The 19th Boston Underground Film Festival kicks off tonight with its opening night selection Prevenge, an intriguing-looking British film about a pregnant serial killer. While that selection may have you thinking you know what Boston’s version of “underground” is, it’s actually a much broader category than just bizarre horror movie concepts.
When I first heard the term “underground film,” it referred to films by people like Andy Warhol, George Kuchar, and Jack Smith. But over the years its meaning has changed as it has become easier and easier to access “the underground.” Likewise, underground film festivals have proliferated in the years since I graduated from film school, taking the term in a different direction, as an alternative circuit for films that the more prestigious film festivals that existed 20 years ago would never have shown. But even within the world of underground film festivals, there is no fixed consensus of what “underground” really is.
Boston Underground Film Festival Director of Programming Nicole McControversy (yes, that’s the name she is going by) explains the term is defined differently for each of the numerous underground film festivals around the world. “I think a large part of it has to do with the city context. You know, what’s underground here may not be underground in New York City, for example, because that city may have more access to experimental films or things like that, and maybe we chose not to define underground with experimental films, for example,” she explains. “Although sometimes we do. It’s kind of up to us to decide what it means. And some years it changes a little bit.”
In the context of this particular city, where McControversy says there is what she calls a “conservative liberalism” that permeates audiences. “I think there are certain things that are really touchy for audiences here that might not be touchy in other places. I think transgressive cinema is harder to just bombard people with here,” she says with a laugh. But, she adds, although what the audience wants is paramount in programming the festival, she also programs work she thinks they just have to see because it’s that good and controversial and interesting.
Working with the festival for nearly 8 years, McControversy says she’s seen it grow and change. This year, for example, although the festival is not the most diverse, there is a marked increase in films by women, she says. Increasing competition from Netflix and other streaming services as well as more narrowly defined festivals such as the Boston LGBT Festival have made it hard to program as diverse a program as she would have liked in terms of the themes and directors represented. That being said, I’ve had the chance to preview a few of the films this year and I can attest to the range of types of films in the festival.
Although I’ve been to underground film festivals in New York and Chicago, this is my first Boston Underground Film Festival. I’m looking forward to it. Hope to see you there!