Now in its 13th year, the New York Underground Film Festival marches into adolescence under the watch of new director Mo Johnston. As ever, the seemingly scattershot lineup—encompassing music videos and experimental shorts as well as conventional documentary and narrative features—is less the consequence of undisciplined programming than an honest reflection of the amorphous nature of “underground” cinema. This year’s model is bookended by two ambitious works, opening with Jim Finn’s first feature Interkosmos and closing with Mike Kelley’s three-hour “video art musical” Day Is Done. A musical of sorts in its own right, Interkosmos is a meticulously crafted faux documentary about a fictitious 1970s East German space mission. Transcending mere Communist kitsch, it may be the first film to thank both Judy Garland and Hugo Chavez in the closing credits.
Another standout is JL Aronson’s Danielson: A Family Movie, a deftly organized profile of Christian indie-rockers the Danielson Famile. Started in the mid ’90s by then college student Daniel Smith with his four siblings, Danielson has struggled for acceptance in the aesthetically conservative CCM community on account of their bizarre live shows—band members perform in nurses’ uniforms and Daniel has been known to sing in a tree costume—and experimental sound (described on Allmusic as Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band crossed with the Partridge Family). Comprising interviews, home videos, and concert footage, Aronson’s evenhanded doc confronts both the wretchedness of much openly Christian art and the lingering prejudice against openly Christian artists, charts the friendship between Daniel and sometime band member Sufjan Stevens during the latter’s meteoric rise to stardom (to less schematic effect than the Newcombe-Taylor relationship in Dig!), and portrays Daniel himself as a lucid eccentric overflowing with creative energy. It’s a delight even for the uninitiated, although those not raised in a conservative Christian environment may not fully comprehend the cosmic implications of the moment when the band earnestly prays to God, “Thank you for Steve Albini.”
Cheerfully obscene, the micro-budget Bulldog in the White House
is a loose retelling of Les Liaisons Dangereuses set in an all-gay Bush administration, with disgraced White House reporter/online hustler Jeff Gannon in the Valmont role. The concept is inevitably funnier than the execution but the semi-coherent narrative tracks as a burlesque revue of Bush II scandals. Director Todd Verow plays Bulldog (after Gannon’s real-life pseudonym), and his movie, not unlike the man who inspired it, comfortably splits the difference between political commentary and gay porn.
Two documentaries use a woman’s death as a gateway into the politics of the West Bank. States of Unbelonging recounts a correspondence between its New York–based director, Lynne Sachs, and a friend in Israel revolving around the 2002 murder of Israeli filmmaker Revital Ohayon and her two children in a terrorist attack. Both humanist reverie and implicit cautionary tale, the film is ambivalent in more ways than one, ironically evoking the Old Testament, and evidently taking its cues from Ohayon’s own work, described by her husband as less a search for answers than an attempt to “put a question mark in the right places.”
States of Unbelonging decries Israel’s West Bank wall for cutting Palestine off from itself; the more resolutely materialist Palestine Blues decries the wall for cutting Palestine off from its water. Palestinian American filmmaker Nida Sinnokrot’s film begins with the 2003 death of American activist Rachel Corrie, going on to detail both the wall’s construction and the corresponding resistance (including a couple firefights). Marred only by the increasingly ubiquitous problem of flat narration, Palestine Blues is a vital corrective to omission-riddled mainstream media accounts, and a nice illustration of why both the underground and the Underground remain relevant, even essential.