Now in its 24th year, the Chicago Underground Film Festival kicks off tonight at the Logan Theater. The festival describes itself as being wholly dedicated to filmmakers with “defiantly independent visions” and prides itself on featuring five days of experimental narrative features, documentaries and short films. They’re the anti-film festival in a way, programming the kind of challenging, off-the-radar fare that you won’t see anytime soon at Sundance or Tribeca.
At least, that’s what they’d have you believe. Like your parents calling your favorite band cool, I may be about to ruin the edgy festival’s reputation. But such is the risk when the programming is actually quite approachable. Book-ended by two rather traditional documentaries in the festival’s opening and closing night slots, twelve short film programs and about as many feature-length films fill in the evening and weekend programming running May 31 through June 4, many of them Chicago and regional premieres.
Sure, there’s the wacky and the odd and the unexpected. That alone might be enough to keep your average movie-goer away. But believe me when I say, at least in what I previewed in advance of the annual event, much of it is wonderfully unique and also entirely approachable for even the most vanilla of cinephiles. And despite how that sounds, I’d argue that’s actually a great thing for independent film and film festivals in Chicago. Come for the expected, stay for the surprising.
The event kicks off with Drifting Toward The Crescent, an observant documentary that zooms in on one small town on the Mississippi and the deteriorating prospects of its residents as the modern world zips by around them. Itself a bit of a drifting, aimless film, it’s nonetheless an interesting portrait of what the festival is describing as “Trump’s forgotten people.” While this one 90-minute doc will not likely change the discourse around America’s class, racial and political divides, it may be a jolt of perspective for a city as blue as Chicago. The film, by documentarian Laura A. Stewart, is a local find; it notes festival presenting organization IFP Chicago as its fiscal sponsor.
Closing out the festival is Manlife: Last of the Lawsonians, a traditionally crafted biographical documentary about the last adherent to something called Lawsonomy, a social movement/cult/religion founded by aircraft pioneer Alfred Lawson following the depression. Merle is nearly 98 years old and he’s still living a lifestyle dedicated to the tenants of Lawsonomy, including physical and mental accountability, a strong moral center and a government-focused economic model replacing all banks. An amenable guy by any standards, we’re meeting Merle as the movement has long since passed its prime and he’s navigating how to craft his own legacy and that of his lifestyle as a Lawsonian. Though the filmmaking isn’t anything daring, the portrait of a fiercely independent man actually living to the beat of his own drum after all these years certainly fits with the festivals manifesto.
In between, film programs feature a selection of shorts that play together to the length of your average feature, and run under names reminiscent of “Friends” episode titles. There’s “The One with The Flicker,” “The One with Satan’s Baby,” and “The One with the Whale Carcass” to name a few. I previewed “The One with The Tongue” and “The One with The Governor,” and while there’s plenty of quirky imagery and eccentric filmmaking across the varied short films, there’s also a lot of thoughtfulness and a great deal of humanity. A “docufantasy” explores a poets words through imagery; rough-around-the-edges animation depicts illness both mental and physical; a politician’s words are used against him via clever editing; and the state of Polish politics is mirrored in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Artistic, poignant, sharp, relevant.
The Chicago Underground Film Festival features over 100 films – features and shorts – from all over the world (though the majority are U.S.-made), each chosen with care to fit the festival’s mission of bringing films that are challenging, rebellious, other to audiences who, whether they realize it or not, desperately need to see them. This isn’t your grandmother’s film festival, and that should be endorsement enough to make time to check it out.
Chicago Underground Film Festival, May 31-June 4 at Logan Theater, Chicago. Learn more and get tickets here.