The term ‘underground’ is slippery. It’s often bandied about when describing something no-one’s ever heard of, like a film that breaks a filmic convention or two, or a musician who plays small gigs and has an ambiguous sexuality. At best, they could be described as ‘shadowed’. The semantic difference is important. The true underground is dark and damp. Its walls are made of mud, shit and rotting flesh.
Welcome to the 6th annual Sydney Underground Film Festival. This is not your mother’s film festival. There are no touching family dramas and edgy European romantic comedies here. This is the domain of bestiality, murder fantasies, mind-warping substances and a dogged loyalty to experimentation. We sat down with Festival Directors Stefan Popescu and Katherine Berger to get the lowdown on the fight to stay independent, pushing the boundaries and even James Franco.
Portable: Can I ask how Sydney Underground Film Festival started?
Stefan Popescu: I guess it just came about because there wasn’t really anything like it. It was mainly that we were over not having our aesthetic sensibilities met. You go to festivals and it’s just always…. I mean there’s a lot of good films and stuff, but nothing super challenging. Anything that’s really out-there, really challenging, really provocative, really perverse, wouldn’t really get screened at a festival for the public. We see a lot of value in subversion, in perversion. And we make messed up films and no one would ever screen them, so it came from that too.
P: So how do you go about choosing the films that you show?
Stefan Popescu: Well there’s a few different methods. We try and retain a big amount of the program for people who just enter the festival, we try and keep a democracy. That’s another thing about festivals, we realise that a lot of festivals take people’s entry money and a very small percentage of that entered stuff gets screened. We made a real conscious decision early on to keep it as democratic as possible yet still keep it marketable. At least 40% to 50% is just people who enter via online, so a lot of it gets formed naturally with what comes in.
Katherine Berger: There’s no theme or anything.
Stefan Popescu: No, it kind of develops from what’s entered. We do try and source a couple of ‘mainstream underground’ for lack of a better word. So like Tim & Eric, they started off as totally indie and underground, and Harmony Korine, you can say he’s mainstream but at the same time he’s making stuff that is so out-there. We try and still have those sort of figures involved.
Katherine Berger: Our early festivals were all just purely on entries. We started the festival and didn’t even know how to actually do it. Now there is some sourcing that we realise you kind of have to do, unfortunately. Well it’s not unfortunate, you need to have some bigger titles because if you can get people who may not know a lot about film or really out-there stuff, at least that’ll draw them in and then we can expose them to all this other stuff. So it’s kind of like a way to get a big, wide variety of people in.