The End of the New York Underground Film Festival

Marking the final edition of the NYUFF, one-time director Ed Halter looks back. And forward.

In 2002, only months after September 11, the gay-hating Kansas minister Fred Phelps and his congregation decided to protest the festival (ostensibly because we rejected a documentary about him), carrying signs saying "THANK GOD FOR 9-11." This was the same year my mother and sister decided to attend the festival for the first time and became involved in the counterprotest. On videotape from that day, you can see my sister, a tough Massachusetts girl in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, screaming, "You shoulda been on those planes!" at Phelps's crew; my mother had to be escorted away by police after forcing her way through the security barrier trying to get at Fred face to face. "Wow," a festival staffer remarked to me as we got stoned in a bathroom later, "that was some mom rage!"


As the festival comes to a close, there are other good stories I could tell here: octogenarian sexploitation director Doris Wishman perched outside her screenings, interrogating anyone who left in the middle; a pre-outed JT Leroy phoning our office to ask us to fly out "his sister" for our screening of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. But enough of my memories, which are only part of the story. More credit should go to the many others who co-created the NYUFF and have now moved on to other things—especially Andrew Lampert, now the archivist at Anthology Film Archives, who helped shape the programming in its earlier days, and Kendra Gaeta, who oversaw some of the strongest editions—as well as the current directors, who've been running it since I left in 2005: Mo Johnston, Kevin McGarry, and Nellie Killian.

New York Underground Film Festival

Details

New York Underground Film Festival
April 2 through 8
Anthology Film Archives

Many months ago, the latter three and I discussed having this upcoming festival be the last. It's not a true ending, exactly; Kevin and Nellie plan to launch another event to replace it next year and continue the mission in some new way. The NYUFF model could still work—at least for staffers who are willing to sacrifice a huge chunk of their year to achieve it. But this means its existence has always, by its nature, been tenuous. I've gotten phone calls and e-mails from filmmakers freaking out, unable to comprehend the rationale. It's a conscious decision: There's no rent hike to point to, no defunding agency to blame. Ultimately, the Underground, and festivals like it, have only ever been run by two or three people at a time. True to its indie-rock genealogy, the NYUFF has always functioned more like a band than a traditional arts organization—surviving by the seat of its pants, playing on for the thrill of it without a great deal of long-term foresight. A band changes members, alters its style, expands and contracts. Sometimes, a band just decides to call it quits—and hopes to go out in style, while it's still got the knack.    

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