The world’s longest-running underground film festival is back for its sixth year at Logan Theater and 25th year overall. LoganSquarist got the chance to sit down with Bryan Wendorf, one of Chicago Underground Film Festival’s (CUFF) co-founders, a few days before opening night to discuss what he attributes to the longevity of the festival, the influences that led to it and where it may be headed. He and founder Jay Bliznick drew from their love of independent film, working at a video store in Evanston and their desire for a place to showcase the kinds of films that didn’t get a whole lot of attention. Edited excerpts follow.
LoganSquarist: How did the festival start?
Bryan Wendorf: Jay Bliznick, he was the festival founder. He said, “I want to start this film festival, I want you to get involved with me,” and it took him a little while to convince me to do it, but we put a call for entries in an issue of the Film Threat Video Guide which was a zine at the time that reviewed, like you could send them any movie and they’d review it. And that was a big inspiration to us. They kind of kept the idea of underground film alive in the 80s and 90s. People like Richard Kern and Nick Zedd in New York who were the Cinema of Transgression people. And Craig Baldwin in San Francisco, too, we read about him in Film Threat as well; he’s our guest of honor this year. So we got this call for entries ad, and we received about 300 submissions the first year. Did like a three-day festival, all 16mm and video. “Real” film festivals didn’t show video. But it was successful.
“Real” film festivals was also part of the reason you guys started this, right?
BW: Yeah, somewhat. We definitely felt festivals, at the time we started CUFF, Sundance had kind of blown up to become what it was on its way to becoming what it is now. Which is fine, but it’s not really independent film.
There’s a lot of money in those movies.
BW: Sara Jacobson, who was a filmmaker who was part of the fest in its early years who unfortunately passed away in 2004, but she coined the phrase “Indiewood” to describe those kinds of films. Sara was a real avid evangelist for CUFF. She would go around to film festivals and she saw a movie she liked and she’d be like, “you have to go to Chicago, it’s my favorite film festival.” So yeah, we didn’t really know what we were doing when we were starting and we had this vague idea, and we did this three-day thing. As soon as we did the first one we were like, that was successful, [so] we started immediately planning the next one. Our third year was a big transition year. The first two years, since we had no money, we couldn’t really rent out a theater. The first couple years the festival was held in hotels downtown.
When did you move to Logan?
BW: This is our sixth year at the Logan Theater. So when I lived here, I lived right over here on Kedzie, right by Longman and Eagle. The Logan was like a second run theater, and then it closed. We knew about the plans to reopen, and even before, we would come to see movies here and think this would be a great neighborhood to show the festival. Because it’s actually been a struggle in the 25 years, finding the right location for the festival has been one of the biggest challenges. We had three years at the Gene Siskel Film Center before the Logan. There are a lot of good things about the Siskel, but it wasn’t the right fit for us. The Logan really was. We saw they were remodeling, we reached out to them.
Does it feel like CUFF’s home?
BW: Yeah. Attendance keeps increasing every year.
What about your submissions, are you still meeting that 300?
BW: Oh, no, it’s like two thousand. Like 2,200 this year I think. Our peak was like 2,600 two years ago. And now the films come from over the world. We had six years here at the Logan Theater and each year has been better attended and they’re really easy to work with. So that’s been great, it feels like our home. As long as the neighborhood doesn’t get gentrified too much (laughs) we may get priced out.
Is there a theme every year?
BW: Themes are interesting because I don’t ever program with a pre-existing theme in mind, but what I find that often happens is that after things are programmed, you start to see a theme that you didn’t really plan on. Although now that I think about it, for this year, I’m not sure that I see a theme in the overall programming.
The one theme this year because of it being our 25th anniversary, we wanted to think, how do we address that anniversary. When we had our 20th anniversary, which was our first year at the Logan, that was kind of a landmark. And we did a few programs of highlights from past years. So we had, like, four programs that were guest curated by different people, picking favorite films from. I picked some of my favorite films from past years, other people who had been involved in past years, Jay Bliznick, and I didn’t want to do that again. So the way we wanted to deal with looking back on the anniversary, I wanted to do it in a different way, and that’s why inviting Craig Baldwin as a guest of honor, opening the festival with the “Wax Trax!” film. They both fit in cuz I started thinking instead of looking back at the history of the festival, I wanted to look back to what came before the fest that inspired us and acknowledge those things. I thought that was an interesting way to approach it.
I moved to Chicago in 1984 to go to college here, and even before I moved here, I would come to Chicago a lot to see movies. I was a young punk rock kid so “Wax Trax!” was always the place to go. I really kind of learned about the idea of the underground by going to “Wax Trax!” Through music, you know all of these things are interconnected, so you discover a band, you discover a film or book or whatever it is, and I’ve always been attracted to those kinds of things.
BW: Yeah, and the culture that’s more on the margins.
What sort of changes aside from venue has CUFF endured over the last 25 years?
BW: Becoming a program of IFP Chicago has been a big step for the longevity of the festival. I’ve been doing the festival for about 15 years and reached a point where it was just becoming kind of difficult to sustain the way I was doing it. There was a year where my girlfriend at the time and I kind of did it all ourselves. We had some volunteers work the event but I had a full-time job and I couldn’t keep doing it this way. And IFP Chicago is an organization for independent filmmakers in Chicago; it’s been around longer than CUFF. Partnering with them, and basically, now they own the festival at this point and I am an employee, that’s made it a lot easier for me to actually… this is a job now, it’s not my only job, but I have an office to go to and there’s some structure and that’s a big step, not just work out of my apartment.
Do you have any changes you would consider for next year?
BW: I would like to expand the fest a bit in terms of I don’t want to get too long, there’s some festivals that will go on for two weeks or more and I think I’d rather have the fest be a little more condensed and focused. Right now each film in a program screens one time, so if you miss it, you miss it. And there’s always two theaters, so it’s impossible to…
You’re missing something.
BW: Yeah, you’re missing something. So I’d like to expand it at least enough so you get two screenings and stagger things so you have more opportunities, but that’s more money, and that’s always a big factor of things. Some years that’s easier than other years, with sponsorships and walking that line between being a subversive underground film festival and attracting the interest of corporate money.
Is there anything you’d like to attribute to the longevity of CUFF? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s the longest running underground film festival in the world?
BW: Yeah. I think one of the things key to our success is I’ve always tried to run the thing in a way that the audience and the filmmakers are on the same level. That’s one of the things Roger Ebert said years ago about the festival. He said, “The difference at CUFF between somebody who’s a filmmaker and somebody who isn’t a filmmaker is someone who has a camera.”
Any advice to aspiring filmmakers?
BW: Don’t be afraid to take chances. Don’t let your lack of money be an excuse. Make it as good as you can within. I sometimes see unsuccessful attempts at making underground films where people kind of take this attitude of, oh, well it’s underground so it’s ok if it’s not good. Make it as good as you can, and if you can’t, that’s ok. And get involved in your local film community. That’s one of the best things about a festival is cultivating a community.
CUFF is currently screening at Logan Theater until June 10th. Tickets and film schedule can be found on their website.