On Monday night at Lagunitas Brewing Company’s Chicago Taproom, the Chicago Underground Film Festival’s “Untapped Fundraiser” will kick off a series of events in celebration of CUFF’s Silver Anniversary.
Featuring a raffle, a cash bar, a few words about this year’s poster, and the groovy twang of Chicago musical quartet Fran, the evening is tailor-made for the film aficionados who have helped turn CUFF into a Windy City tradition.
Other engagements in the works include an event with Full Spectrum Features, a tribute to the actress and painter Philly Abe, and a movie screening at Millennium Park.
CUFF was created by Bryan Wendorf and Jay Bliznick, who got the inspiration while working at Video Adventure, an old school movie rental shop in Evanston. The first year, the pair received about 300 submissions and hosted a select screening at the old Hotel Bismarck on W. Randolph St., which is now the site of the Hotel Allegro.
“We ran three days and we were only screening 16 mm and old videotapes,” recalls Wendorf, who currently serves as the festival’s Programmer and Artistic Director. “Now, 25 years later, we’ve been at the Logan Theater for five years and we’re showing DCP and 35 mm.”
Wendorf estimates that the festival received about 2,200 submissions this year. Each of them will be screened by multiple reviewers, and the final 125 or so will be presented during CUFF’s 2018 showcase, June 6 – 10 at the Logan Theater.
This year’s guest of honor will be Craig Baldwin, an experimental filmmaker who helped pioneer the “found” footage genre.
“Craig was an inspiration to Jay and I when we started the festival,” says Wendorf. “He was one of the few contemporary filmmakers we knew who was making underground films at the time.”
Baldwin was also a key player in establishing San Francisco’s prestigious Other Cinema film festival, which, according to Wendorf, “has been around even longer than CUFF.”
Wendorf’s appreciation for festivals around the nation is not only a reflection of his love for film, but also a boost to the community that makes CUFF relevant throughout the year.
One of its greatest fans is Nicole Bernardi-Reis, the director of IFP Chicago, which acquired the festival in 2014.
“I interviewed Bryan and Jay for PerformInk in the late 90s,” she recalls. “They were funny and their enthusiasm was infectious. It was just so great.”
Reis began volunteering for the festival shortly after she met the founders. Since then, she is pleased to note, several CUFF alumni have gone on to join the ranks of Chicago’s most notable filmmakers, including Miranda July, Joe Patrakus, and Jennifer Reeder.
“As filmmakers evolve and their visions evolve, we still have this place for them,
she continues. “We’ve been showing Jennifer Reeder’s work since the beginning.”
Wendorf feels that the success of these filmmakers helps to dismiss occasional misconceptions about the quality of underground film.
“People think that something can be sloppy and not well made, and that makes it underground,” he explains. “Or that it’s so esoteric that you need a masters degree to understand it. We’re trying to show that these films can be entertaining to a mass audience and expand peoples’ conceptions about what film can be.”
Wendorf is quick to add, however, that the emphasis on quality and accessibility is not meant to supplant the unique nature of films that are screened by the festival.
“I received one of the greatest compliments at CIMMFEST this year,” he says. “One of the organizers told me, ‘you’re not in the film programming business, you’re in the blowing peoples’ minds business.’”