Film fest connects Chicago to world

By Darryl Holliday

The Chicago Underground Film Festival has become a well-known gathering for local to international filmmakers. In its 18th year, organizers hope to reach a wider audience.

While not overly defining “underground,” organizers of the festival say the goal is to connect Chicago filmmakers to one another and other parts of the world through a variety of experimental, independent films.

Early submission acceptance officially ends on Dec. 1, and all others, including regular and late submissions, will be accepted until March 2011. Though the festival will not be until spring, CUFF coordinators are planning ways to draw a broader crowd to the local event.

“There are lots of festivals for experimental filmmakers around the country. Some of them are set up in a way if you aren’t a filmmaker or don’t have a graduate degree in film studies, the work can be kind of impenetrable and hard to appreciate for a more general audience,” said Bryan Wendorf, festival director for CUFF.

Various independent, underground and experimental filmmakers will be presented at the festival, including documentaries, shorts films and feature films. According to Wendorf, CUFF will show films in a context that opens them to a wider audience.

Of the roughly 1,500 to 1,600 submissions CUFF receives each year, Wendorf said many come from the city’s local schools, such as DePaul University, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia. Those films are screened and chosen by filmmakers and film instructors, among others, and included with films from around the world in the final festival.

“We definitely want to support the local filmmaking community, but I don’t think the local film community exists in isolation,” Wendorf said. “I’m interested in

seeing what’s being produced in various underground filmmaking communities worldwide and showing the best of that work.”

According to organizers, the event isn’t a competition, it’s a festival.

“But it’s not a competitive festival,” said Barbara Scharres, director of programming for the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., which has worked with CUFF for the last two years and is slated to present the 18th Chicago Underground Film Festival.

According to Scharres, the film center has a broad mission and, much like CUFF, believes in a broad audience’s presence.

She admits both organizations could do better at drawing those crowds but hopes to improve public awareness of the festival through the Internet and any other means that can successfully increase publicity.

Lori Felker, a festival coordinator with CUFF and film instructor at SAIC, agrees a wider audience would benefit the city and the festival.

“For me it all started with just going,” Felker said. “I learn and enjoy life by watching and seeing different things, and I just want to spread that experience out as much as possible.”

In addition to its regular attendees, Felker said CUFF wants to let others know they’re being represented by films shown at the festival.

Wendorf said he hopes the event will increase communication between filmmaking communities of all types.

“That’s really a big part of it—to bring people together so people become aware of what’s going on other places and how that can influence what you’re doing here,” Wendorf said.

According to Felker, a vibrant art scene gives the city community a louder voice and ties that community to the outside world.

“It definitely makes us cooler,” Felker said. “I think it makes Chicago stand out as a place that’s welcoming to a whole host of ideas, fringe groups and people who don’t get to speak up very often. Any good festival will be a community event.”