GORGEOUS, Opening Night Showcase – Director Ryan Njenga
If there is something close to cinema withdrawal, it would be the sensation of having just returned from a trip to someplace both exotic and familiar. The Kansas City Underground Film Festival, which opened Sept. 16 and runs through Sept. 26, features 114 films, culled, says KCUFF’s director and co-founder Willy Evans, from 800 submissions requiring 400 hours of viewing by the KCUFF board. Represented are 27 countries, and 39 of the films are from filmmakers in Missouri and Kansas. The festival succeeds in presenting the familiar in its weirdness and the exotic in its commonplace.
Charlotte Street Foundation’s modern, new space, 3333 Wyoming, offers a perfect venue for the festival. Evans, a Manhattan, Kan., native, was looking for a space that made sense for the needs of the festival. He founded the festival with Kari Bingham-Gutierrez to fill the anticipated gap when arthouse mainstay Tivoli closed its doors in 2019. The festival’s mission is to remove obstacles for filmmakers and moviegoers, so the former pay no or low submission fees, depending on if they are local or international, and the latter pays no admission.
Over a balmy late September opening weekend — a far cry from the festival’s opening year, 2020, which necessitated an outdoor setting during a chilly and rainy October — attendees were treated to a vast array of showcases that met KCUFF’s goal of bringing “underseen and independent films to the Kansas City community.” Post-festival, Evans hopes the CSF sponsorship might provide a future alliance in regard to film preservation; CSF presently contains an archive of local filmmakers.
KCUFF’s opening weekend’s local film showcase ran the gamut in tone and style. The opening salvo, “Come on Baby, Shake Your Body Baby, Do the Conga,” was a two-minute cocktail of a man getting up the nerve to ask his crush to dance but being swept into a — well, won’t give the spoiler. Other offerings for this showcase included “Gorgeous,” a contemplation on race filmed as a visual poem; “Goodbye, Vietnam,” an animated documentary narrated by the filmmaker about her father; “Breaking an Image,” a compelling look at fame and mall culture, and “Faces of Suicide,” which focused on the grief and heartbreak of those left behind.
The Horror Shorts Showcase was a strong indicator that the September 25 showcase, Female Lead Horror, will be a can’t-miss affair. The latter title implies that the films meet the Bechdel Test, in which two women can hold a conversation about something other than a man. “Bastion,” the Horror Showcases’s French language feature about two women surviving on their own in a world at war, seems to meet that criterion. “Dora,” another French language film, delighted in the perverse in how it handled dynamics of mother/daughter tension.
A local showcase featured Petey McGee’s beautifully wrought exploration of identity and perception in “Skin Deep.” The Intimate Filmmaking-Single Subject Documentary showcase dove into two disparate stories. “Good Intentions” followed the attempts of a man to overcome his addiction; if there were an award for Most Harrowing, this self-filmed documentary might have won. “Built Lands” captured the daily life of Felix Cuadrado Lomas, the last remaining artist from a late ’60s collective who chose to settle in a rural Spanish village and endures to well-deserved recognition. The Queer Shorts Showcase featured local filmmaker Knik Woods’ “Epiphany at the Honky Chateau.”
Evans seems to have intuited that attendees might crave variance. “Two Miles East,” one of the documentaries from the Earnest, Thoughtful Documentary showcase, examined the emotional impact on Dan Yoon, who lost his family, and the remaining community after the 2008 crash of a military training flight. The following film, “Verplant,” was a comic travelogue by Waldemar Schleicher following two longtime friends on their attempts to bicycle from Germany to Vietnam.
The final day of the first weekend featured two shorts that, though they didn’t appear in the same showcase, explored family. Andrew Horng’s “Tammy” humorously critiques the Asian American experience. Horng’s black and white feature, which has also been viewed at several film festivals — KCUFF does not preclude entries that have been shown at previous festivals —allowed him to poke gentle fun at his culture’s emphasis on science over arts.
Nicholas Sparger’s nine-minute short, “Chuck, Forever After,” gave a bittersweet glimpse at memory loss. Filmed in the residence facility where Sparger’s grandfather now lives, the film speaks to those who have been deprived of visits to loved ones in the past year due to COVID-19. “Some things disappear,” Sparger says, “but other things reappear.”
The festival also boasts a few world premieres: the first weekend had “The Things Where They No Longer Are,” an Argentina offering from Fabio Vallarelli, and “Excluded,” a Swedish film from Hiwa Abbasi, relevant for its examination of migrants attempting to resettle while navigating personal changes and bureaucracy. The second weekend features the premiers of “8MM Boys,” about a group of Appalachian filmmakers; “The Straitjacket,” a noirish take on addiction, and “Yang Metal Rat,” a documentary on being in China at the very onset of the COVID outbreak.
The KCUFF runs September 23-26, with viewings from 12:30 p.m. through 8:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.kcundergroundfilmfest.com.