By Ryan Bigge
Universal Picture Leader
Good versus evil. Spy versus Spy. Music West versus Music Waste. The Vancouver International Film Festival versus the Vancouver Underground Film Festival. Lotusland’s hipster mavens seem to function best when they tackle an established leviathan and the first annual Vancouver Underground Film Festival (VUFF) was no exception. The four days of films and workshops held this past November lifted the nearly two year moratorium on edgy Vancouver cinema precipitated by the closing of the Edison Electric Gallery of Moving Images in October of 1996 and brought movie making to the masses.
Organized by Blinding Light!! Cinema founder Alex MacKenzie, the VUFF’s mandate differed significantly from most film festivals, with the focus bifurcated between consumption and participation. VUFF films (all local works) featured non-traditional formats, reshaped ideas about film quality, aesthetic sensibilities and promoted an anti-Hollywood and anti-narrative sentiment. Finally, it championed short films, as entries ranged from 60 seconds to 70 minutes, with many in the 5-9 minute region.
Can three-and-a-half minutes change the world? Much Music would probably like you to think so, but the real revolutionary imagery is occurring between handfuls of dollar popcorn and free Super 8 seminars in a dimly lit theatre in Gastown.
A four day festival means a hell of a lot of planning (six months) and a hell of a lot of films (50 plus). And what’s a big event without a party to legitimize its existence and justify all that planning and effort? Thursday night’s opening shindig featured jazz improv group Talking Pictures making music to the visual manifestations of Phosphene, an audio-visual collective lead by Alex MacKenzie. Friday evening featured two shows, including Collage Extremis, which was full of found footage, scratched and hand-coloured film and media critique. Saturday afternoon had Trailblazers, a “blend of edgy, innovative and campy films with women in the saddle, cracking the whip” and included Spag – an all-dyke cast reinterpreting the Western genre. Saturday evening had programs like the self-explanatory Documenta, along with Celluloid Chemists and Strange Parcels, the latter two featuring surreal and sometimes confusing experiments with juxtaposition, mediums and topics. Sunday featured a two-and-a-half hour workshop on Guerilla film making which looked at all aspects of DIY cinema – shooting, developing, distributing and exhibiting. Sunday evening concluded with the live scratch animation of The Light Fantastic and the silent black and white film Vie De Nuit, narrated by beatnik zinester/musician Ralph Alfonso and accompanied by his usual band of jazz confidants.
DIY Film Philosophy 102
Encouraging others to add their unique timbre to the information cacophony we bathe in is hardly a ground breaking philosophy amongst indie practitioners – zines, DIY comics, four-track songsmiths, all enjoy sharing information and aiding newcomers. But within the specific practice of film making, myriad hurdles like technical proficiency, money, time, etc – are enough to make many forfeit the race. No longer.
Cheap popcorn is great, but cheap cinema is better. The Sunday workshop made DIY film making financially tangible. Panelists gloated about whose shoe-string budget was the most frayed and mantras like “Never spend more than $10 for equipment” were bandied about. Can’t afford film with sound? Use a cassette tape soundtrack. Don’t have a camera? Buy a Super 8 at a thrift store for $5. Don’t have access to an editing suite? Try in-camera editing. Don’t know how to process your own film? We’ll teach ya.
Movie making misers like Alex MacKenzie believe that “financial limitations tend to enhance, not restrict creativity. Setting boundaries and finding creative solutions around them is nothing to fear or feel second rate about.”
The cheap aesthetic allows for immediacy and pursuing ideas on a whim. It means experimenting with developing techniques, topics and equipment. Cheap means spending more time on script, on ideas, on processing, on film stocks and on the images chosen. And it means having fun and raising hell, instead of raising funds.
It’s a Snap!
Alex believes that “If we can remove technological fears then people will realize that making films is not that complicated.” Super 8 is super easy — no exposures, light meters or f-stops to worry about – and looks “super” cool. (For further info I recommend the hefty zine “Shooting Super 8”. Mail $5 to Paul Jamieson c/o Blinding Light.)
Conventional production values used to exclude underground films from exhibition, but these days film quality is less of a concern. Alex believes that reality-tv shows like Cops, America’s Funniest Home Videos, and When Good Pets Go Bad have acclimatized people to non-broadcast quality material. The leap between a Hollywood blockbuster and a grainy, black and white silent film is a lot more manageable. Film makers still need to have something to say, but if the content and the core idea are strong enough, worries about the aesthetic standard fall away.
The Envelope Please
So what the hell are “underground” films anyway? The unenviable task of imposing a label on such a varied and occasionally indescribable group of films falls to VUFF organizer Alex. He felt that “experimental” or “independent” failed to convey the essence of the genre; however compromised the term underground has become, according to Alex, “it comes closest to describing the artists and their work.” Perhaps, as film maker Paul Kell put it, “the word underground has a certain mystique that might draw more people into theatres while experimental scares the shit out of them.”
Whatever the label, the quality of the films show was impressive. Some of my favourites included Friday’s “Collage Extremis” program which featured the frenetic juxtapositions and edits of Tim Ray’s Kino and Bill Mullan’s Apocalypse etc. A Boy’s Story. Kyath Battie’s Vixen featured in Saturday’s “Trailblazers” program was an enjoyable investigation of sexuality. Saturday night’s “Celluloid Chemists,” described as “potent and powerful shorts which test the limits of the moving image” occasionally tested my patience. A mildly uncomfortable seat, coupled with the special warmth that only a sold-out theatre can provide, probably didn’t help matters. Despite a few painful experiments – including eight minutes of monotonous verbal repetition involving a Martin Amis excerpt – David Rimmer’s Codes of Conduct showed the good side of experimental film making and Peter Parry’s 2.5 minute short “Bulbs” proved that blowin’ stuff up real good – in this case, light bulbs and neon tubes – is an artistically valid statement. And cool.
Student films predominated in the festival, with all the negative and positive connotations this evokes. A few films thought they were hipper than they were and needed a critique or edit. Many films were studies in process that were visually striking but lacking in content or meaning. Sometimes this was purposeful – films like Sarah Butterfield’s “Gathering Evidence” succeeded by leaving gaps: landscapes contrasted with the evocations of the past and forced the viewer to connect the dots.
Other films were compelling snapshots that examined the power of imagery. Some lacked a narrative structure, some had no dialogue, or sound, and others featured minimal sound effects and soundtracks. A rare few films, like Jennifer Lau’s Altering Media were underground films documenting underground culture. Altering Media did an excellent job of describing the philosophy and battle plans of billboard liberators, including a new twist – forcing open the breaker box and flipping the switch, casting the proverbial and actual canvass of consumer culture into darkness.
Film maker Paul Kell had two films in Saturday’s “Documenta” show. He personifies “independent” not only in the mind-set and subjects tackled, but in his working methods. He writes, shoots and edits his own films plus pre-production and kitchen sinking. His film techniques and topics range widely, from Room 102, which documents the grit and dreariness of the Vancouver downtown Eastside through the Polaroid obsessions of a skid row hotel resident, to Clipped, a traditional documentary about a Saskatchewan barber, told through ten vignettes. Inspired by 22 Short Films About Glen Gould, Clipped was made for $40 – thanks to five Hi8 tapes “liberated” from the cupboards of the University of Regina.
Kell has completed 11 other films, all of which range in subject and format – 16mm, Super 8, Hi8 and even pixelvision. In his search for the cheapest film medium, Kell is, paradoxically, planning to abandon film altogether. He recently purchased a digital video camera. An hour of digital tape costs $20 versus $800 for the film equivalent. Which means longer films and the ability to experiment or re-shoot scenes. Kell strongly believes that “the best things come from mistakes” so making mistakes cost less makes a lot of sense. Kell admits that digital video loses some crispness when transferred to film and that film snobbery will always exist, but for him the most important fact is that cheap technology will result in more Film makers.
The VUFF also eroded barriers between live music and film. While hardly counter-revolutionary – silent films often had full orchestras or organists providing the soundtrack – treating cinema as performance is all too rare.
Sunday night featured The Light Fantastic, a scratch animation collective formed in 1997 by Julian Lawrence, a 35 year-old interdisciplinary performance artist (music, illustration and film). The Light Fantastic approaches live scratch animation and hand drawn sounds in a unique way – Julian uses two loops of film – an inside loop that contains prerecorded images and sound and an outside loop of black emulsion that he scratches animation onto, frame by frame. As white patches develop on the outside loop, sounds and sights pop out from the inside loop. His performances, which take about 30 minutes, culminate in the prerecorded visuals appearing and blending with the scratch animation as Julian “scratches over everything and anything, even using a hole punch to expose the inside loop.”
Julian lays out a rough sequence of visuals to work with, and within that, anything goes. The potential for spontaneity and the unique nature of each performance make scratch animation more of an “event” than a screening. Julian admits that “hand drawn sounds can be very harsh” – and audience patience is important since images are slowly built upon, piece by piece. While the ephemeral nature may not appeal to everyone, watching a work in process, with the unpredictability this entails, is underground film personified.
Starring In Alphabetical Order
The VUFF “exposed” a small but vibrant experimental/underground film making community. A packed workshop and healthy attendance across the four days helped lapsed film makers renew their enthusiasm, and invigorated neophytes. Alex is keen to provide a place for underground films to be show, because “without a forum to exhibit their work, once out of film school aspiring film makers will often despair or ask ‘Why bother? What do I get out the experience?’ which leads to a lowered level of cultural production.” A yearly festival creates a deadline, an impetus and the promotional momentum to grow and expand. Many film makers attended their respective screenings, where they gauged audience and peer feedback and did some networking. Plans are in the works for the second annual VUFF, to be held in the fall of 1999. For VUFF submission information, email Alex MacKenzie at: [email protected] or phone 604-684-8288 or write to Blinding Light Cinema at 36 Powell St., Vancouver, BC, V6A 1E7.
Ryan Bigge is a freelance writer, Adbusters editor, Terminal City columnist and zine guy (127 Days to Live). Thanks to Clare Hodge for suggestions and insight. Stinging praise and/or criticism to: [email protected]
The first ever Vancouver Underground Film Festival and the future of D.I.Y. film