The Sydney Underground Film Festival is a a Sydney cinephile institution, running for a week each September showing the best in underground and cult cinema at the Factory Theatre in Marrickville. The Festival runs from 17-20 September, and tickets and the full program can be found here.
Hi Stefan, I wanted to start the interview with the same thing that opens the Festival, Gaspar Noe’s Love. This is the Sydney premiere of a major Cannes title, how did the process of locking that down work? Where does that rank in terms of big hauls in SUFF history?
I read an article where I think Sydney [Film Festival] were announcing they were going to get Love for their Festival and then it fell through, so I was determined to get it for ours! Mainly because we screened his last feature a s well, Enter the Void, and that went down really well and was totally our target audience. And so we started chasing it, and luckily we already had a relationship with the distributors overseas because we did play Enter the Void so they kind of put us in the right direction. It was tricky to lock it down, and there’s still a lot of work trying to make 3D happen in a non-cinema space and stuff like that…
Knock Knock with Keanu Reeves at the end also adds some big name lustre to the program, do you notice a trend of bigger name actors doing more projects like this?
I think so – what we try and do every year is try and find those films, where there might be some bigger names in something obscure or weird or a bit different, just because it helps prop up the really indie titles that we have. Someone might watch Knock Knock and they might see other films they might want. There has been a trend, last year we played The Canyons which was a bizarre combination with James Deen and what’s her name…
Yes! The closest thing to a porn star in the acting world and the closest thing to an actor in the porn world and put them together. Similar projects stick out, yes.
How do either of those end points set the tone of this year’s program? Are there any themes or patterns in the different film strands you were particularly interested in?
There are patterns, strangely, like I mentioned at the launch that we didn’t realise until after we went to print but “Oh my god, we’re bracketing the Festival with a threesome at the beginning and at the end!” and when I thought about it at a deeper level and it’s kind of interesting. The Gaspar Noe is a European film, and Knock Knock American and it does really demonstrate how they both highlight and use sexuality differently. America is more okay with violence and sexuality is sort of condemned and has repercussions, while in Europe there’s more of a free spirit around sexuality and violence is frowned upon.
In the documentary streams, Peace Officer, Prison System 4614 and Thought Crimes all seem to touch on the growing apprehension and anxieties about law enforcement that’s touched nerves over the past few years. How much of the program is going for a sort of socio-political relevance to 2015, and how much is a matter of simply finding the best films available?
We always try and have some political films because we’re lefties ourselves, but absolutely – I mean Thought Crimes, Peace Officer and Deep Web and Killswitch are more related. They’re all talking about mechanisms of control, whether through law or through the internet or constraining otherwise. How law is constraining civil rights and freedoms. We felt it was very pertinent and important to this day and age because we’re always scared about certain things and then next thing we know there is new legislation in place to take away some civil rights and chip away at them.
Well we just saw that in Melbourne, that failed Operation Border Force was particularly relevant.
Oh? Please enlighten me, I’ve been busy with my head in the Festival, so didn’t see what happened.
Essentially the police said they were going to be checking visas on the streets of Melbourne that weekend…
Yeah, and there was an uproar and a rejection of it from Melbourne.
That’s crazy. There you go, it’s really relevant, I didn’t even realise. Thought Crimes was more about a lead up to – you’ve seen Minority Report – in the legal world, this premise of thought crimes that one day if legislation gets back enough, people may get done for conspiracy or even thinking of it. The guy was a horrible human being, for fantasising about this stuff, theres no doubt about that, but if that sets a legal precedent that effects everyone’s legal freedoms that’s a different issue entirely.
To switch topics, horror films invariably form a large part of SUFF, and there’s a correlation between horror and more extreme content and underground, independent filmmaking. How important is genre? Do you worry about programming too much or too little horror, for example?
We are a little careful, because we’re not a Horror Film Fest, so we try and have a sampler of different things. Usually Horror has to be doing something slightly different when we pick them, and that’s quite tricky. Whether it’s something its Party Massacre III which is sort of schlocky, pastiche of 80s horror films and that’s a bit of a trend now as well, or something like He Never Died where its not really horror, like pseudo horror, or thriller, those borderline genres. Like Bunny the Killer Thing, it’s just this absurd sort of fun, still quite gory, where a guy in a bunny suit goes around looking for pussy, its very ridiculous.
…and on the flipside is something like Raiders!, which is very much family friendly, and doesn’t feel out of place.
Well we have a lot of films about filmmaking – have you ever seen the shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark?
No, though I caught Raiders! at Melbourne.
Well they never finished it, and now they’re grown up and have the budget to do the last scene. There’s a few films about filmmaking – Raiders, Kung Fu Elliot, about a guy who thinks he is Canada’s answer to Chuck Norris, and is more like Canada’s Tommy Wiseau. It’s one of my favourite docos, I wonder how it will go, but its one of those gems you find. Also Back in Time, about Back to the Future, which I think is the 30th anniversary of. So we do have a few of those, I wonder if here’s any more – or yeah, the Fassbinder one, of course!
And there was the Leos Carax doco last year.
Yeah! So we do have some films like that, some political docos, some music docos which is another theme which has arisen, Obscurity and Salad Days and I Dream of Wire, which is more of an electro doco. Back to the poltical ones, we do have The Yes Men Are Revolting. Have you seen the ofher Yes Men films?
No I haven’t.
They’d do things like replace the voiceboxes in Ken dolls or GI Joe dolls and Barbies, and then place them back on to the shelves. That’s the Yes Men, the original guys did that. They’re basically art pranksters, and this is the third instalment – I think we’ve played all their films – and its quite interesting, because they take on big business and create some pretty crazy pranks that they could get arrested for.
So how much do you value these ongoing relationships, we mentioned before with Noe, and now with the Yes Men. Do you like the idea of being the festival that always plays so-and-so’s films and so on?
We do like to mix it up, but those relationships are valuable because we know our audience likes them, which is the most important thing, but also only as long as the standard is just as high. We wouldn’t just play a film because it’s a Noe film, it would have to still be a decent Noe film! We try and build on that each year, and that’s how programming starts. Now its our ninth year, so there are lots of relationships between films we played in the past and we can know what to expect. I guess you create a culture around programming in a curatorial aspect, I think it’s a nice thing to keep going. Unfortunately Gaspar Noe can’t come out this year, it was very close to happening. He knows we were the Sydney premiere for Enter the Void, but unfortunately it clashes with Toronto, or else he would have easily come here beause he loves to party.
Next time, I guess.
Yes! Next time we’ll try not clash with another festival.
Book him well in advance. Now I’d be remiss to not mention one of my all-time favourite films, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! What’s your personal history with that film, and what is your approach to retrospective titles?
We don’t have a history with that particular film, though Kath [Festival Director Katharine Berger] and I love Russ Meyer! And that era of sexploitation and “accidental feminism”, I guess you could call something like that. He didn’t set out to be a feminist, but invariably these strong women get characterised as such. We have played retrospective films, programs with John Waters and so on, some key figures in the cult and underground scene who we do like to celebrate. Sydney does have its own underground history, but we do like to connect with a larger history of independent of underground and cult cinema.
As you mentioned, this is the ninth year of the Festival, again without significant corporate sponsorship – what keeps the Festival going from strength to strength each year?
Really, it’s volunteers and the viewing community. If we didn’t have the community around it, well it’s a very community based prohect. As soon as people don’t want these films, stop volunteering and stop buying tickets, we’re going to have to shut our doors. Its kind of nice that it has survived because it comes from the community.
Last but not least, what’s your sleeper picks of this year’s slate?
Kung Fu Elliot is definitely one of my favourites of the docos, and…oh, Reality! Reality is amazing. That was going to be my second choice for opening night film, its that good. It’s basically Being John Malkovich on acid. It’s really well written and smart and witty and funny and the rest of it. Oh and one thing we didn’t mention, for the first year we’re having workshops at the Festival.
Right, how did that come about? Has that been a long-held dream of the Festival?
Yes, we’ve always wanted to have them. We got together with Sydney College of the Arts and basically built this cool program, so we got cool stuff like drone workshops, and gore, horror workshops and pyrotechnics. All these cool things we’ve always wanted to do, and we’ll definitely expand it next year.
Well on that note, do you have any plans for the ten year anniversary?
We seem to be expanding by a cinema each year. I don’t know how many more times we could do that. Maybe we could add another day or two, and another cinema. It all depends how this year goes, but it’s selling like crazy. Opening Night is almost sold out, it’s pretty nuts!
Well best of luck for the Festival, and thanks so much for speaking with me.