The Boston Underground Film Festival

“My intention was to generate a discussion,” said filmmaker Sam Zavieh at the Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF) in Cambridge last week. It was the premier of his untitled film, a short 4-minute montage of illustrations shown in tandem with a speech given by President Bush concerning “outrages upon human dignity.” Zavieh’s work had been played as part of an hour-long collection of political shorts from the United States and Australia.

The collection, entitled Free Speech Zone, was shown early Saturday afternoon. And by then, the festival was already in full swing, having shown feature-length American Stag on Thursday evening and a full roster of films on Friday from mid-afternoon to about one in the morning. And after the lights went up on Free Speech Zone, the festival continued in both the Brattle and AMC theaters in Harvard Square for another eleven hours of what the directors call “some of the most exciting, innovative, and incendiary cinema that is likely to be ignored by the mainstream.”

It’s this genre of “the ignored” that comprises the Boston Underground Film Festival’s repertoire. It represents a broad spectrum, from experimental animation such as Sean Meredith’s Dante’s Inferno, to political and social commentary, and even an exploration into darker genres that in the “mainstream” might be flatly dubbed adult. “Do not be frightened by the word ‘underground’,” warn the festival’s administrators to audiences that they suspect could be turned off by visions of poorly-lit, poorly-produced, and poorly-conceived efforts at film noir. While grainy black-and-white experimental films do have a place in the festival, the administrators have announced that the screening committee has endeavored to keep the vocabulary diverse.

This effort at diversity was reflected as well in the range of countries represented at the festival. The works extended beyond the scope of American independent cinema, and included contributions from Canada, Australia, Japan, Russia, Israel, Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

The crowd spanned the spectrum in age, many having traveled from out of town for the event. The underground moviegoers were not always many, but they were a receptive audience, clapping enthusiastically after each showing. When Sam Zavieh stood at the front of the theater with BUFF director Anna Feder and told us that his intentions had been to generate discussion, the audience was quick to comply, exchanging thoughts on the moviemaking process and on the effects of YouTube on the medium of short film. Zavieh also talked about his motives and his sources, central of which was a quote from E. L. Doctorow in protest of the Iraq War.

Anna Feder and co-director Kevin Monahan had previously expressed their hope that the festival would open can after can of worms. “We’re not just talking about pushing the rhetorical envelope.” On Saturday, as Feder introduced the first film of the day, she said, “This will get you talking.”