Film enthusiasts across Sydney are clearing their calendars in preparation for the annual Sydney Underground Film Festival (SUFF).
Now in its 12th year, the festival celebrates independent and experimental films by bringing together an eclectic collection of feature films, shorts and documentaries from Australian and international directors.
The four-day programme also features workshops, conferences and question and answer sessions led by industry professionals.
As we wait for the lights to dim and the popcorn to pop, we sat down to chat with Festival Director Stefan Popescu about what we can expect from this year’s event.
For those who have not heard of The Sydney Underground Film Festival (SUFF) can you give us a brief run-down of the festival, its history and what we can expect from this year’s event?
I started SUFF with Co-Director Katherine Berger in 2007 as an antidote to a perceived decline in alternative film culture in Sydney. Cinemas were all moving towards Hollywood blockbusters and away from independents and no one was showing the types of films we wanted to see. So, we were inspired to create a space where we could screen films that were truly independent, original visions; films that are transgressive and boundary-pushing, in the spirit of underground cinema. Historically, SUFF operates in a tradition that is Sydney-centric instigated by Albie Thoms, Aggie Read, David Perry, John Clark and Paul Winkler in 1965 (at the time named Sydney Underground Films and later became UBU). The UBU filmmakers are our patrons and have handed that cultural baton on to us to explore the future potential of cinema in all it’s weird, wonderful and creative ways. Now in our 12th edition I don’t think all that much has changed. We still look to program the year’s most inventive and outré films that you just won’t see anywhere else.
Why have you returned to the festival?
SUFF is certainly an act of love that we feel compelled to return to each year. The festival continues to grow and I think it’s fostering that sense of community – seeing the same devotees coming back year after year but also seeing new faces come along thirsting for new experiences – that really inspires us to keep the festival going into the future.
As Director, you (along with fellow festival director Katherine Berger) have the opportunity to add your own personal touch to the festival. How do you feel you have done this? And what motivated you to make the decisions you did in your role?
SUFF operates with a small and dedicated team, so as directors we contribute to the programming of the festival, the marketing and ensuring the festival’s integrity and artistic vision. Programme-wise, like any festival worth its salt, we’re guided by our values (showcasing truly creative and alternate cinema) and audience demand. These considerations obviously extend to the organisations that we choose to partner and how we promote the festival too. When you’re so hands-on it becomes inevitable that there is a curatorial signature that’s imprinted upon the festival and each year we aspire to make the programme more adventurous, innovative and fun than the last.
'Behind The Curve'
The festival’s mission statement says it aims to promote interest in independent and experimental films and support filmmakers who push the boundaries of convention. How do you think the festival does this? What impact do you think it has on filmmakers and moviegoers alike?
First and foremost, SUFF prides itself on being a discovery festival, providing a platform for filmmakers whose amazing works (limited only by cultural capital) would not otherwise be seen. Through screening at SUFF, independent and experimental filmmakers routinely gain selection at other festivals, and secure local distribution deals, which means their films will be proliferated more widely. We hope this changes the culture for filmmakers and audiences alike, so that not only will more interesting films be made but the wider moviegoing public will have greater access to a more diverse range of films, beyond the mindless remakes, reboots and sequels.
What are some of the film genres featured in this year’s festival? How important is it to have a mix of genres and national/international films featured?
Programming a breadth of different films is always very important to us. This year, we’ve got a killer line-up of horror films – with slashers, gore, torture porn, monster movies and films about the paranormal. For those looking for something a bit lighter, there’s also some very funny films; millennial rom-coms, mumblecore, stoner comedies and films so patently weird that you won’t help but laugh. There are also thrillers, fantasies, adventure films, documentaries and experimental pieces – every genre you can imagine right to the downright unclassifiable. Ensuring this mix is important, not only so that we can be inclusive of as wide an audience as possible but so that we can also support a diversity of voices at the festival.
While many of the films in the programme are from established directors and star well-known actors there are also entries from rising directors/stars. In your opinion, how important is the festival for new filmmakers? What role does it play in supporting those new to the industry and what impact do you think this has on their development within the industry?
One of SUFF’s main goals is to serve as an incubator for up-and-coming, new talents. This year we’ve got a host of incredible visions from bourgeoning filmmakers including 'The Wild Boys' (Bertrand Mandico), 'The Goose' (Mike Maryniuk), 'Madeline’s Madeline' (Josephine Decker) and 'Bugs' (by local Sydney-Based filmmaker Jack Moxey). We see these films as representing the future of filmmaking and so it’s important to us to introduce them to the public consciousness. With increased exposure and support, we hope all these filmmakers will go on to have very bright careers and continue to make important works of art.
'Tokyo Vampire Hotel'
This year’s festival will also play host to the inaugural InHuman Screens conference which aims to explore themes of technology and post humanism in films. How relevant is this topic to filmmakers today and why?
Because Kath and I come from an academic background, since the festival’s inception, we always had an implicit educational/discursive dimension to the festival, so after partnering with Sydney University and introducing workshops to the festival, the next logical step was to introduce an academic conference. This year we’ll be host our inaugural InHuman Screens conference that will explore the evolution of cinema in the digital age, featuring keynotes from Steven Shaviro, Sean Cubitt and a host of other cinematic visionaries. We feel it is extremely important to explore the direction of cinema and entertainment in the context of frontier technologies. As we have witnessed in the last 20 years, technology and social media have radically changed audience / user behaviours and some of the technology that is to be commercially released in the next 20 years is beyond our wildest dreams, so I feel it’s our duty to consider the cultural, socio-economic and philosophical implications of future technologies.
Is there a workshop/conference topic that you would like to see feature in future SUFF programmes (or perhaps an existing one that you would like to see explored further)?
Yes – we definitely have a wishlist. We have a VR workshop this year, but would like to see this expand next year. We have placed funding with InnerWest council next year, so we can have a full VR cinema of 150+ headsets. Next year we want to fly Slavoj Žižek out here to give the InHuman Screens keynote. We want more cool workshops, like pyrotechnics & underwater cinematography. We want to bring distribution like-minded distribution companies to run workshops, as we are discussing distribution opportunities and slowly building pathways for independent films that are ignored by larger companies.