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Sydney Underground Film Festival: The Wrap-Up

Andre Fenby takes you through the good, the bad, the ugly, and the downright weird at this year’s Sydney Underground Film Festival

This year’s Sydney Underground Film Festival (SUFF) at the Factory Theatre exhibited a typically colourful range of films, from bold masterpieces to confronting trash bound to repulse as many people as they attract.

But SUFF isn’t just about screening provocative filth no one else will (although that’s a big part of it). It’s an ungainly behemoth animated by a group of unpaid enthusiasts, a mind-numbing marathon for a community of film nerds showcasing works by artists bored or unconcerned with conventional ideas of what a film should be. With this in mind, from Thursday, 5 September to Sunday, 8 September I undertook a gruelling stretch of back-to-back movie-going.

The Dance of Reality

It’s hard to think of a better start than Alejandro Jodorowsky’s autobiographical The Dance of Reality. Despite Jodorowsky’s 23-year hiatus from filmmaking, it sits comfortably alongside his early surreal works El Topo (1970) and Holy Mountain (1973), a testament to the integrity of the auteur’s vision. But The Dance of Reality is a more sentimental film, and Jodorowsky shifts seamlessly between sorrowful, reflective, silly and cheerful moods. Its beauty stands on its own even during its most impenetrable moments.

Jodorowsky dreamily depicts his own childhood as the son of a Ukrainian Jewish family in Tocopilla, Chile, alongside the transformative journey of his abusive father, Jaime, played with agonising conviction by Jodorowky’s real son, Brontis Jodorowsky. The director himself repeatedly appears to comfort both the audience and his younger self, musing, “all that you will be, you are already”.

The Dance of Reality is packed with Jodorowsky hallmarks: mutilated side characters, sacred excrement, expansive sets, vivid costumes, religious symbolism and psychedelic pilgrimage. Contemporary symbols, such as suited torturers, are modern spices in a timeless universe of religious iconography and mystic ideology. One memorable scene involves Alejandro’s mother, Sara, urinating on his father in an act of healing. Depending on how familiar you are with SUFF, this might strike you as totally gross or entirely normal. But in an indescribable way, it’s one of the film’s most sublime moments.

Seeking Asian Female

Seeking Asian Female follows Steven, a 60-year-old white man, and his obsession with Asian women from the awkward perspective of female Asian-American documentary maker Debbie Lum. After overcoming her initial disgust, Lum ends up a reluctant mediator in Steven’s relationship with Sandy, a fiery 30 year old woman from Shenzhen who agrees to leave China to marry him. The precariousness of the relationship due to their eccentric personalities inspires suspicion, pity, compassion and eventually hope as Lum gets increasingly involved in their odd situation.

Seeking Asian Female is the perfect example of the value of SUFF’s documentary program, which is uniquely placed to shed light on hidden aspects of life or show common ones from a different perspective. It reveals the people behind two stereotypes – the creepy white man with “yellow fever” and the mysterious Asian bride – by portraying their insecurities and questionable agendas alongside their better qualities.

It’s also a reflection on the documentary genre. Like her flawed subjects, Lum is in an ethical grey area, as stigmas and conventions make it hard to determine the correct path when it comes to standing back or affecting outcomes. This tenet is so prevalent that Seeking Asian Female could do without most of the expository narration. Still, a respectable honesty runs through it, supported by an unpretentious, handheld style that scrutinises every crevice of this Steven’s apartment and life.

Return to Nuke ‘Em High: Vol 1

Fearing things were getting too serious, on Saturday I saw Lloyd Kaufman’s Return to Nuke ‘Em High: Vol 1, my first foray into the low-brow universe of Troma Entertainment. The story is simple: an evil corporation floods a high school canteen with radioactive foodstuffs, resulting in a foul onslaught of over-the-top mutations, gross-out humour and fart jokes that would be wildly offensive if Return to Nuke ‘Em had even vague aspirations to quality cinema, which it doesn’t. Like a demented episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, spilling guts, exploding heads, toxic bodily fluids and genital horror savage, Return to Nuke ‘Em’s patchwork of character clichés over 85 relentless minutes.

Sometimes the film dips into more explicit American satire with the odd references to school shootings, the trial of George Zimmerman and other current events. While this hints at some kind of substance, any coherent social commentary is shrugged off as if it were as repulsive as the irreverent gore that saturates the film. It would be easy to see this soup of political incorrectness as a tacky excuse to indulge in bigoted stereotypes, but Return to Nuke ‘Em utilises its mix of laughably unrealistic as well as typically marginalized characters to reveal the comic horror underpinning American teen culture.

While SUFF’s solid line-up of features attracts deserved attention, the short film sessions are its lifeblood. It’s there that filmmakers distort their parameters in works that fly under the radar of traditional distribution channels and torrent sites. This year there was no animation section, a void filled by a popular albeit mixed collection of Australian entries, Ozploit. The more intriguing festival staple, LSD Factory, attracted a solid cohort of freaks looking to get twisted on films advertised to ‘mess with your shit’. The standout was Eric Patrick’s Retrocognition, a horror sitcom pieced together audibly from WWII-era radio dramas. Fragmented, scrapbook characters eerily reminiscent of The Sims match the unsettling dialogue. Domestic abuse, infanticide and a tense mood reinterpret nostalgia for the nuclear American family.

L’Apparition De Courbes Aurorales

But it’s the Free Radicals segment – described by festival director Stefan Popescu as ‘between cinema space and the art gallery’ – that that really tests the boundaries of cinema. Gregory Godhard’s Supernova was among the best, an awesome adventure through painterly images of an exploding star. The quick succession of stills coupled with minimal pans and zooms fire the imagination to circumvent outer space clichés. Nicola Walkerden’s Cinamnesia, which links the 24 vertebrae in the human spine with the 24 FPS of film, risks being more fun to think about than to watch, but is beautiful and visceral nonetheless. Lewis Klahr’s effectively moody film noir The Moon has its Reasons suggests rather than gives a storyline through empty speech bubbles and staggered movement of paper cutouts. Samantha Gurry’s L’Apparition De Courbes Aurorales officially won the segment, with its nostalgic collage of washed-out colours and home video-style images set to an emotive crescendo.

Of course, there were times when Free Radicals also pushed the boundaries of patience. Dirk de Bruyn’s WAP (White Australia Policy), for example, is a good concept, but is marred by a lack of creativity beyond fleeting associative imagery and jarring replays, largely using long chunks of dialogue from Rabbit Proof Fence or Paul Keating on talkback radio.

Nevertheless, by Sunday I was worried my experience had been a little too good. Having been tempted by SUFF’s better offerings, I’d missed out on the whole Best Worst Movie Bingo program. But SUFF wouldn’t be SUFF without witnessing a few legitimate failures, films that are both awful and completely unaware of it. Thankfully, Paul Schrader’s The Canyons (written by Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho) saved me at the eleventh hour.

The Canyons
The Canyons

The Canyons is a lifeless thriller about group of young, rich LA film industry players and their complicated web of money and sex and blah blah blah. It’s really not important. The edits and staging are awkward, the visual motifs laboured and the sets unvaried. Porn star James Deen’s pouty performance comes off annoying rather than menacing. Besides Lindsay Lohan, most of the other actors are boring and unbelievable. Characters sometimes stare directly at the camera, which seems odd and out of place rather than transgressive. Opening shots of abandoned cinemas and meta-statements like, “she kind of reminds me of one of those girls in the movies that’s being followed” carry the theme to little effect.

But the real culprit is dialogue. Never mind that a quarter of it is taken up by the word ‘babe’, or that another chunk is dedicated to blatant exposition. No director/actor combo could breathe life into lines like, “stop it, I Googled him”, or “nod for me, baby”. While at first the audience seemed to be laughing with the characters, after a silent struggle many began laughing at them. It was at this point I relaxed, knowing for sure I’d fulfilled my bad movie quota.

The festival lacked some of the things I enjoyed during my last SUFF in 2011, like insane Japanese cinema and technically challenging features like Kostas Seremetis’ Trilogy (2009). But the overall quality was so good it was impossible to be disappointed. Despite the danger of complacently screening anything loosely considered outside the mainstream festival circuit, in its seventh year SUFF remains one of the most engaging and diverse events in Sydney’s thriving film scene.


For more of Honi‘s SUFF coverage, see:

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology