Monday, December 15, 2008

Interview: Andy Gately, Founder of Austin Underground Film Festival

One of the coolest things about Austin, I think, is that the whole city is like a little petri dish for offbeat ideas. So you wanna make crepes out of your trailer? Ok. Start a Craft Mafia? Go for it. Austin Underground Film Fest, now in its 3rd season, started off as a brazen experiment by a guy in his 20s. Today, it's one of the city's coolest film events, and boasts an increasingly tony (think Don Hertzfeldt) and international talent lineup. It happens this Friday (check out the website for full details), and for a teaser, just head here.

Today Andy Gately, Founder and Director of Programming at AUFF (and also one of my buddies from high school!) stops by to tell us a little more about it.

That Austin Girl: How did AUFF originate?

Andy Gately: I was working an after-school program straight out of college, and I saw all these kids quietly huddled at the far end of the playground. When they get quiet you know something is up, so I kept an eye on them. Previously one of the kids, about age 6, had asked if he could try and start a fire, and I said 'Go for it,' since he said he had planned to do this by rubbing two sticks together and the thought of this working actually made me laugh out loud in the kid's face. So you can imagine my surprise a couple minutes later when I noticed a thin plume of smoke rising out of the huddle of kids. I hot-footed it over and found that sure enough, they had started a full-blown blaze. There was no way in hell this kid had actually done it through stick-rubbing alone, I'm an eagle scout and can barely start a fire with a case of lighter fluid, so I stomp it out and take them each aside, the same way they isolate suspects for good cop bad cop, and grill them until I found out that one of them brought a lighter from home.

Now, it's a really heart-warming feeling when your interrogation subject finally cracks, and I was proud of my crime-solving abilities, but then my supervisor kicks the kid out of the program just for bringing the lighter, and the look on the mother's face upon hearing the news made me realize I did not want to be a kindergarten cop much longer and had to get the fuck out of Dodge. But I also felt that as just another liberal arts major I had no marketable job skills and couldn't get hired anywhere better, which I now realize isn't true but I was convinced at the time. So I'm standing in that playground, and I thought, well, what do I have? An unfinished novel, some films circulating the festival rounds (and making me no money) and good taste. And then, as the mom dragged the crying kid off, I had a mild revelation between his wailing sobs and her extreme profanity - "film festival." All you need to run a film festival, it seemed to me, is the knowledge that you have better taste than everyone on planet earth.

So I went home that night and got my friend Justin Cox who was good at web design working on a site declaring that the Austin Underground Film Festival was going to take place that year, and entry fees were ten bucks. I had no venue, no date for the fest, and was just banking on the fact that enough entries would come in to pay for a rental of the Alamo Drafthouse. Completely reckless in retrospect, but thankfully it worked. Now we're on our fifth event so far, and I haven't lost a dime yet (knock on wood).

TAG: How long does the event last?

AG: Right now it's just a single-day, short film event, thirty-one movies with an intermission and followed by an after party with The Strange Boys and Hacienda. We had enough films this year to expand it into a multi-day event, but that would have stretched us financially, so I think we're going to aim for that goal next year. I'd also like to incorporate other things such as stand-up comedy at some point as well, it would be great to get some cool local comics up there like Bryan Gutmann, Lucas Molandes, Eric Krug, Kerri Lendo... my name-dropping is intentional in hopes they'll come to your blog from Googling their own name and be flattered into doing an Austin Underground show. Comedy is another area in which this city has a great underground scene on the cusp of mainstream recognition.

We've also partnered with Live Music Capitol magazine, the folks who brought you last year's Psych Fest, to team up for some film and music events, which will culminate in Psych Fest II, dozens of psychedelic bands and films from around the world coming this March. Last year's had 800 attendees, and I can't divulge the lineup yet, but we're going to at least double that this year with the artists we've got coming!

TAG: Are all the films created by Austinites?

AG: Not all, but many. Some of this year's local directors include Byron Brown, James Oswald, Jay Hollinsworth, Frank Bochard, and Sergio Carvahal. We're also expecting several visiting filmmakers flying in from out of town - one, Viridiana Jurado, is coming up from Mexico, and an Iranian filmmaker is trying to get permission to visit for the fest, but he needed an official invite from an American so I had to play ambassador. All attendees to this year's show also have a good chance of being in music videos we're shooting for the bands, so come create art with us while you watch it!

TAG: How do you find the films you're going to screen?

AG: Aside from the submissions we get from all over - this year we're playing things from Spain, France, the UK, Japan, and Afghanistan to name a few - we also have a rolling submission policy, so we're always on the lookout for content. This summer I was invited out to screen some films at a festival on the island of Malta, and while I was there and bumming around England and Holland I acquired a number of great European shorts.

Got any faves this year?

AG: I'm really a fan of each one of these as they were all hand-picked by my panel and me, but a couple do stand out as especially personifying the spirit of the festival as it was originally conceived. We're screening several works by Andre Perkowksi which are really exemplary of the kind of no-budget z-grade aesthetic I love. He personally sent us 173 films for submission, all shorts by him that he'd recently digitized. 173. Most were shot on leftover film stock from the '70s, scored by himself, and often feature hilariously sleazy voiceover narration - stuff like A Belly Full of Anger you honestly can't tell what year it was made, it seems to exist outside of time, like it was left in a dumpster on 42nd Street and just recently disinterred.

I was also quite excited when Don Hertzfeldt sent us copies of his new trilogy. He has really outdone himself this time, in both scope and technique. He's something of a cult icon to animators, and has a worldwide underground following. This is especially impressive considering he never sold out which, for him, would mean doing something like becoming a corporate shill, as his work is often critical of marketing practices and those who compromise their artistic integrity. He has naturally been approached to lend his talent to TV commercials, which if you are familiar with his work is a pretty laughable thought. It's like when comedian Bill Hicks, whom I did a short documentary film on last year, was asked to do a commercial for a British beverage actually called Orange Drink, and he was like, “Yeah you really got my act down good, guys. That'll be great. You know, when I'm done ranting about elite power that rules the planet under a totalitarian government that uses the media in order to keep people stupid, my throat gets parched. That's why I drink Orange Drink.” But with Hertzfeldt, when he declined, they just got someone to rip off his signature animation style (and poorly I might add) without crediting him. Such are the ethics of the advertising world, more often than not. But his work is instantly recognizable and the new stuff we're playing, if juxtaposed with those commercials, would be the perfect illustration of the polar ends of the artistic spectrum.

TAG: Scandalize us, please. What's the most shocking thing a person can hope to find at this year's AUFF?

AG: We don't ever set out to simply shock people with our programming... but that said, there are a couple films that could quite probably make the entire room uncomfortable Friday night. Not that I hope that happens or anything, but I sometimes forget that while nothing embarrasses me in art anymore, that's not the case with everyone. Also, there's something about watching something with socially taboo subject matter in an audience that makes people sometimes hold their emotions in check. They will go home and think nothing of watching the most scatological comedy video on YouTube alone in their room or some completely depraved foreign horror film, but get them in a group and put just a naked guy or girl on the big screen, they clam up, as if they are being judged and feel guilty for enjoying something that is human nature.

When directors actually know what they are doing, they can, if they choose, craft a film in which the viewer's reaction to the provocative subject matter within ends up being more revealing of the viewer's beliefs and hangups than it reveals of the filmmaker, which is always an interesting reversal to me. For example, we're screening a certain French film that has some frank discussion of sex, and if that makes you uptight, it's really too bad, because you might easily get hung up on the supposedly “shocking” conceit of a film and not be able to see past that into what the director is really trying to explore, which in the case of this example is not pornography, but human relationships, among other things. Really, though, I don't want to scare anyone way, because overall this year's show is actually the most accessible of our lineups, I would venture. It's got something for nearly all tastes, and the good thing about a short film fest is that if you aren't digging on the current flick, it's gonna be over in a couple minutes and a totally new experience will follow. I love that.

We've talked about building up to a show full of the most brutally honest and graphic depictions of violence, torture porn and experimental esoteric insanity, just a relentless onslaught of all the most punishing submissions we've received that we felt were just too demented to screen even by our admittedly permissive standards - but never done gratuitously, only the ones using the exploitation as a mere entry point to exploring something deeper – to test the audience's threshold for psychotically visceral, potentially brain-damaging cinematic mayhem and discomfort, with no fluff in between to soften the blows, just this grueling series of mounting atrocities climaxing in some Zen-like revelation of consciousness... That or people rioting and tearing the screen from the rafters before walking out. Maybe train a hidden camera on the audience – is it weird that this is my idea of fun? And okay, maybe a few blatantly gratuitous ones. That can be enjoyable sometimes, too, right? But there's a quote by one of the grand daddy's of the midnight movie, Alejandro Jodorowski, where in talking about his film he says, “If you are great, El Topo is great. If you are limited, El Topo is limited.” Which I think is hilarious, yet for some movies is true! So to answer your question, anything “shocking” we would play would most likely just be on the surface level, and if you're enlightened, you will see past the shock and into the real beating heart of the piece. When people get embarrassed by movies, I just want to be like, “Come on, guys, are we really still doing that? Let's evolve past this already, it's just just sex. Or drugs. Or words, images, shadows on a cave wall...”

Sometimes DIY films are AWESOME, and other times, DIY films, are, eh...not awesome. Why are the films you've selected this year so great? (And maybe "DIY" is also not the best way to describe them?)

AG: Because like gold panners we've sifted through all of the rocks to find the shiniest nuggets for your viewing pleasure. And we have the best taste on planet earth, haha.

TAG: How has AUFF changed these past 3 years?

AG: The first year was subversively themed, the second was satiric, this one is just fun and eclectic, with an international flavor. And we're getting more sponsorships, which we're picky about because we won't accept money from anyone whose product or business we have problems with, or who wants any kind of control over the programming content or creative decisions. That's how all initially good things are rendered shit. Seems obvious, yet no one ever seems to learn from history. When you decide to be choosy, apparently that means you get local food, booze and drug paraphernalia shops hooking you up. So that pretty much rules.

We are currently sponsored by SmoCo smoke shop on South Congress, Junior's Beer and Wine, and Dripping Springs Vodka. Now there's some products I can get behind. Maker Faire, Mopac Media, Bird's Barbershop, Starlet Sweets, I Luv Video, Lone Star Sk8, and Ararat restaurant are also helping us out, and we've been previously been sponsored by Tito's Vodka and Pro-Tape. Special thanks also to my friend Steph Von Reiswitz of Le Gun magazine in London for designing our awesome poster this year. will be doing more events during the year with us that we've got in the works, both film and music, along with radio and TV endeavors. Empire, baby. We've also just partnered with the Austin Art Authority and Coldtowne Theater.

TAG: Give me ONE GOOD REASON I should attend AUFF?!

AG: Instead of popcorn we'll have falafels. We'll also be giving away free bongs, porn, massages, gift certificates, and Live Oak beer. And all of it's locally-made. Except the porn. We might even screen a movie or two. Also, there will be art in the lobby by the awesome painter David Ohlerking, most of which are tasteful nudes. So, hey, breasts!

TAG: Andy, when you reflect on your memories of high school, what do you think?

AG: Oh, man. I think it was typical that they added a film production class the year after I graduated. But I credit several classes I took there for sparking my initial interest in film - they had a film appreciation class taught by Mrs. Willis, which was a great intro to me - up until that point, as crazy as it seems, I really had no idea some people actually treated movies like art. I thought films were just movies, entertainment. Of course then I realized I had only been watching the ones that were meant as entertainment only, and not even the good ones. So that opened my eyes to a deeper appreciation of the medium. It helped that I sat behind a cute chick who was way into that class. She shall remain nameless.

TAG: Anything else you'd like to add?

AG: Shoot film, not people.


That Austin Girl said...

Hi Andy! If you're reading this, I just wanted to say thank you so much for participating in this interview! I'm quite proud to know you. Keep up the good work with AUFF and all your other little projects!! Strip Cult still going on?

Mike Z said...

The Strip Cult will return. Watch the Halloween show here. (it's a playlist in 5 parts)

robertefitzpatrick said...

looking forward to next year's fest!