One of American cinema’s most unusual delights celebrated its 20th birthday in Boston, Massachusetts last week. The Boston Underground Film Festival has a simple name and premise, but its breadth of content is far from standard. Its fearless leaders, Nicole McControversy and Kevin Monahan, consistently curate beguiling, unexpected work from around the world. With films from Turkey, Mexico, the UK, South Korea and more, the festival has outdone itself, but beyond internationality, the programming is inclusive as well.
This year's festival opened with My Name is Myeisha, a searing experimental drama recounting a true story of police brutality. Good Manners closed out the festival, bringing a tense, beautifully shot twist on several genres from Brazil. Its quiet characterizations and slow-building oddities create an almost lulling pace, so the moments of horror arise suddenly with genuine effect. The matte paintings and direct framing harken back to 1950s science fiction, but its deeply tormented characters and story lead it into the territory of tragic fairy tales. At its core, this is a story of devotion—the blind and damaging kind.
Among the winners of the aptly-named Bacchus Awards were My Name is Myeisha, The Queen of Hollywood Blvd, and Tigers Are Not Afraid, while Pin Cushion, MexMen and The Ranger received runner-up honors.
Short films rarely have a reach beyond the festival circuit, but they often prove to be the most interesting sections of these events. 2017 favorites “Flow” and “They Came Without Warning” returned here, along with a new film from the deranged creator of “Gwilliam” and a legion of other curiosities. BUFF always honors films shot in its native state, providing them with their own block titled Homegrown Horror. Touching from a Distance brought a range of unusual genre tales, from the Black Mirror-esque trauma of “Contact” and the grim, high-concept “Let Them Die Like Lovers”, to the surreal anxiety within “Beautiful Injuries” and “Limbus”—all of them bound together by unusual emotional depth.
By curating so many different sections of shorts, all with a different focus and purpose, the festival allows for an impressive range of genres and styles. The eternally NSFW Trigger Warning short films section has seen some disgusting gems in the past and this year delivered visceral self-mutilation in “The Itch” and bizarre (uncensored) sex in “Queen Kong,” among others. Dark humor occupied the Comedy? Maybe! section, and animation found its place in The Ghost in You slate, while even music videos were showcased in Sound & Vision. “The Burden,” “End Times,” “Let Them Die Like Lovers”, and “Contact” all walked away with Bacchus Awards of their own.
Glorious content aside, the festival’s most interesting facet this year is its diversity. At least half of the feature films were helmed by women, from last year’s festival classics like Tigers Are Not Afraid and Revenge to newer stories like Pin Cushion and The Ranger. There were films led and made by people of color, a variety of queer relationships and personalities, fantastical catharsis for people who aren’t often represented in this realm of storytelling. These programmers make the effort that this industry tends to deem unnecessary, and they make it look effortless. The visions are wide-ranging, too, from gorgeously stylized violence to crisp sci-fi, gritty realism to neon-fueled surrealism. It’s vital to remember how malleable this art form is, particularly in its ability to create universal empathy across a variety of borders.
Boston Underground and its filmmakers speak to a future for the industry that we can only hope will come to fruition on a wider scale. The films it celebrates are terrifying, beautiful, hilarious, and heartbreaking—in their worlds, magic can protect children from violence, cruelty can be avenged, and monsters sometimes become our saviors. Considering the weird but essential visions that this event publicizes, we can only hope that it will continue to grow for the next 20 years, so long as it retains the weirdness that makes it special.
Check here to read more of Ben Larned's coverage of the 2018 Boston Underground Film Festival!