It’s the opening night of the 12th Annual Sydney Underground Film Festival (SUFF) , and I’m running late. The film was meant to start at 7:00. It’s 7:04 and I’m still on the 426, en route to Marrickville’s Factory Theatre. Speed walking to the entrance, I soon realise there was no need to rush. The doorman barely even looks at my ticket, and the crowd, which I could hear from a distance, is still in the beer garden. The line for the open bar is vast. I ask what time the film is starting, and no one seems to really know, or care.
The vibe of the night embodies what the festival has come to represent. It’s gritty, casual, subversive and crude, a valuable institution for independent filmmakers who fall just left of field. This year, SUFF continues its legacy as a fixture of the Inner West arts scene, showcasing both local and international talent across four jam-packed days.
A plane is heard flying close over the theatre as the crowd takes their seats for the opening film, Tim van Dammen’s Mega Time Squad, a sci-fi crime comedy set in small town Thames,New Zealand. The film, which is having its Australian premier at SUFF, has been described as “The Castle meets Looper.” The protagonist, John (Anton Tennet), is a henchman for the local gang leader Shelton (Johnny Brugh), who decides to take destiny into his own hands by stealing money from his boss. John discovers an ancient bracelet which allows him to time travel; each time he uses it, another version of him is created, producing a gang of Johns to come up against Shelton and his sidekicks. There is rarely a minute when the crowd isn’t laughing, induced by the dry Kiwi comedy that has become loved internationally with the success of films like Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek’s The Breaker Upperers (2018).
Following the screening, director Tim van Dammen and actor Jonny Brugh, who plays Shelton, come to the stage for a Q&A session that emulates the humour of the film—they both admit they couldn’t bear to sit through it and had spent the time at the bar. Both van Dammen and Brugh are holding workshops during their stay in Sydney as part of the festival’s extensive education program to share some of their wisdom with audiences.
“There are people out there who want to see your stuff. People go on about how hard it is to get your work out there, but really, you just have to make good work,” van Dammen said when asked what advice he’d give young filmmakers. “[Comedy] has to be honest to the people watching, and never condescending. And long takes.”
The festival ends on September 16 and features an array of workshops presented in collaboration with the Sydney College of Arts, ranging from screen acting to 16mm film photography, storytelling to film budgeting. The most anticipated event is the closing night film, Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, the much talked-about Sundance selectee starring Nicolas Cage. It’s already sold out, but the crowd on opening night is told of the the possibility of a second screening.
Seeing such enthusiasm for independent films on a mildly warm Thursday night in Marrickville is heartening to say the least. With the announcement of a $20,000 grant from the Inner West Council next year, there’s no doubt SUFF will continue to dig deeper to unearth the weird and wonderful, nurture up-and-coming talent, and challenge the conventions of what a film festival is thought to be.