10 Years of Unknown Pleasures – American Independent Film Festival

A good way to kick off the new cinematic year in Berlin is by attending Unknown Pleasures – American Independent Film Festival, that was on from January 1st – 21st. Berlin Film Journal had a pleasure to conduct an interview with the festivals programmers few years back, so let’s dive into an overview of its decade long activity and persistence.

The festival’s first edition took place in January 2009 and it opened with Chelsea On The Rocks, a movie by Abel Ferrara. It’s an interesting opening credit, by one of the most exciting and uncompromising American directors. Starting his career in the 70s, shooting porn from his New York home to work his way to becoming one of the key figures of the independent film scene of the 80s and 90s. What makes this choice interesting and very much understandable, is that there is no other filmmaker as independent as Abel Ferrara. His body of work is marked by raw, unprecedented and unique style that doesn’t tolerate importance of who produces the movies, how much money he has, and if it’s supported by any large studio or not, his energy and uncompromising style is hard to shake off. The truth is that he funded his projects mostly out of his own pocket. What matters the most is his personal insight and relation to the story he is filming. This is probably one of the most important characteristics of an independent filmmaking. The personal insight.

Medicine For Melancholy, 2008

Troughout the years, Unknown Pleasures showed various films made outside the mainstream film industry (the big studio offices). It’s interesting to observe how some of the first films shown by the directors such as Barry Jenkins (Medicine For Melancholy, 2007) or Brothers  Safdie (The Pleasure of Being Robbed, 2008) or even The Wrestler by Darren Aronofsky are being noticed by the bigger distributors 10 years later, and getting more and more money and visibility by the mainstream audience. Trough out the years festival programmed works by Frederic Wiseman, Thom Andersen, and Nicholas Ray – one of the best paid directors in 1950s and by the 70s practically broke, but still very creative and uncompromising, which is greatly seen in his experimental film We Can’t Go Home Again, most radical one in his oeuvre. In 2014, the festival showed the film by Paul Schrader The Canyons, a so-called microbudget erotic triller, one of my personal favorite from this director.

This years festival showed Paul Schrader’s latest movie First Reformed. To mention a few other titles: Diane by Kent Jones, Marfa Girl 2 (and Marfa Girl from 2012) by Larry Clark, my personal best from last year’s Ray Meets Helen, 22nd feature film by Alan Rudolf and two films by Bill Morrison: Dawson City:  Frozen Time from 2016, and DECASIA from 2002, both of which were two closing films for this 10th edition.

First Reformed, 2017

What all these films share is a certain way of telling the story, production, writing and directing, burdened less by demands of the big studios to stay within the certain frame and worrying about paying the money back. It’s made outside of a certain system, that on, one hand grants bigger visibility and more money, but shrinks the creativity. The idea Unknown Pleasures is trying to establish is, by showing few bigger titles such as -in this case Paul Schrader’s First Reformed or previous years Zero Dark Thirty (for which many of the critics will say is not an independent filmmaking, although I would always disagree on this fact, as Katryn Bigelow is one of the rearest examples of certain personal filmmaking) in order to use the money to finance the screenings of offbeat choices. We also have to understand that the world changed, cinema changed due to digitalization and being independent now and 20 years ago are two very different positions. The digitalization of the cinema comes as two edged sword, therefor the movies made with 10 millions or 6000 dollars can both be called independent, which do not grant the same starting point for everybody.

Again, it’s more about the personal, the way the story is told and put on the screen. Independent can also mean not following the trend or the programme guidelines, not necessarily fitting next best film festival or competing on a film market. The above mentioned digitalization made it possible for filmmakers to upload their work on YouTube or Vimeo or any other streaming device, for very little money, this however begs the question what is the filmmakers aim, to earn more money or to make art. To  pharapraze late Jonas Mekas , the godfather of the avantgarde film and independent filmmaking; today more then ever, people are dedicated to making a success, in film or any other art and it comes to be  honorable and noble to embrace social and daily failure and persue to make personal things more personal, to make films more personal, which will probably bring no money and make no history, but will exist only for the sake of art, for ourselves and for our friends.

Decasia, 2002

At this years edition, I had a pleasure to watch and hear Bill Morrison speak about making of his film DECASIA from 2002 which was shown in Wolf Kino. His film Dawson: Frozen Time was shown in Kino Arsenal which is also the festival’s partner. An interesting closing choice for this years festival, a film or better an avalanche of disintegrated early nitrate film which prime material is the same one used to make gun powder. Film is indeed a war, as Samuel Fuller once declared. Dawson: Frozen Time tells the history of Dawson City that had a historical treasure of forgotten silent films buried in permafrost for decades until its discovery in 1978. DECASIA is selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry in Decemebr of 2013. This also makes it the first film from the 21st century to be inducted. Almost all the footage has been damaged due to poor storage or neglected. Also time took its toll. Unknown Pleasures is an important event for Berlin as it shows films that are rarely shown, audacious and independent, daring in form and content, adventurous and different, intelligent and entertaining. It comes as a reminder on how many films have been lost in the ruthless games of distribution and money games and how many of them are still to be find.

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