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Is the 2nd MUFF the stuff of revolution – or a repository of otherwise neglected films and marginal cinema, asks Jake Wilson.

Globally and locally, these are strange days for film culture. Down at the multiplex, Hollywood movies seem caught between pure seamless illusion and the all-too-palpable sliminess of the gross-out (Moulin Rouge and Freddy Got Fingered). Meanwhile a thousand young guerrilla filmmakers are tearing round town with their cheap digital video cameras, hoping desperately to capture some kind of raw truth. Here in Melbourne there have never been more film screenings in pubs, video-art exhibitions, panel discussions on multimedia, and high-priced workshops for aspiring industry players. Everyone wants to be on the cutting edge but few can agree where that is.

In this climate, the second Melbourne Underground Film Festival (MUFF) seems like a typically hybrid event. Last year's festival attracted more publicity than it did viewers, not surprisingly given that the official Melbourne Film Festival was running at the same time. The organisers won't be making that mistake again, but their iconoclasm remains intact. At least, if you log on to the festival's website (at muff.com.au) you can read a lot of rambling hype from Richard Wollstonecroft – festival director, filmmaker, nightclub proprietor, and would-be provocateur. In typically overheated style, he declares that MUFF will be ‘a ten day cinematic insurrection ready to start a revolution.'

“it's.. about trying to get these films seen”

A revolution? This is not really the impression I got when I sat down to discuss the upcoming festival with one of its other organisers, Chris Howard. He's a very mellow, enthusiastic guy with a particular passion for Italian horror cinema. In fact, he tells me, one of the main reasons MUFF got started was that he and his friend Matt Boyle wanted to screen some movies by the great Dario Argento. Having done their homework, they figured “it had to be feasible to run a festival,” maybe adding some Australian content for good measure. Wollstencroft, who was looking for somewhere to show his recent feature Pearls Before Swine, had already had a similar idea – and hence the first MUFF was born.

So how revolutionary is the festival really? According to Chris Howard, “there is the political aspect of trying to raise awareness of this underground cinema. But beyond that, it's just really more about trying to get these films seen.” And what exactly is an underground film? For Howard the term need not refer to a particular style or genre. “The festival's brief,” he says, “is to represent any forms of films that have fallen through the cracks and been neglected.” So a film might be “underground not necessarily through any agenda of its creators, but more just through the industry's and the public's neglect or lack of awareness of its existence.”

“Apart from budget, what else ..defines a film as marginal?”

In other words, MUFF does not aim to promote a single militantly oppositional mode of cinema, if such a thing still exists. Instead, it brings together a number of filmmaking practices that are deemed to be marginal. I haven't been able to preview any of the features screening in competition, but I gather that many are genre exercises that have underground status largely because they exist (as Howard puts it) “at the low-budget, do-it-yourself end” of feature filmmaking. Overall there are relatively few films here outside the parameters of fictional narrative. Still, as Howard says, the festival ought to run for years, and there's no reason it can't “embrace all of this stuff over the years to come.”

Apart from budget, what else serves to define a film as marginal? The line-up appears to be dominated less by deliberately campy schlock than it was last year. But there's still a fair helping of popular genres like action, sci-fi and horror – which is no bad thing. Dogma Day Afternoon includes five films that follow the anti-art manifesto drawn up six years ago by Danish prankster Lars von Trier, who could teach Wollstencroft a few things about overblown hype. In a related area, there's a retrospective of freaky New Zealand films – including the gory early works of Peter Jackson, now shooting Lord Of The Rings – and of Australian cult cinema.

“..beyond such simplistic definitions of the underground”

If the broadly libertarian ethos of the festival is evident in its enthusiasm for extreme or transgressive subject-matter, the organisers plan to make a more directly political gesture by screening two films currently banned in Australia. These are Pier Pablo Pasolini's Salo (widely considered a masterpiece) and the less well-known Cannibal Holocaust. I'm unfamiliar with the latter, but Howard describes it as “every bit as extraordinary and passionate and powerful a film” as Salo: it simultaneously comments on exploitation by the West and revels in “the grossest and grisliest scenes.” Is he confident MUFF will be able to show these films without being prosecuted? “Well, we mean to. Others mean us not to. Perhaps now it may well prove to be a game of brinksmanship from here on in as to what actually happens. It's as important as anything that there is a dialogue on this issue.”

I think it's worthwhile to defend and celebrate this kind of extreme movie, and to challenge our current regressive censorship regime (a forum discussing censorship will take place around the screenings). Yet it should be clear by now (especially after such woeful Aussie attempts at exploitation filmmaking as Cut and Sensitive New Age Killer), that an exclusive devotion to trash or cult cinema can be as limiting as a refusal to consider anything outside so-called mainstream molds. With this year's MUFF, happily, there are signs that the organisers have started to look beyond such simplistic definitions of the underground. In a program note, the president of the festival jury, Mark Bakaitis, rightly stresses that “film festivals need not be exclusively the domain of film buffs alone,” adding that this year's festival attempts “to represent various sub-cultures ranging from musical movements to street art to extreme sports.”

“authentically underground”

This opens up a range of possibilities. For example, we'll get to see several skateboarding videos made by the Australian-based Whytehouse Productions. Skate videos are have been around for ages, but the genre is rarely mentioned in critical accounts of sports movies, and circulates mainly through specialised outlets. However, as equipment becomes more accessible and film and video continue to intermingle, it seems likely that discussion of audiovisual media will have to take a much wider range of film/videomaking into account – including much work made by and for subcultural groups and barely linked with the kind of film history traditionally discussed by journalists or academics. This is one reason it no longer seems worth worrying over what's authentically underground and what isn't.

But this doesn't mean that we should stop making distinctions, or forget about film history. In fact, perhaps the most potentially interesting component of MUFF is a retrospective of Australian Super-8 films, curated by Shane Lyons of the Melbourne Super-8 Film Group. This includes everything from highly sophisticated recent work (e.g. the dance films of Christos Linou) to early efforts by directors like Bill Mousoulis, Mark Savage, and Wolstencroft himself. As a glimpse of a genuinely underground and sketchily documented film history (much of it probably dug out of people's garages) this retrospective should help illustrate just how marginal no-budget practices of filmmaking have evolved locally across the last twenty years. In doing so, it hopefully might function not only as an adjunct to the rest of MUFF, but as a reminder of alternative styles and approaches that are relatively dormant in today's film culture. If we really want a revolution, we need a tradition to start from first.

Published July 5, 2001

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Meet the Feebles

See our FEATURE on the Melbourne International Film Festival

Bad Actors

Cannibal Holocaust

Peter Jackson
(Pic, Jeff Vespa)


July 5 – 15, 2001
Cinemedia at Treasury Theatre
Lower Plaza, 1 Macarthur Street,
(03) 9651 1515
Kaleide. RMIT Union Theatre
Building 8 Street Level, 360 Swanston Street,
p: 9925 3713
RMIT Storey Hall
a: 342-348 Swanston Street,
(03) 9925 1773

All tickets available at the door 30 mins prior to session.
Opening and Closing Night tickets and Festival Passes also available at ticket outlets.

Polyester Books
330 Brunswick Street,
(03) 9419 5223
1st Floor, 28 Block Place,
(03) 9663 3551
68-70 Little Collins Street,
(03) 9662 1026

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