Taking place this weekend at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, MA, the fourteenth annual Boston Underground Film Festival is the latest in what has become one of America’s finest explorations into the bizarre, insane, and completely absurd. Founded by David Kleiler in 1998, the festival boasts an extended weekend full of features, shorts, ande special segments dedicated to the art of music videos. We know not all of our readers are able to make it out on such short notice, but if you can, the trip will be well worth the pains of travel.
To help BUFF promote their fourteenth year, and as a good excuse to kickoff our coverage of their awesome array of programming, UTG interviewed two of the people that help make the festival a reality. Enjoy the conversation, as well as a few trailers for features at BUFF, below. Those seeking tickets and further information, click here and visit the festival’s official website.
If you have a festival, or know of one we should cover in the coming months, please contact us.
UTG: Introduce yourself and your role in the Boston Underground Film Festival:
NICOLE: I’m Nicole McControversy, current Director of Programming, previous Managing Director. What that means is I’m responsible for building program blocks, negotiating with producers, sales agents, and/or the occasional distributor, and working with a team of programmers to put the best work we find throughout the year forth. I like long walks off of short piers, am indirectly descended from the Dalí lineage (hence my seemingly-melting face), and have a deep and abiding passion for things that challenge me. I also love to play that game two lies and a truth.
In all seriousness though, I’ve been at work with BUFF for just about five years and as all of us can attest to, we’ve all worn many hats as far as festival roles go. I’ve curated films, come up with elaborate systems of internal organization, balanced the checking account, and just run wild with themes and/or, more often, problem-solving. It’s really hard to nutshell-describe what I, or any of us, do. It’s an incredible amount of work, and very rewarding.
BRYAN: I’m Bryan McKay and I’m the Media Director for the festival. I’m responsible for the overall “look” of the festival. I design the posters, postcards, program guide, etc. Really though, titles and job descriptions are sort of irrelevant because everyone sort of does a little bit of everything around here. We definitely strive to run the most professional organization possible but at the end of the day it’s still very DIY. I’ve been working with these guys through various staff permutations since 2005/2006 when I was 18 and a college freshman and I’ve never done exactly the same job twice.
UTG: This year’s BUFF was (at least partially) funded through a Kickstarter account. Was this the festival’s first year using crowdsourcing? Also, what made Kickstart your go-to and what comments, if any, do you have on the process of using such a system?
NICOLE: This was actually our second year successfully raising funds via crowdsourcing. Kickstarter has become a very powerful brand, and more importantly, vehicle for getting arts projects funded. We had seen filmmaker friends and community activist friends successfully run campaigns and wanted to try our hand at it as we are providing a communal experience for the film-loving community in Boston/Cambridge. We’ve been really bowled-over with the show of support from our fans and friends in the film/arts community. It makes what we do feel deeply valued, and when you’re pulling all-nighters months out of the year to make a festival happen, the support, both financial and via social media, fuels us to keep working at this. For projects like ours, which would find a lot more governmental support abroad (i.e. Europe), we look to our fans to create the demand, which we then supply. Crowdsourcing is very synergistic, and that’s the way it should be with community-engaging art.
BRYAN: I don’t have much to say about Kickstarter but I will say that it’s scary as fuck not knowing if you’re gonna make it by the deadline. But we have a great audience and a lot of support from the community both here and just sort of the broader film world. I had a lot of faith this year that we’d pull through and we did not fail, so there’s a lot to be said for crowdsourcing. Sponsorships are still cool though. We’d still love to work with bigger sponsors in the future.
UTG: One of the things that makes BUFF unique is the added focus on the art of music videos (something we highly support). Can you tell us a bit about the decision behind highlighting this artform, as well as an explanation for this year’s choices?
NICOLE: It’s often an overlooked category in most film festivals, for whatever reason. Sometimes you hear someone calling music videos a commercial artform, and while there is some truth to that, we regard them as perfect little marriages of sight and sound, music and film. We’re not paying attention to commercial aspects at all here, just artistic merit. We were enormous fans of Mirrorball, the music video programming of the Edinburgh Film Festival, but that program seems to have been phased out. Beyond that, SXSW has a music video program…and nothing else really comes to mind.
Boston is such a music town, it just makes perfect sense to celebrate both local and international talent from this genre. We have a lot of wonderful music video directors in the area and this program is one way of drawing attention to, and highlighting their work. We also get a fair amount of music video submissions each year as word spreads of our dedicated annual programming. There’s a lot of momentum and enthusiasm for this; we feel like we’re filling a need.
As for this year’s selections, it’s a mix of submissions, local talent, BUFF alum, and videos that run the gamut in terms of style, budget, and concept. People constantly send us links to work that fits in with our sensibilities: Dark, moody, beautiful, madcap, visually arresting, sometimes even sentimental. There’s no formula that we follow. We don’t look for themes per se, but what catches our eye. What moves us. What would make for a great cinematic/theater viewing experience.
BRYAN: We all love music videos here. We’re all big music nerds in addition to being film geeks so music videos have always been part of the fest. This year I put together a program of hip-hop videos and short films called “King of the Trill” that I’m hoping will bring in a different audience than BUFF is used to. There’s a lot of stylistic and thematic crossover between the underground film world and the underground hip-hop world and I’m hoping that we can bring these things together in a new way. I obviously don’t know this for a fact but I’ve done a bit of research and I’ve never really seen a program like this anywhere. We’re just trying to do something different. And aside from hip-hop, Nicole always puts together a really, really solid program of videos and it’s always a lot of fun. We get a great turnout and she puts together a really fun, diverse mix of genres and styles. She has really eclectic taste and I think a lot of her personality really comes out in this program. And I mean there’s just so much innovation and exciting stuff going on in music videos. These days it really is a low-budget genre. It feels like a place where filmmakers can truly go wild.
UTG: The changing of distribution over the past few years has really impacted the amount of films audiences are exposed to. When it comes to picking films for BUFF, what criteria do you look for? Is there any preference given to genre, style, or distribution level?
NICOLE: Distribution, all levels of the film industry, and media in general, are in flux. The internet has made content far more accessible to audiences; it’s really empowered the artists and the appreciators while cutting out the middle-man. The criteria for what we show is not formulaic either. We are always looking for films, every waking moment. We travel around the world and sit in dark theaters, looking to be moved. That’s mostly what it boils down to: Is this film moving in some way? Did it take my breath away, did it make me cry, or laugh uncontrollably? Did it show me something I’ve never seen before, or did it show me something I’ve seen a million times over in such a unique and fresh way that it feels brand new? We show what moves us so strongly that we just HAVE to bring it to an audience.
We don’t give preference to budgets, genre, or distribution level at all. It’s all about the content. Some films that we show are quite polished, and some are anything but. We do look for signs that a filmmaker cares about his/her product; good acting, good writing, unique concept or execution. If the filmmaker doesn’t care about the product, why should the audience pay to give their time? Generally, our films are in the low-budget category and/or don’t find wide release/distribution, less by intention and just more by design. There’s a lot of interesting content coming from the underground, locally and internationally; lack of resources breeds incredible creativity.
UTG: Looking at this year’s lineup, which programming block are you most excited for and why?
NICOLE: This is like picking a favorite child. I’m terrible at picking favorites. However. King of the Trill is one of the shorts blocks that I’m really excited about because it weaves a really fascinating narrative, an authentic-feeling snapshot of underground, contemporary hip-hop culture. I love a lot of hip-hop music but am by no means well-versed or exposed to the culture enough. I just fell in love with everything in this program and immediately watched it a second time through. It’s fantastic. I’m also really excited to watch Manborg (and accompanying shorts Puzzleface & The Transmission) with an audience. That’s a really fun, absolutely pants-shittingly bedlam block right there. I can barely explain it to people: It, it’s, cyborg, man, lasers, Liu Kang. And God. Ken Russell is God. But seriously, all of this year’s programs are my favorite.
BRYAN: Do I have to pick one? Like I said I’m always really excited to see the music videos Nicole digs up. As far as features though, I gotta support the BUFF alumni. Happily Never After and Excision both started life as (award-winning) BUFF shorts, so I’m super excited to see them back at the festival with feature-length films. Definitely check them out.
UTG: Okay, now that we’ve put you through the ringer, we want to give you clear promotional space as well. Here is your soapbox moment, so what would you like to share with our readers:
NICOLE: Like many of the films we show, BUFF is of limited resources, pulled together by a core group of passionate people. Our success is determined entirely by the audience who supports us and we rely on them to spread the word. We want to both challenge and invite newcomers to come check out something they might not otherwise come across. Come hear a new voice, see a compelling story, be surprised by and rewarded for taking that chance. If you’re in the mood for joyful absurdity, see Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare at midnight. If you want to see something of a breath-taking, darkly comic spectacle, watch Excision. If you want to see a slice of life from an India you didn’t even know existed, check out Gandu. If you want to laugh yourself coarse, go see Klovn. Don’t even read what it’s about or see the trailer. Go in that theater blind and I promise you’re going to come out changed in some way. Just come, you’ll see.
Written & conducted by: James Shotwell (Twitter)