this year’s Sydney Underground Film Festival, which opens tomorrow at Marrickville’s Factory Theatre with Gaspar Noé’s explicit 3D chronicle of a youthful affair, Love (2015). The steadily expanding festival embraces the thought-provoking, experimental, subversive and visceral in a program whose generous scale is all the more impressive given the grassroots nature of the event.

Now in its ninth year, SUFF is one of the city’s longest-running specialist film festivals. Program director Stefan Popescu ascribes SUFF’s endurance, in a funding climate that doesn’t favour small film festivals, to a cultural shift over the past few years that has made Sydney-siders receptive to innovative art forms. “One of the things about our festival that sounds a little nuts but it’s true, is that if we didn’t have the community support, we couldn’t exist, because we don’t really get funding from anyone, so we have to respond to our audience…I think the general populace is becoming more adventurous: wanting to see art, giving performance art a shot, and it’s such a big city, I think [a festival like SUFF] is warranted.”

The festival’s eight masterclasses are part of a move by Popescu and co-director Katherine Berger to make SUFF into a multi-faceted experience. “One of our mandates is about creating community or culture around the experience…so we always try to have it in one location even though it ends up costing us more money that way. It’s good to get filmmakers involved but also educational institutions and fringe/cult film groups, so we try to bring them all together. If we have a ‘mentor’ festival to look up to, it would be something like [Austin, Texas’] SXSW: they’re not just a film festival, they’re a music festival; they have lots of media arts, which is something we would love to get into at some point.”

Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites
This year, two of the 19 feature films showing are Australian-directed: Rupert Glasson’s What Lola Wants, about runaway lovers crossing New Mexico; and the debut feature of Platon Theodoris, Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites, in which life takes a surreal turn for a sheltered Japanese translator. Theodoris, whose film premiered at this year’s Revelation Perth International Film Festival, has a comprehensive filmmaking background: “I think he’s gone from doing indie short films to commercials; sometimes he teaches, sometimes he does feature films; they’re all very different. I love directors like that who are jacks of all trades—they’ve run the gamut and learnt a lot. And Alvin’s quite amazing—it’s a gentle film, but it’s very well balanced. I would say it’s one of the best Australian films I’ve seen in a while.” Theodoris will lead one of SUFF’s masterclasses.

Though the directors don’t have a preconceived strategy for selecting SUFF’s documentary program, Popescu acknowledges certain patterns have emerged among the 19 showing this year. He and Berger keep an eye out for intelligent political content, something that’s evident in the pertinent tech-themed docos Deep Web (2015), Alex Winter’s investigation of the internet’s lawless recesses, and Killswitch (2014); Peace Officer (2015), about the increasing militarisation of the American police force; and Stanley Nelson’s eponymous history of the Black Panthers (2015). Documentaries about music (for example Salad Days, 2014, about the punk scene in Washington and Theory of Obscurity, 2015, about experimental art collective The Residents) are well represented, as are those about filmmaking, such as Kung Fu Elliot (2014), chronicling a hapless wannabe martial arts film star, and Raiders!, about friends who spent their childhood creating a shot-by-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark (2015). Save for the Canadian-made Kung Fu Elliot these are American documentaries.

Amir Taaki and Alex Winter on set of Deep Web Amir Taaki and Alex Winter on set of Deep Web
Courtesy of Deep Web LLC
Gaspar Noé’s distinctive style aside, most of SUFF’s experimental content is to be found in the shorts program—especially the LSD Factory session. Popescu, whose PhD is in experimental film, and Berger, an experimental filmmaker, try to program at least one experimental session per festival. “When it comes out in features we get really excited,” Popescu says, “but for the most part, yes, it’s in the shorts. And I guess experimental shorts are easier to fund, easier to produce as one person, filmmaker or cinema artist…We’re learning a lot about defining the ‘cinema situation’ as well, and it’s one of the hardest things to curate, that experimental session, because it’s not a video installation where people can walk in and out.”

SUFF caps off a fine selection of surreal, innovative horror features with its closing night thriller: leading US horror director Eli Roth’s Knock Knock, starring Keanu Reeves. Popescu welcomes Knock Knock’s blurring of genres. “One of our mandates is to ask ourselves, ‘What is the film doing differently? What makes this not just a horror film?’” He hopes the film will generate the “hothouse of debate” achieved by last year’s closing feature, The Canyons (2013), one of the festival’s biggest-selling films. “We want a film that will make people debate what they get out of cinema and this one certainly does that.”

Sydney Underground Film Festival, Factory Theatre, Sydney, 17-20 Sept

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. web only

© Katerina Sakkas; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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