By S.T. VanAirsdale
We hear a lot of ambitious, imaginative marketing pushes for film festivals every day at Reeler HQ. Hats off, however, to the gang at the New York Underground Film Festival, whose "15th and FINAL" ordinal simultaneously piques our interest while provoking aggressive fits of head-scratching: Who organizes, mounts and carefully programs a festival just to put the word out: "This is the last time we're doing this." Nellie Killian, Kevin McGarry and Mo Johnston, that's who, the co-directors of NYUFF who, like Barry Sanders, Big Black and various other cultural institutions before them, are calling it quits in their prime.
Both the Village Voice and indieWIRE today feature remembrances and analyses of the scenarios facing NYUFF over the years. The Reeler, meanwhile, corresponded with Killian in advance of the fest's last opening night, which gets underway this evening at Anthology Film Archives with the New York premiere of Heavy Metal in Baghdad. Other programs throughout the week feature more premieres as well as highlights from years past. "A lot of the filmmakers who we work with and long time friends of NYUFF were sad about the news," she told me. "I think the fact that Kevin McGarry and I are starting a new festival softened the blow a bit, but many of the filmmakers are sad to see a venue that's shown their work and work they're interested in close. There has been a lot of reminiscing; it's nice, if a little bittersweet."
THE REELER: "The 15th and Final"... that's an unusual way to brand a film festival.
NELLIE KILLIAN: The idea for calling this the 15th and Final New York Underground sprung from discussions about how to celebrate this year as a milestone. The conversation turned to all the festivals that have faded out over the last few years. We didn't want NYUFF to end because we just didn't do it one year. Once we realized it was going to be our last hurrah, it seemed only natural to let people know.
R: The fest's Web site notes: "The organization has undergone many changes over the last 5 years and has decided that a restructuring and refocusing is in order if the spirit of the institution is to live on." Can you explain?
NK: In the past five years, the festival has had five directors. For the past three Mo Johnston and Kevin McGarry have been in charge. This is only my second time around. Even before deciding to end the festival we knew that this was going to be Mo's last year. I think that Kevin and I had ideas for ways that we wanted to expand the organization, but it's difficult when you're working within such a well established framework with its own history. Plus we were uncertain what we meant by "underground," as were 85 percent of the people who wrote about the festival.
Kevin and I are both really excited about Migrating Forms. I think that the idea of moving away from a safe formula and experimenting to see what will work best -- in terms of how we're presenting work and how we're getting people to see it -- is very much in the spirit of NYUFF.
R: A 15-year-old festival implies successfully occupying a niche that most independent fests struggle and often fail to find. What do you think the ending of the festival says about the NYUFF's niche?
NK: I don't think it says anything about our niche. We're not ending because of financial ruin or a dearth of good work. We're ending because we want a clean slate. If anything we're expanding our programming. A lot of festivals that came up around the same time as NYUFF have been closing their doors. It makes sense to me that some of them have just run their course. There are also a lot of new festivals, every year. The birth to death ratio must be at least 3:1, right?
R: You and co-director Kevin McGarry are carrying on together with a year-round program called Migrating Forms. What does this entail?
NK: Migrating Forms will continue on under the same non-profit structure as NYUFF, Underground Cinema, Inc. We're going to mount a festival in the spring, similar to NYUFF, and we're also going to start year-round programming in the fall. We'd ideally like to build the organization into something that can offer more opportunities and support to directors. I know that's vague, but there will be more details up at www.migratingforms.org soon.
R: To what degree do you and Kevin consciously want to start over? How, if at all, do you intend to keep the NYUFF's mantle intact?
NK: I think it's exciting to be able to think about building something from square one. We're probably still going to be showing a mix of video art, avant-garde film, offbeat documentaries, campy features, etc. We took the name Migrating Forms from the title of a film by Jim Fotopoulos, a director who has shown at NYUFF for many years; we thought it would be a nice way to stay in touch with the spirit of NYUFF.
R: What are some highlights you'd recommend from this year's program?
NK: This year's program is awesome. It's hard to pick favorites. So I guess I'll pick a few that seem to have been mentioned less in the press I've read so far: James June Schneider's End of the Light Age, starring Lou Castel. Julia Meltzer and David Thorne's We will live to see these things. Kevin Everson's Golden Age of Fish. Also, in terms of special programs: Return of the Black Tower, Orchard Gallery Presents, and NYUFF is Enough, our three-part retrospective. And [the] perennial favorite TubeTime. Plus, seriously, every shorts program.
Posted at April 2, 2008 8:24 AM
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