Sydney Underground Film Festival was founded by Stefan Popescu and Katherine Berger in 2007. Ahead of its 2014 season I caught up with Stefan to discuss its roots, its aims and some gems from previous seasons.
What led to the creation of the Sydney Underground Film Festival in 2007?
We were just kind of bored with the film scene in general. I think we were just sick of (what we thought were) crappy films. We had very adventurous tastes and nothing was really catering to them, and we thought “we can start a film festival and then we can screen the films that we want to see”. Other people felt the same way so before we knew it we’d started our own festival.
I guess starting in 2007 you would have predated other Horror film festivals in Sydney, you definitely predated Sydney Film Festival’s Horror stream as well.
Yes, that’s right. I think Sydney’s kind of evolving – it could be an economic thing. Back then we were saying “wow, there shouldn’t really be a need for an underground film festival in Sydney” because Sydney’s a cosmopolitan city. I think things are definitely shifting, changing and evolving, and I think Sydney’s really embraced the festival now.
Have you found it hard to distinguish the Sydney Underground Film Festival from something like Sydney Film Festival’s Freak Me Out program?
We haven’t had a hard time distinguishing ourselves because we were sort-of catering to the younger crowd and they were kind of catering to the older crowd. I would say that this year is the only year that there was a big crossover in audiences. We have actually been working together – we’ve promoted their festival, they’ve promoted ours – for the past few years. I don’t know if that just brought to their attention that they’re missing out on a market. Up until this point they didn’t seem to have been interested in us – Nashen’s a lot younger, maybe that has something to do with it. I think that we’ll still go places that they wouldn’t.
Most definitely! Do you feel that there’s a unifying theme that runs through this year’s program?
There’s a sort of end-of-the-world, apocalyptic theme in a weird way I guess. You’ve got a documentary about living forever, then you’ve got Freeload which is an anti-capitalist documentary about bumming around, then we’ve also got a lot of short films that are apocalyptic – we actually created the apocalyptic shorts session as a result. So there’s a bit of that, but there’s also a bit of a Horror-Comedy theme going too.
There are a few fairly large features in this year’s program, probably most notably Eli Roth’s the Green Inferno, Ricky Bates Jr.’s follow-up to Excision, Suburban Gothic, and David Wnendt’s closing night film Wetlands. Have you found that Sydney Underground Film Festival’s been gaining a bit of clout overseas?
Yeah! Strangely I think we get recognized a lot more overseas than domestically – we have really good relationships overseas. I think it’s easier to sort of project what you want onto a festival internationally, but at the same time we get a lot of overseas guests and they really enjoy their time with us – probably because we operate a bit more like a music festival in terms of the social aspect of the Underground Film Festival.
I love that there’s always a nice mix of fringe and out-there documentaries, bizarre features, and shorts that might not have the opportunity to play elsewhere domestically in the program. Has maintaining a balance between the three always been an aim of the festival program or is it something that has developed over time?
It always has actually. Because we’re film makers ourselves and we don’t really get screened that often, and we can’t screen at our own festival, we have that empathy for other film makers. But also, it’s what we’re interested in. In the same way people like to seek out music that’s a bit unknown, we like to seek out films that are a little bit more marginal and might not get a mainstream release. It’s kind of just a trend that’s developed, that a lot of films we get never get a full domestic release, or if they do they never go to a cinema and it’s always just a small release – usually because they’re too violent, or too sexual, or too political. We screened Oliver Stone’s South of the Border one year; it was really funny because I had seen that documentary on the news. Before we selected it, it was at Cannes and it kicked up a stink and I remembered saying to Kath “that’s going to be our opening night film”, and she said “you’re insane, why would Oliver Stone want to screen with us?” and I’m like “it’s political, no one’s going to touch it. It’s about the IMF – who in their right mind would screen a film slamming the IMF when you’re getting government funding?” and sure enough no one screened that apart from us and a few other festivals.
I know lovers of cult content often have very niche interests. Have you found it difficult to balance your desire to screen specific types of films, with your need to ensure audiences will engage with the festival’s program?
Yeah, that is really tricky actually. It’s a really fine balancing act, and I hope we’re getting that balance right. It’s always difficult – I think it’s easy for a festival like this to scare people off. Over the years I think people are starting to get more and more what we’re all about because we have screened some more political films, and some human rights stuff, and light hearted stuff like Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. Hopefully that expanded our audience a little and hopefully they hung around and saw something else, and got that we aren’t just trying to just screen violence and pornography. It is a really, really fine balancing act. A lot of our audiences are real film buffs, but we do like to chuck in films that will get your average Joe coming for an adventurous watch.
Now, there’s a distinct lack of Tommy Wiseau in this year’s program – what’s going on?
(Laughs) Yeah, I know hey?! I heard he’s doing a TV series.
Yeah! I really want to get that TV series and screen it, so maybe next year. No “so good it’s bad” in this year’s program – I think his genius only comes around so often.
Definitely, it’s quite unique. Do you have any specific recommendations from this year’s program? Are there a couple of films you want to see do really well?
Definitely Why Don’t You Play In Hell?. I won’t mention the closing and the opening because they’re just implicitly good. Also Trailer Park Boys: Legalize This, I’m a big fan of Trailer Park Boys; and on a more political note, a film definitely of the time, American Arab – it’s really quite interesting. [Usama Alshaibi] is actually a film-maker who has screened at our festival before – he’s looking at this element of emerging racism with a particular focus on America.
There have been a lot of great more well-known features that have screened at the festival in previous years – Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void and James Gunn’s Super for instance – are there any smaller films or hidden gems from previous programs that you’d recommend seeking out?
One of my favourites – I haven’t actually been able to find it since; I really want to buy it – is Song Sung Blue. It’s a really compelling documentary but it’s a completely hidden gem – it’s the one that really springs to mind. It’s a really, really intimate and funny documentary about a Neil Diamond and a Patsy Kline impersonator – it’s right on the level of American Movie. You already said Super, I really liked Super…
It’s so funny to think he just made Guardians of the Galaxy.
Yeah, it’s funny that Super didn’t make it to the cinemas here.
Yeah… I guess it was pretty hardcore for what it was. I’m not sure a distributor would want to risk cinema distribution considering its R classification.
True, I guess that’s why we can make deals for a lot of the films we get.
That’s why you’re so important!
That’s right. It’s kind of a good niche too I think. It’s a reason to get out and find a community around it. The good thing is that you can’t find a lot of these films on the net or anything – it really is a situation where you do kind of have to go out there and interact with everyone. But that’s really half the fun, walking out and saying “Fuck! What did I just watch?!”
2014’s Sydney Underground Film Festival kicks off on the 4th of September with the Sydney debut of Housebound, and runs til the 7th of September, closing with the Sydney debut of Wetlands.