The New York Underground Film Festival went six feet under in 2008, concluding a fifteen year run. In part, the festival chose to close because the programmers thought the idea of “underground” cinema wasn’t relevant to what they wanted to do, and they were looking to re-brand. Perhaps the need and appeal of the underground is played out, what with luxury condos surrounding the festival’s home at Anthology Film Archives, other “underground” film festivals coming and going around the world, and the rise of online video that allows any amateur or avant-gardist to be seen by millions. (NYUFF smartly embraced YouTube in its infancy with a round-robin slam called “Tube Time” and, before that, “Google Me This”).
But as the Founder and Artistic Director of Rooftop Films — a festival whose slogan is “Underground Movies Outdoors” — I think this form of cinema is still relevant. The difference between 2009 and 1993 or 1997 (when NYUFF and Rooftop started) is that indie cinema has caught up to indie music in terms of popularity, and as the Archers of Loaf sang back in the day, “The underground is over-crowded.” So what makes a festival relevant is not necessarily what you show, but how you show it; the valid mission is no longer about finding obscure films, it’s about shaping a coherent program that will entice audience members, perhaps recontextualize the work, entertain and educate viewers. For Rooftop, we do that by taking the films into communities where the venue, the neighborhood, the night all create added meaning to the screening. For the former NYUFF, they wanted to re-brand with a new programming focus, and the festival is now back from the dead as Migrating Forms.
MF is a more lean and mean fest than its progenitor, focusing less on transgression and chaos and more on intellectual and avant-garde motion pictures, particularly films that may be coming from an art world context. One of the films I saw Thursday night was Amie Siegel’s DDR/DDR, which previously played in New York at the Whitney Biennial. The film is a playful but melancholic examination of the former East Germany, with a structure that Siegel described in the Q&A as “free associative.” Along the way, a mix of documentary investigation, scripted faux-interviews and evocative set pieces, footage retrieved from the Stasi archives, and even an elegant music video, all cycle through in waves, recurring with a stately ebb and flow.
By turns whimsical and dark, emotionally startling and eerily isolating, the film explores the failed state through its people, its culture, its technology and its architecture. Formalist as it is in manner, DDR/DDR is a fitting film for the new Migrating Forms; as a film about a disappeared nation (in which the secret intelligence agency was the largest employer), the film winks back at the old underground.
Mark Elijah Rosenberg is the Founder and Artistic Director of Rooftop Films; look for film writing from him and the rest of the Rooftop crew throughout the year as Rooftop Films’ 2009 Summer Series plays outdoors every weekend from May 15-September 20.