If you search ‘Stefan Popescu’ on YouTube, you’ll find a bunch of videos of a geriatric Romanian panpipe player. He’s cute, but he’s thankfully not the Stefan Popescu I interviewed for this piece. My Popescu is young and Australian and his instrument of choice is the camera. After attaining an Honours degree from our very own Sydney College of the Arts, all the while living in STUCCO, he hacked away at a PhD for four years. He came out of it with a book (Material Affects) and a feature film (Rosebery 7470), and soon co-founded the Sydney Underground Film Festival, now in its fifth year.
I ask Popescu what the difference is between an underground and a normal film, and where the word experimental fits in. Experimental film-making, he tells me, “is about having a look at conventions and playing with them,” like playing with structural elements, or physically manipulating the film. Underground, on the other hand, is more ideological. “Underground cinema has its roots in transgression and subversive cinema. You may not be scratching on film but you may have someone giving oral sex to someone else in a particular context.” Popescu describes John Waters’ Pink Flamingos as the ultimate underground film, ending as it does with the drag queen Divine eating dog poo. “It transgressed boundaries,” he says – and it gave the classification office one helluva headache.
But it’s not all about BJs and shit for Popescu. His Festival is an ethical task. One impetus behind the festival was the conservatism he saw in Sydney. “In a weird way, it’s because we haven’t grown culturally that we can still have an underground film festival. The peak of underground was really in the seventies. If you look at Berlin or New York, the stuff that we’re calling underground here is really standard overseas. It’s because they have an established history over time where they developed these cultural tastes and pushed boundaries.” The festival is an attempt to educate. “People have to see the value in perversion and in what are perceived as negative moral values. It grows culture. If you can expand your mind a little bit, you can open up ethically to other things.”
Popescu is optimistic about the power of film – “because people see it as entertainment.” But it’s not just entertainment: it’s a political tool. “There’s a greater effect – you show a film that will change people’s minds about the Iraq War, that will have an effect. You show people a film that changes people’s minds about sexuality a little, it may actually have an effect on the Iraq War.” Popescu’s articulate and passionate explanation of the ethics of the festival is impressive, as are the lengths he has to go to to make it all happen: selecting the program means watching up to 800 feature films in four weeks.
The festival’s opening night features a film called Super, which stars Liv Tyler and Ellen Page, stars of Lord of the Rings and Inception. This is hardly going to be an underground film, surely? Yes, it is, counters Popescu. It may have a big budget, but the content is ‘still horrible and subversive’. Subversion and transgression are the only constants with underground. “All of it’s about adventure, cinematic adventure. It’s not about reinforcing your romantic ideals. We’re not going to give you your rom-com, but if you want to go on a cinematic roller-coaster, we’re definitely your trip.”
Sydney Underground Film Festival takes place between September 8 and 11 at the Factory Theatre in Marrickville. Tickets are pretty cheap. Check out www.suff.com.au or follow @SUFF_Filmfest on Twitter.