Programming films from the underground

The 25th Chicago Underground Film Festival poster (art: Amy Davis: design: Dan Streeting)

The 25th Chicago Underground Film Festival poster (art: Amy Davis: design: Dan Streeting)

The power of
Bryan Wendorf’s taste
has grown to
a metropolitan scale
since he co-founded
the Chicago Underground
Film Festival 25 years ago.

Following up on an idea that he hatched in 1994 with Jay Bliznick, a coworker in a video rental shop, Chicago Underground Film Fest (CUFF) co-founder and programmer Bryan Wendorf picks the flicks that thousands of people come to see for nearly a week at the Logan Theater every spring.

By any measure, the festival is a success. Tickets to tonight’s opening film, Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records, sold out in a matter of hours. CUFF hosted a screening of John Waters’ Hairspray at Millennium Park last night. Parties and concerts supporting the celebration will pack wall-to-wall cinemaficionados in nearby venues for the rest of the week.

But Wendorf is reluctant to explain exactly what the genre “underground” means.

“It’s always changing, and if you define it too rigidly, that kind of kills it,” he says. “I know it when I see it.”

And see it he does. Besides sorting through thousands of submissions with a small team of reviewers every year, Wendorf attends similar festivals around the country and is a member of the jury at Slamdance.

Bryan Wendorf
Bryan Wendorf

Determining which films are fit for the program is something that “comes naturally.”

“We don’t spend a lot of time making sure that we’ve checked certain kinds of boxes,” he continues. “Even if it’s not an experimental film per se, there’s a sense of experimentation that anything I would call underground has to have: not being afraid of taking something too far, or what other people might consider too far.”

Trends in this year’s program include female directors and mixed genres.

Both the opening and closing night films were directed by women. Julia Nash called the shots for Industrial Accident, a documentary about the legendary Chicago record store and music label. Lori Felker helmed Future Language: The Dimensions of VON LMO, the story of late-70s No Wave artist who, according to Wendorf, “believes he’s a space alien.”

The films got their choice spots because they’re really good, says Wendorf, but he also believes that certain filmmakers are born with a natural edge for the genre.

“By virtue of not being white middle-aged males, you have one foot in the underground already because the mainstream industry is so dominated by those people,” he explains. “Hopefully that changes when you have exposure in a fest like CUFF.”



There are also nearly a dozen shorts programs that Wendorf and the team have customized to provide a unique CUFF mix.

“I’m not one to put all the experimental in one program and all the docs in another,” he explains. “When you put them next to each other, it’s like, alright, what’s the connection between these two? Making those connections when I’m programming is always a challenge and enjoyment.”

Industral Accident launches CUFF at the Logan Theater tonight. An after-party at Elastic Arts on Diversey keeps it going.

“We’re having DJ SJ, a Chicago artist who plays the Wax Trax catalogue and the other industrial dance,” says Wendorf. “Also some musicians, the transgender artist SuperKnova, and DJ producer Owen Bones.”

To view the full CUFF schedule and get tickets, click here.

Notes from Underground
A sampling of films from this year’s fest, with comments by co-founder Bryan Wendorf

Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records
“When I first moved to Chicago, I was at Wax Trax! all the time. There was no internet. Other record stores would have a small selection of punk and alternative, but you go to Wax Trax! and it’s all punk. The only way to learn about music and cultural stuff was to go to a place like that. It exposed me to the idea of the underground and film. I’m not really exaggerating when I say that I might not be involved in the CUFF if I hadn’t gone to Wax Trax in my 20s.”

Future Language: The Dimensions of VON LMO
Von Elmo was a No-Wave musician in New York in the 70s and 80s. He’s really out there. He’s one of those people who believes he’s a space alien. The doc is about him but also about Lori’s (filmmaker Lori Felker’s) experience of being sucked into his world of weirdness. She’s one of the most talented experimental underground filmmakers I know.

The White World of Deliborek
This film is about a Czechoslovakian Neo Nazi. You can tell certain elements have been reimagined and restaged. The audience has to work a little bit to determine whether it’s pure cinema veritae, but it still gets the real idea across.

Savage Youth
A narrative feature that appeared in Slamdance by Chicago filmmaker Michael Curtis Johnson. It was shot in Joliet, based on a true crime story about some young people who get mixed up with drug deals and things that go bad. It’s a straightforward narrative but it still has an underground vibe to it. It deals with the kind of young people on the margins like in Joliet who don’t have a lot of options. Based on a true story but it’s a narrative fiction.

Ape Sodom
A very weird comedy set in a post apocalyptic near future where society has collapsed but people are holding on to what’s left of civilization. Funny film but I think it’s also a metaphor about our current political situation that we’re dealing with.

Horsehoe Theory
a white trash militia member is involved with a like a gun deal and finds the guy he’s selling guns to is a member of ISIS. And it’s a comedy. I don’t want to spoil it.