RT's Sydney Underground Film Festival Guide

Enter the void with new films featuring Oliver Stone, Gaspar Noé, Harmony Korine and Bill Hicks

If you’re in Sydney and looking for something a little different to the glut of studio product and tail-end-of-the-US-summer garbage, we encourage you to get along to this week’s Sydney Underground Film Festival. Running from September 9 through 11, the festival hosts a programme of features, short films and Q&A sessions that run the gamut from the fringe of Hollywood to the outer limits of the odd. Thursday night sees the Australian premiere of renegade director Oliver Stone’s documentary South of the Border, and the festival closes with Simon Rumley’s tricky psycho-love story Red, White & Blue, starring Noah Taylor as you’ve likely not seen him before. In between you can see new stuff from erstwhile Kids wunderkind Harmony Korine, Irreversible‘s controversial Gaspar Noé, and a documentary on the late great American comic, Bill Hicks. Below are just some of the highlights.

South of the Border

The man behind Platoon, Wall Street and Natural Born Killers is no stranger to movie controversy, and Oliver Stone’s latest continues his political obsessions by taking audiences deep into South American sociopolitical rhetoric. Stone travels across five continents and interviews seven of South America’s elected leaders in an attempt to address the media’s preconceptions of the continent. Should make for an interesting counterpoint to his forthcoming Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Since his untimely death in 1994, aged just 32, legendary American satirist Bill Hicks has only grown in reputation; such was the vitriol and dynamism of his acerbic wit. Matt Harlock’s and Paul Thomas’s documentary traces Hicks’ story by interviewing a group of people that knew the brilliant comedian best — including his dear old mother, likely one of the first recipients of his fierce barbs.

Enter the Void

French filmmaker Gaspar Noé made his infamy off the back of 2002’s squirmy Irreversible and his latest, about a dead teenager who reappears as a ghost in a tech-noir Japan to watch over his sister, is being hailed in some circles as a mind-rupturing masterpiece. The trailers look wild, visually at least, so this is one well worth looking into.

Trash Humpers

Harmony Korine’s screenplay for Larry Clark’s cult hit Kids — written when he was a tender 19 — put him on the movie map, and his excursions into the oddball margins have each been equally compelling. From Gummo to last year’s overlooked celebrity work Mister Lonely, his is a singular voice and vision in an independent film culture too often characterised by a generic mindset. Trash Humpers, which follows the terrorist exploits of a band of elderly miscreants, will divide audiences into “love” and “hate” camps with ease — which is exactly why we love Korine.

Red, White & Blue

For everyone who’s been patiently waiting for Noah Taylor to sink his teeth into a big, dramatic leading role — and playing a bearded sociopath at that — here’s the film not to miss. Set on the sweaty mean streets of Austin, Texas, Brit director Simon Rumley’s uneasy horror drama revolves around the strange relationship between a nymphomaniac drifter (Amanda Fuller) and Taylor’s knife-sharpening weirdo, deftly balancing grisly situations with a surprisingly affecting story of two lost souls.

Biker Fox

This documentary on Oklahoma’s “misunderstood motivational bicyclist” Frank P. DeLarzelere III is part doco, part bizarro self-help tract, described by The Village Voice as an “unwavering engagement with the question of what it means to be a genuine outsider in a place as inhospitable to weirdos as Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

Next, we talk to SUFF’s director Stefan Popescu, who discusses the festival process.

Here, straight-talking Sydney Underground Film Festival director Stefan Popescu talks to Michael Adams on how SUFF is evolving, who’s entering and what he looks for.

RT: In your opinion, how far has the festival come since 2007?

SP: It’s come a massive way. Our audience are really starting to trust and appreciate us now. In 2007 it was a little bit, ‘Oh, they’re trying to be edgy’. People didn’t know what to think. Now we’re finding a nice groove. That idea of community’s really coming through.

How many entries — both features and shorts — did you have then compared with now?

Strangely enough, it’s kinda hit a plateau. That first year, it was around the 600 mark — shorts and features — and then it grew to about 800 and it’s stayed around there.

How do you select films?

We sort through. It’s always an organic curatorial thing. We make short lists. We put ’em up against each other. Look again. It’s a matter of refining backwards and forwards.

Where do you source them?

We source a few films — like the Oliver Stone one, or the Gasper Noe film — from distributors but for the most part we try to get entries from individual filmmakers. You can see that reflected in there. The Taint, for example, the guy who’s the lead actor is also the director and I think he did the effects as well. He entered it through WithoutABox. Same with the LaFranchis documentary, or El Monstro. But then you’ve got the Oliver Stone and Gasper Noe films. It’s a mix of both. We like that democratic approach. We try to keep a balance.

What kind of films do you look for?

For us, it really has to be doing something different. Just because it’s played at other festivals, or because it looks good, or because it’s entertaining — that does not cut the mustard. Really, it’s about: is it promoting difference? Is it getting people to think differently about film experience? We like the idea of growth rather than a formula or system.

So Trash Humpers, The Taint, Life and Death of a Porno Gang and a few others are all controversially violent and sexual. Is this part of the cunning plan? Does a bit of protest and outrage go a long way?

It does but we take the stance that we’re firm believers that what we’re doing is culturally viable and if people want to get their backs up it’s a reflection on them. I guess the reason we screen this stuff is that no-one else is screening it. It’s as simple as that. If the mainstream purveyors of culture were screening these movies, then we probably wouldn’t.

It’s great you’re showing American: The Bill Hicks Story.

It’s fantastic and it’s exactly the sort of energy that the festival thrives on. That film was actually one of the first we were exposed to this year and its energy, its zeitgeist, has really influenced our programming.

There are only a couple of Australian features — El Monstro Del Mar and the Lanfranchis Memorial Discotheque documentary. Why is that? Lack of submissions? They weren’t good enough?

There was about four or five Australian films that we really would’ve liked to program. But we couldn’t really program them up against the other international films as world class, against Oliver Stone or Gasper Noe or Harmony Korine. We don’t compensate for Australian films, it’s as simple as that. We’re like, ‘If your film makes it in, we’re f**kin’ genuine.’ We’re not screening it because Screen Australia’s funding us, because no-one’s funding us. We’ve lost a lot of friends because we don’t screen their stuff! So, something like El Monstro certainly deserves to be in there, and same with the Lanfranchis film and the ton of Australian shorts, which make up about 60 percent of that program.

So you would’ve liked to program more Aussie features, they just weren’t good enough?

It’s a combination of us not having enough money for more than three days of festival and that they weren’t good enough to get into the three days we have. If we had an extra day or two days, some of them would’ve for sure. It’s unfortunate in that respect but hopefully when we grow a bit, more can be included. But I will say that the Australian films we’re seeing are really good, compared with what they were like in 2007. We’re starting to get a real identity, moving away from the whole genre discussion, which is about 20 or 30 years too late anyway. There are a few filmmakers who’re making these movies that’re coming into their own. The dialogue’s getting better, the narrative’s getting better, and they’re also not caring about Screen Australia money so they’re really starting to put in some horrible sh*t!

For more information on the SUFF programme, and to buy tickets online, visit their site here.

Next, Red, White & Blue director Simon Rumley on the role Noah Taylor always wanted to play.

Without question one of the highlights of this year’s SUFF is Red, White & Blue, the new feature from British director Simon Rumley. Located among the sleazy bars and streets of Austin, Texas, the movie concerns Erica (Amanda Fuller), a sexually prolific young woman who — in between screwing her way vengefully through the local douche circuit — befriends a sociopathic drifter with a scary past, Nate (played with terrifying gusto by Noah Taylor). The film is a complicated beast, lurching from social terror to sequences of grisly horror, and anchored by two fantastic lead performances — particularly from a bearded, emaciated Taylor, who blends tenderness with psychosis in the dramatic role we all knew he had in him. Here, director Rumley chats about why he chose his leading man, and the expectations of audiences.

RT: First of all, Noah Taylor – this performance, wow. How did you and Noah hook up for this?

I’d been watching Noah’s films since I was a teenager, you know, when he did The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting, and have loved him ever since, really. When we started looking at casting, and I wrote down a list of actors I was interested in, Noah was one of them. I got in touch with his agent and I actually thought he was in Australia, but it turns out he was in Brighton which is about an hour south of London. It seems to be a bit of an enclave for all these people from Melbourne — Nick Cave lives there and I think probably John Hillcoat lives there, or at least he used to. And he was available, so as soon as we realised that it was, okay, “Let’s make him an offer.” His main thing I think was to be reassured that it wasn’t gonna be a Hostel or a Saw or, you know, a slightly gratuitous blood fest and I assured him it wouldn’t . It turns out that he’d always wanted to play a serial killer, or a killer at least, and had been offered a few roles but had found them all too schlocky. Actually in the end he got quite excited about playing it and did a fantastic job.

How did he prepare?

I know he listened to that radio guy Alex Jones, in Texas, who has his own radio show and is this kind of right wing extremist into these kinds of crazy theories and stuff; he has this very strong Texan accent. I think initially Noah started listening to him, and he’s also quite a big fan of the guy who wrote The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson — so with this combination of Jim Thompson and Alex Jones, and his clothes, he came up with this character. At one point he told me, “I’ve read the script quite a few times and it’s taken me a while to realize — I see it as a love story. “ And that’s exactly what it is; it’s one of the main things we were going after. I guess I cast him because there’s always been a great kind of softness in his characters, starting with the boy in The Year My Voice Broke, and I thought that he could instinctively do it. He’s a lovely guy and an interesting guy… and he subsequently said it was his favourite film that he’d worked on. So that was very nice of him.

He brings empathy to a disturbed character — was that your intent?

Yeah, I mean my last film wasn’t dissimilar in that bad things happen to people but no one does these things especially maliciously. When I started writing the film I thought, “How can I make a horror film that ticks all the horror boxes but isn’t necessarily a horror film,” something that subverts the conceit of what your traditional horror film is. In doing that I was thinking, well, a horror film is basically about people running around killing people or trying not to be killed , so I came up with the idea of Erica. I think it’s fascinating to look at horror films and look at the bad guys, the murderers, you know, the Michael Myers and those types, and you think, “Okay you’ve got these guys going around killing mercilessly, seemingly with no reason, can we find the reason — without actually justifying that, but make it understandable?” So that was something minutely in the back of my mind as I was doing it, and the more I wrote the more that kind of came out

The thing about this film is that they’re all murderers aren’t they, in their own way?

Yeah. The idea was to get the audience to watch it and come out thinking, “Hang on, that’s kind of crazy — we’ve seen all this mayhem and destruction but we don’t actually feel that any of the characters are inherently evil, they’re just kind of misguided.” It’s very much a tragedy, more than anything, the whole situation.

Were you conscious of how far you went with the physical violence in the film?

Well when I wrote it I sort of took Audition as a bit of a template, which has a kind of very long, gradual build up, and then when it finally hits the fan it goes pretty crazy and brutal and gruesome. So the script was a lot harsher, to be honest, but for various reasons we did not go down that road in the end. It’s funny because people perceive this as being a quite violent film, but relatively speaking there’s a lot less violence than there is in the average kind of Hollywood blockbuster. But I guess your investment in the characters is such that these deaths actually mean something.

The characters themselves are quite scary though, and not even when they’re doing anything violent — Frankie, for example, that scene with the ring — I found that squeamish.

Yeah, that’s actually one of my favourite scenes in the film. Out of all of the characters he is seemingly the most normal, but then when stuff goes wrong he’s the one who can least handle it and loses it the most. It’s funny, it’s almost bordering on really black comedy, in a way. It’s more of a terror film than a horror film.