Australia's general conservativism represents a double-edged sword for Stefan Popescu, co-director and head of programming for the Sydney Underground Film Festival (SUFF).
Though he sees himself as an agent of provocation, he understands that if he does his job too well it may negate the need for his Festival, now in its fourth year, at all.
“The term 'underground' would not work in Europe,” says Popescu, breaking from the hectic schedule in the lead-up to the three-day event in Sydney's inner-west. “There would not be a 'Berlin Underground Film Festival' because there has been such a history of [celebrating] the avant-garde. European culture really upholds the pushing of boundaries.”
Not so here in Australia. “I think since the death of the Experimental Film Fund and the Filmmaker's Co-operative, I don't think there has been much celebration of the pushing of boundaries. We are so busy worrying about what is going to make us money… the irony is that it is cultural diversity, of establishing your own identity, that will ultimately succeed.”
The theme of cultural growth comes up several times whilst discussing the Festival's objectives and 2010 line-up. Included in Popescu's programming are films designed to stun the masses from the ingrained complacency of modern movie-going (Harmony Korine's shocking monument to decay, Trash Humpers; Drew Bolduc's and Dan Nelson's battle-of-the-sexes bloodbath, The Taint; a collection of shorts grouped under such banners as 'Animation Fornication' and 'Mondo Bizarro') as well as left-leaning attacks on accepted western truths, most notably the Australian premiere of Oliver Stone's dissection of modern Latin American politics, South of the Border (pictured). (“You'll see a lot of mainstream media go on the attack over this film,” promises Popescu.)
One of the films closest to the spirit of SUFF is Matt Harlock's and Paul Thomas' American: The Bill Hicks Story, an account of the life and voice of a unique social commentator. For Popescu, Hicks defined exactly the mindset that the Festival tries to represent. “Hicks talks about civil disobedience, about subversion. He says that the most patriotic people are the people that question the government. And I totally believe that; it's what keeps the balance. You need the questioners, the ratbags, the trouble-makers, to make culture grow. There's a great responsibility that comes along with subversion.”
The Festival has always survived on a shoe-string budget, primarily with the help of the arts division of the Marrickville council (the event takes place in the local arts hub, the Factory Theatre). Popescu would one day welcome broader government support (beyond local council backing), but not simply because it will mean more dollars for acquisitions and promotions. “Government should really welcome subversion and questioning,” he says. Federal or state dollars means “funding to do exactly that; to generate and develop cultural capital.”
Such acceptance of SUFF's status in the subsidised State arts sector would be a major coup for Popescu and his co-director, Katherine Berger, but they are reluctant to investigate formal funding channels, owing to their ingrained misgivings about the risk of editorial compromise.
“We survive on all these films that would never normally reach our shores, that would never make it into a government-funded festival.” He cites Maden Djordjevc's 'snuff'-themed mockumentary Life & Death of a Porno Gang as being the sort of programming choice that may be compromised by government or commercial sector backing. “I mean, you've seen the trailer,” he says, with a roll of the eyes.
As determined as Stefan Popescu is to engage the intellect with his selections, he is equally determined to twist the stomachs and stir the loins of his festival patrons. “Horror and porn are the two genres that prove that the mind and the body are one,” he says, referencing film scholars and feminist authors Laura Mulvey and Julia Kristeva as integral to the understanding of the cultural and social impact of sex and violence in underground cinema. “There is a visceral response. We are realising that, as cinemagoers and with the whole digital revolution (in filmmaking), we want more now. We don't just want a good story, we want something evocative and provocative; we want our senses to be awoken. We want to be cinema explorers, be adventurous.” Certain to be the most talked-about sensorial experience of the Festival will be Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void – a film that Noe himself describes as a 'psychedelic melodrama' and which one online critic has called “a virtuosic, if orgiastic, piece of experimental exploitation cinema”.
Popescu's love for confronting films came about after a forced introduction to the power of cinema. “I was seven when my older brother made me watch I Spit On Your Grave with him because he was too scared,” he laughs. “My brother was a real sadistic bastard.” As he matured, his alternative lifestyle choices began to infuse his politics. (“I grew up living in co-operatives, so I'm a real lefty from way back.”) and, subsequently, his role as arbiter of Sydney's world-renowned season of underground film screenings. Though outwardly charming and softly-spoken, his commitment to the role is fierce. “I see the role I play, the role of the Festival, is to transcend certain stereotypes or categorisations. I guarantee that some of these films will stain people.”
For more information on the festival visit http://www.suff.com.au