Compelling, Moving & the Perverse: Kansas City Underground Film Festival, Year 4

Still from Here, Hopefully (Kansas City Underground Film Festival)

The Kansas City Underground Film Festival opens this weekend, Sept. 7-9, and continues Sept. 13- 16 at Charlotte Street, 3333 Wyoming St. The festival, in its fourth year, features 71 titles, whittled down from 793 submissions, from all over the world, as well as our corner of it. The festival’s local showcase, Sept. 16, features roughly a dozen filmmakers from Missouri and Kansas.  

Some of the films may be “confrontational or controversial,” festival director and co-founder Willy Evans says, but this year’s festival, like the three previous iterations, delivers films that range from perverse to offbeat and edgy to compelling and moving. Nine of the directors will be attending this year’s festival (in the following text, asterisks indicate filmmakers in attendance); and the festival’s website indicates those representing their films. 

“Eldritch, USA,”* a tale of sibling rivalry and zombies in a musical/comedy format, opens the first night of the festival. Director Ryan Smith, drawing on “Evil Dead II,” George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” and Jason Segals’s “The Muppets,” keeps a tight rein navigating bright comedy song-and-dance numbers on the streets of the Springfield, Missouri locale (with music and lyrics from Smith, Nathan Harley and Davis Drake collaborating), while delivering some worthy horror moments. Among the best lines in this solidly written zombie romp: “Where’s Bruce Campbell when you need him?” 

Still from Eldritch, USA (Kansas City Underground Film Festival)

Danish director Søren Peter Langkjær Bojsen’s “The Great Glitch” features three twenty-somethings tripping into their futures during a dreamlike Copenhagen summer. “Glitch,” in the opening crawl, is defined as: “1. A minor malfunction, 2. A temporary portal to a parallel universe and 3. An opportunity for a different life.” Throughout the film, the mundane and the philosophical collide: a character sits on the toilet while watching an animated video on the universe as a product of the imagination and, before being forced out of their apartment by bedbugs, two friends debate whether they would have joined the Resistance during WWII.  

Writer-director Jay Leonard’s “Break Glass,” is a road dramedy in which Ryan, the protagonist, is on an atonement tour for his past sins. This may be the lone title with a content warning; Ryan intends to commit suicide in seven days, on the same day of his ex-wife’s wedding ceremony. For the campus comedy “Pomp & Circumstance,”*  the co-writing/co-directing team Adrian Anderson and Patrick Gray take aim at intellectual vanity. Influenced, Anderson says, by the films of Whit Stillman, Richard Linklater, and Hal Hartley, the film stars non-actors for a naturalism that “offsets some of the more stylistic writing.” Director Zachary Gutierrez’s “In a Good Way,”* a relationship story filmed in Omaha, stars director and actress, and frequent collaborators, Ryan Balas and Audrey Kovar. 

A highlight of every KCUFF is its Horror showcase. In Ivan Villamel’s “La Neuva (The Newcomer),” a 15-minute short, a new teacher transforms into her wayward students’ worst nightmare. “Two Knocks on a Door,” written and directed by Sean Kenealy and Eric Silvera, boasts Adrianna Krikl’s ominous electronic score that evokes Jocelyn Pook’s haunting music for Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” And, a newly homeless couple find themselves surrounded by masked strangers as they attempt to sleep in their car in Jason Miller’s “Ghosts of the Void.” Miller, exploring homelessness as a horror premise, opens with George Carlin’s quote, “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe in it.” 

Still from Ghosts in the Void (Kansas City Underground Film Festival)

Two feature-length documentaries deliver potent portraits of the eccentricity that sometimes finds itself nestled in rural towns. In the first, “The Noise of Fargo,”* Ben Sutherland examines a group of Noise aficionados and their attempt to present a showcase post-COVID. “It Started with a Horse”* began as a student film by Joshua Dubois about the outspoken folk artist M.T. Liggett in the early 2000s when the director first met the late artist; revisiting the material 20 years later, Dubois’s film benefits from the refreshed perspective. Mullinville, Kansas, where Liggett lived and constructed his metalworks, has since created the M.T. Liggett Art Environment, a final respect by the townspeople to the man who affectionately tormented them for more than half a century. 

Scattered among the festival program are several Shorts Blocks. The theme of the first one, Non-Fiction, features three documentaries “Water Covers Water,” about an octogenarian couple visiting family after China ended its COVID lockdown, “Just Benjamin,”*  about a transgender man and the support he receives from his father as he prepares to move to another state, and “The Wolves + Butterflies: Lupus Diaries,” a PSA for women taking control of their health. 

The second block, Half-Hour, Full Power, features five short films, notably the five-minute “Say What,” in which an arguing couple stop tuning each other out in time to surprise each other. A stand-out is the Iranian short, “For Child Never Born,” which is as poetic as it is brutal in its depiction of life as a woman under Islam. The recent news of Ali Asgari, director of “Terrestrial Verses,” a satire of the Iranian regime, being banned from making films and prohibited from leaving the country, magnifies the presence of Afsaneh Aghanezhad and Vali Bagheri’s co-directed film. 

From Shorts Block 3 – Non-Fiction 2: Documentary Boogaloo, there’s “Sad LARP,” in which a comedian gets her groove back by joining a group of camera-averse, medieval live-action role players; the gentle “Here, Hopefully,” in which a nonbinary nursing student from China adjusts to life in rural Iowa; and “Untold Story of Fatman Kayaci,” a tale of regret, guilt and family secrets set in rural Turkey. 

Still from In a Good Way (Kansas City Underground Film Festival)

Among the nine shorts under Midwest vs the World, the festival’s fourth shorts block, are “I Am Light,” Belinda Fenty’s exploration of being Black in the UK, and Hao Zhou’s “Future Flowers,” a minimalist satire of a sham-married couple, both queer, passing each other on their split shifts under the pretense they’re trying to have a pregnancy. 

“Flesh Games,”* a feature from David Dawson, hangs out with a group of unknown “stuntmen” as they film themselves committing physical pranks doomed to fail. Despite one scatological scene, the film does contain some truly funny dialogue. “We’re a bunch of f-ing losers,” Jordan, one of the group, says. “What,” says Mike, a man-child whose zeal for the video later becomes unhinged, “just because we know all the lines to ‘Men in Black’?”  

This year’s festival, like those previous, is free, but donations are always welcomed. Even though admission is free, reserving seats is suggested. The festival viewings and film information can be found on its website, https://kcuff2023.eventive.org/schedule 

Mel Neet

Mel Neet is a writer who lives in Kansas City. She has had residencies with Kansas City's Charlotte Street Foundation and with Escape to Create in Seaside, Fla. Her byline has appeared in “Pitch Weekly,” “The Kansas City Star” and “Brooklyn Rail.”

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