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Field Trip: CUFF

September 28, 2023

Ann Arbor Film Festival at the Chicago Underground Film Festival (L to R: Raul Benetiz

(CUFF programming committee member and special programmer at the 61st AAFF)

with AAFF's Kailey Radwan, Leslie Raymond, and Scott Boberg), Sunday, September 17

Leslie’s Take

It was a real treat to attend the 30th Chicago Underground Film Festival (CUFF) as a team with AAFF Deputy Director Scott Boberg, and Operations Manager Kailey Radwan. Opening night took place at the Siskel Theater in the Loop, with a festival reception and single screening of Hello Dankness by Soda Jerk. After that first night, the festival moved south to the Harper Theater in Hyde Park. With three of four theaters in play, most of the CUFF programs screened twice, in a checkerboard-like pattern across four days.

Mentioning that I was from AAFF prompted people to ask if we were looking for work. I described how AAFF’s transparent and robust selection process requires that all films be treated equally; that they are subject to the full review process to ensure that every artist receives fair and equal consideration– so a clear no, we were not scouting films. I pointed out that we were there, instead, to see the festival from an operational standpoint, and to meet and visit with the folks involved. Besides that, we were on a team-building mission!

I have always enjoyed the nonconformist attitude of our cousin festival CUFF, which has a lot of cross-over material in the experimental/avant-garde realm. CUFF also relishes the musical fringe, and this year highlighted several music-centric feature films including Even Hell has its Heroes (about the slow metal band Earth); Dope Hookers and Pavement: The Real and Imagined History of Detroit Hardcore; and Jan Terri: No Rules (featuring the eponymous DIY Chicago musician). I appreciate that CUFF’s rebel sensibility extends to its carefully curated selection of sponsors, including Aeriz cannabis, Jeppson’s Malört, Liquid Death Mountain Water, Miyagi Records, PBR, Red Bull, and others. In addition to playing the CUFF trailer, the festival gives over limited introductory screen time to sponsor videos. While AAFF reserves screen time strictly for moving image art (after the preshow), I enjoyed the renegade aesthetic of their sponsor commercials, especially Eternal Video and Art School Athletics.

It’s always refreshing to attend another festival and run into colleagues from all over, make new acquaintances, and learn how others are orchestrating a film festival. Attending CUFF with my co-workers was immensely satisfying, informative, and fun.

L to R: CUFF Poster, Jan Terri Q&A with CUFF Programmer and Artistic Director Bryan Wendorf on the right, Scott Boberg and Leslie Raymond with the Chicago legend herself!

Kailey’s Take

Even states away and at an entirely different film festival, the Ann Arbor Film Festival’s deep connections to the experimental community at large were made apparent. I was very grateful to meet and spend time with individuals who had screened and programmed previously at AAFF, who were also closely involved with CUFF.

The energy at CUFF was a locus for quirky, oddball characters with a deep connection to Chicagoan culture. I had the privilege of attending the after party at The Promontory, where local footwork figures took over the dance floor and juked it out to eclectic electronic music. I found it almost seamless to immerse myself in the Chicago nightlife scene and align with the punk, somewhat sarcastic commentary the films seemed to employ.

A few Q&A sessions with filmmakers revealed to me a common theme amongst the work chosen- the influence of the pandemic. In an attempt to release pent up emotions, reflect on socio-political movements, and deal with the chaotic emotional whiplash of the last few years, many of these filmmakers discussed how they found ways to balance sincerity and sarcasm, art and humor, whilst commentating on the sheer ridiculosity of what we’ve all collectively experienced in recent times.

CUFF carried an edge to it, still maintaining an atmosphere of appreciation for film art. Where the AAFF is scrappy, CUFF is snarky. One note that stuck with me after viewing Even Hell Has Its Heroes, is from the featured band’s producer, who, in discussing their approach to the atypical rock musicality of the group, described it as a “conceptual art form.” The short With The Tide, with the tide ended with a dedication written “I love you with a love of screams. I love you with a love of witness.” To me, there are no two quotes to better summarize the immersive artistic culture curated by the festival, and the emotionality factored into the core of each piece of work showcased, than these.

I am very thankful for the opportunity to spend time with Scott and Leslie outside of the workplace, explore the rich community of Hyde Park, for the cat at the AirBnB who elected to hang out with me as I worked, and to have walked away with a few new friends (whom I hope to see in March)!

L to R: CUFF Schedule for the Day, our Airbnb host, Hyde Park streetview

Scott’s Take

What an amazing experience. I joined Leslie and Kailey on Friday afternoon (I stayed in Ann Arbor to oversee AAFF’s a2TECH360 event on Thursday night). When I stepped into the Harper Theater (CUFF’s central venue this year) and I met the staff, volunteers, and guests, I realized we were among kindred spirits whose anti-establishment gathering balanced its scrappy snarkiness with equal parts sincerity and inclusive joy. Wow, that reminded me so much of AAFF! I loved rewatching some films that AAFF had shown earlier in the year (Neighbour Abdi and Eclipsis among them) and discovering other films for the first time. Our separate pathways through the schedule would often lead Leslie, Kailey, and I to end up in the same screening where we could catch up and compare notes. While I intentionally didn’t study the program too carefully in advance, wanting to maximize surprise, I did look forward to the documentary by Windsor, Ontario filmmaker Otto Buj called Dope, Hookers and Pavement: The Real and Imagined History of Detroit Hardcore. I was happy to see some familiar faces on the screen even though I arrived too late in Michigan to have directly experienced the super concentrated musical period discussed on screen.

While Hyde Park is a new neighborhood for CUFF this year, I was struck by how much I was reminded of Ann Arbor by Hyde Park’s concentration of culinary diversity, access to art and architecture, music and footwork, and amazing bookstores. In the theater lobby, I was talking with CUFF volunteer manager Fernando Saldivia, a filmmaker from Chile. We were talking about poetry, and Pablo Neruda came up, naturally enough, but Fernando asked if I knew Altazor, the utterly wacky epic poem about an aeronaut falling through the space/time continuum by the other great Chilean poet, Vicente Huidobro, which was completely new to me. I noted the poet’s name and the book’s title in the hope of finding it some day (and why isn’t there an experimental film based on this?). Cut to next morning: I am walking to the festival from a peaceful outdoor cafe (literally in the shadow of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House), and glancing at my watch I see that I might just have a few minutes to dash into Powell’s Books Chicago that was only slightly out of the way. Not wasting time, I asked where the poetry was and there on the shelf was Altazor. Holy Cow! A few minutes later, I was able to open my backpack and say to Fernando: I love Chicago...look what I found! Instant gratification of the sort that Ann Arbor also so easily provides, and I realized that another essential component to a successful festival is not only the community of attendees gathered together in celebration of film but also the physical, cultural space in which a festival takes root, grows, and is nurtured over the course of many years (CUFF was celebrating its 30th anniversary, which is itself a remarkable achievement). What a nice thing, then, to come back to Ann Arbor with a renewed sense of the oddball AAFF garden we have collectively grown. Let’s plant some experimental seeds this fall, and see what emerges and takes flight at the 62nd AAFF this spring!

L to R: Chicago Footwork afterparty at the Promontory, footwork projection, Turkish Spiderman tattoo

with visual points of reference


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