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The Chicago Underground Film Festival At the Logan Theatre – Continues Friday-Sunday

Ben Sachs overview of this year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival for cine-file:

The Chicago Underground Film Festival continues through Sunday at the Logan Theatre, with after parties and exhibitions at additional venues. A mini round-up of selected programs is below. Addition programs this weekend include: a gallery show of hand-made slides by filmmaker and artist Luther Price (opening reception on Friday from 6-8 at Mana Contemporary, 2233 S. Throop), and Price’s 1995 feature A (60 min, Digital Projection) along with his 1991/2002 short CLOWN (30 min, Digital Projection) showing on Saturday at 8pm; GRACE PERIOD (KyungMook Kim and Caroline Key), DIRECTOR’S COMMENTARY: TERROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (Tim Kirk), EXCURSIONS (Daniel Martinico), DEPROGRAMMED (Mia Donovon), and BOOGER RED (Berndt Mader) round out CUFF’s feature film offerings; and shorts programs abound, with work by, among many other artists, Paul Clipson, Saul Levine, Kevin Jerome Everson, Michael Wawzenek, Lori Felker, Jim Finn, Lorenzo Gattorna, Amir George, Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, Jennifer Reeder, and Usama Alshaibi. Check the festival website for more information.

The term “underground” may connote insularity, yet many of the selections in this year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival are downright outward-looking, conveying the thrill of discovering new cultures. Indeed, some of the best selections I previewed displayed the influence of ethnographic cinema in their illustration of foreign peoples and practices. In THE MASKED MONKEYS (2015, 32 min, 16mm; screening in Shorts Program #9: The Hierophant, Sunday, 3pm), directors Anja Dornieden and Juan David Gonzalez Monroy document street artists in Java who train small monkeys to perform in front of crowds. The tone is curious, even studious, the narrator explaining how this mode of entertainment has roots in religious rituals; the film is also sometimes humorous, as the filmmakers consider how events play out from the monkeys’ point of view. The black-and-white 16mm photography is gorgeous to boot, making this one of the must-see films of the festival. No less impressive is Ben Russell’s HE WHO EATS CHILDREN (2016, 26 min, video; Saturday, 9pm), which considers the interactions between natives and whites in an unidentified African nation. Russell employs a variety of visual styles (black-and-white and color, grainy and smooth) to create a phantasmagoric reverie on the fall-out of colonialism; the film is hypnotic even as it touches upon a history of horrors. CHILDREN plays with Jules David Bartkowski’s feature PASTOR PAUL, another, far loopier tale of whites in Africa. Bartkowski stars as Benjamin, an American mathematician who goes to Ghana to study the rhythmic patterns of ritualistic drum circles. In Accra, he gets recruited to act in a local movie and, during the shoot, gets possessed by a demon. It’s all done in the cheap, matter-of-fact style of Ghanaian and Nigerian video productions, which adds to the authenticity and overall weirdness. PAUL could be said to bridge the gap between the exotic and the more traditionally odd pieces in this year’s festival, of which there are plenty. Shorts Program #8: Wheel of Fortune Reversed (Saturday, 10pm) trades primarily in the weird-for-weird’s-sake, with some detours into straight-up horror. (It even contains a cameo from John Carpenter.) The centerpiece of the program is local artist Molly Hewitt’s MAGGIE’S PROBLEM (2014, 31 min, video), a campy, shot-on-VHS melodrama about an abused housewife who embarks on a love affair with a sea monster. The colors are garish, the cinematography is resolutely lo-fi, and many of the jokes are laugh-out-loud funny—it couldn’t be any more different from the documentary FOCUS ON INFINITY (2014, 79 min, video; Saturday, 4pm), which gives you a sense of how expansive the festival’s vision is. INFINITY is a somber, formally controlled work about scientists who study the origins of the cosmos. Less mind-blowing than mind-tickling, it invites a calm curiosity about some of the biggest questions of existence. The closing night film, Joel Potrykus’ THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK (2016, 82 min, video; Sunday, 8pm), also considers scientific inquiry, albeit of a more questionable kind. The hero, Sean, is a young black man living in a trailer in the woods and trying to unlock the ancient secrets of alchemy. Like Potrykus’ previous feature, BUZZARD, this is a punkish, darkly funny, and deliberately roughshod production about a misfit living on the margins of 21st-century America. Here is a director with a true outsider’s vision; his work makes a fitting conclusion to the festival. BS