Written by Michele Meek | Posted by: Anonymous
Since 1997, Evonne Wetzner has championed independent film in the Boston area through her underground film revolution screening series. NewEnglandFilm.com talked with Wetzner about the history of the series, her own film projects and some upcoming screenings.
MM: When did you begin the underground film revolution?
Wetzner: The underground film revolution (UFR) was founded in 1997 in an effort to create a venue for local film/video artists to exhibit and share their work on a regular basis in a non-competitive environment. I had recently moved back to Boston from NYC and was really aware of a lack of venues that were showcasing indie films. It seemed to me that both the content and audience was out there (in Boston), but there just weren’t a lot of resources for screening works besides larger festivals.
I started off by producing a weekly indie film series for just over two years at the Midway Cafe in Jamaica Plain. At this venue, I programmed cult/alternative feature length films (similar to the type of work shown at the Brattle or Coolidge) and sandwiched in between were mostly local indie films and videos. The great thing about this series was that we screened works by both amateur, student and more professional artists that covered all genres and formats. Some nights we’d pull out a Super-8 or 16mm projector, other nights we’d project video — it was all very casual. We had a few nights when a local Berkley film-score student named Brian Hawke directed a live performance of an original jazz score to the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. That night was standing room only; other nights I was lucky to get 5 people down there. It was a great learning experience in producing events — what worked and what didn’t.
MM: How do you choose films to showcase? Do you take submissions or do you seek out projects?
Wetzner: At the beginning I did a lot of canvassing for submissions — a lot of word of mouth advertising, a lot of friends of friends and stuff like that. I would approach as many people as I could who I thought might have resources connected with the Boston film scene. Boston Film and Video Foundation (where I took some workshops) was a powerful resource for submissions (both from students and teachers there), the film-schools in the area was another. I would literally flyer the city looking for submissions. I also ran ads in local Jamaica Plain papers.
In the last few years, having become more Internet savvy, I mainly post submission calls online. There are several sites that have proven to be strong resources and at this point, I get submissions from all over the world! Ironically, at the beginning, I struggled to have enough content to fill a 1/2 hr slot; now I have way too many submissions to ever show. Receiving a plethora of submissions allows me to more carefully curate and produce shows with a higher content level.
MM: Do you produce films in addition to running the UFR?
Wetzner: I am a filmmaker as well, although running UFR and working full-time has left me with very little time to work on my own projects. I am mainly interested in documentary video, though I have made some short super-8 and 16mm pieces as well. The project I completed back when I started UFR (with Dianne Bernard), "Stop and Search Boston," has screened a few times at different UFR events. It is a documentary examining illegal stop and search practices by the Boston Police, the affects the mass media has in creating a status-quo for such practices and the effects such practices have on the community as a whole.
Being a filmmaker had direct impact on starting the series. Like I said, there didn’t seem to be a lot of resources, besides festivals, for filmmakers (including myself) to exhibit their work in a non-competitive environment. I realized that if I was frustrated (as an artist and a film-lover) with the lack of venues in the city to see independent work, others probably were as well. That was a large part of what prompted me to start the series.
MM: What led you to your interest in indie film?
Wetzner: Growing up, I always loved movies. As I got older, I began to stray away from mainstream films and become more interested in "indie film". When I was maybe 13, I saw Repo Man and fell in love with that sort of cult-film/alterna-culture–probably partially due to my own teen rebellion phase. A lot of kids got into underground music, I got into underground film.
In high school, I was involved in theatre, both as an actor and then as a director. This interest continued in college, but I began to focus more on film; making the switch from directing stage performances to video was fairly natural. When I moved back to Boston, I started taking classes at BF/VF and that was when my film interests took a different direction towards producing.
MM: How do you pick venues to show films at?
Wetzner: I am interested in creating alternative venues to screen films at throughout the city. Bars, galleries, even outdoor spaces, seem to be practical choices. The whole point is to bring audiences to films that they might not otherwise get a chance to see and to bring films to audiences that might not otherwise have a chance to be screened publicly.
I started UFR in my neighborhood of Jamaica Plain because JP has a strong artist contingent and is overall very supportive of the arts. I approached The Midway with my idea and offered to do the screenings on a typically off-night for bars (Mondays). The thinking was that I could drive up their business on Monday nights and in the process, create a buzz about indie films in the city.
And now UFR is back in JP at The Milky Way on the first Monday of every month, in our 5th season of programming. It feels a little bit like we’ve come full circle, back to JP where we started, but now our programming is a lot more focused. The Milky Way is a great venue for screenings because of its size and intimacy level. The Zeitgeist was a little too small, the JHCC a little too big. We started at The Milky Way in October and had about 75 people come down that first night; last month we had well over 100. Also, the audience is very respectful of the presentations (which is often a little tricky when you’re screening at a bar–people can get drunk, get loud, etc) which makes everything a lot smoother.
MM: Indie filmmakers often require a skill at "guerilla marketing" — which obviously you’re quite good at — can you offer up any advice on how to get word out on screenings?
Wetzner: I get asked that a lot and my first answer is that to me, a lot of marketing is just common sense: figure out who your audience is and how to go after them. Like I said before, I started out with an idea to bring indie films to the public and bring filmmakers a venue to share their work. Starting an actual movie theatre (my original plan) was too expensive an undertaking, so I found a bar that I could use as a screening space on a typically slow night. Then I needed to drum up press, so I started flyering around the city, at art schools, writing press releases, basically just bombarding Boston with the project. The "indie" angle was very easy to sell in the late ’90’s because indie film in general was hitting a surge in popular culture. In effect, what had once been "indie film" was actually quickly becoming mainstream, simply out of popularity and audiences seemed to be starved for anything with the alternative or indie label attached to it.
I still flyer quite a bit, accosting people I meet with handouts about UFR events. I used to send out postcards in the mail announcing show, but now I just use email to advertise events to my mailing list. I write press release every month and send those out to local papers, magazines, and radio stations. Learning to write a clear press release is an invaluable skill. I advertise online as well on various film websites. Basically, creativity and persistence can lead to a successful marketing campaign.
MM: On that topic, tell me a bit about how you get people to come to screenings?
Wetzner: I have an email list to which I send out announcements about upcoming shows. We advertise on-line at relevant websites. I have been extraordinarily lucky with the amount of positive press UFR has received. Chris Muther, who writes the GO! column for The Boston Globe, has been amazingly kind to me in his coverage of our shows. So have a lot of other writers at different publications — good press really helps drive an audience out to events.
MM: What are some of the upcoming screenings you have planned?
Wetzner: For Dec. 3rd, we are screening three selections from Roberto Arevalo’s The Mirror Project, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. I had actually known about The Mirror Project for several years and was particularly interested in it due to my background in education and working with kids. What The Mirror Project aims to do is teach young people how to make documentary videos about their own lives–something that really takes a lot of bravery if you think about it. I seriously doubt that many adults would feel comfortable turning a camera on themselves and their ideas — the fact that Roberto works with these kids and teaches them the skills to do this is so impressive… Being able to see some of these videos and learn about the kids who are making them, audiences will hopefully be less likely to rely on stereotypes about kids living in certain areas, whether we’re talking about the projects or the suburbs. The kids who are lucky enough to be involved in the project, on the other hand, learn both video production skills and gain a sense of self-empowerment by creating a voice in the media.
For January 7th, UFR will have a special New Year’s Edition that will feature 10 shorts from Joel Bachar’s amazing project, INDEPENDENT EXPOSURE. Imported straight from the west coast, INDEPENDENT EXPOSURE has been running worldwide indie film screenings for the last six years, and has featured over 500 works by international independent video, film, and digital artists, presented hundreds of times in 32 countries and Antarctica. UFR screened two INDEPENDENT EXPOSURE programs last year and another was presented by the Balagan series at the Coolidge as well. We’re excited to bring INDEPENDENT EXPOSURE back to Boston audiences. [Note: Visit www.microcinema.com for further info about this program].
MM: What’s in store for the future of UFR?
Wetzner: I am already planning the spring program for The Milky Way. As I said before, I’m trying to become more focused in my curating style — really putting together programs involving a common theme or style of filmmaking. Live music is an element that I would like to do more of with films. I have a bunch of musicians who have volunteered to create scores to silent films and perform them at the UFR shows. So, that’s something for audiences to look out for. I’m also mildly obsessed with pixelvision cameras right now (the old fisher-price plastic cameras from the ’80’s that record video images on high-bias audio cassettes) and am trying to compile a program of this type of work as well.
If people are interested in finding out more about the underground film revolution or to get on our email list, please email Evonne Wetzner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To submit a film to the underground film revolution: If a filmmaker would like to submit a piece to UFR, send a 1/2" VHS tape with any film info including total running time, original format, contact info and if possible, a short synopsis. It’s best to send works that are under 45 minutes. Occasionally they do screen feature-length projects, but shorts primarily work better for the UFR format. Submissions should be sent to: UFR, 129 Paul Gore Street #1, JP, MA. 02130.