Boston SciFi: the future of film is independent

By Ryan Yau, Living Arts Co-Editor

The Boston SciFi Film Festival is unstoppable. It began in the legendary Orson Welles Cinema, once a staple of the Boston-Cambridge independent film scene. When a popcorn-related incident burned down the theater, the spirit of the festival persisted—it moved around to various indie theaters, and currently hosts itself in the Somerville Theatre.

Boston SciFi is the longest-standing genre film festival in the U.S. For this historic event that has always been concerned with the future, the strength of its community—filmmakers and audience members—is what’s kept it alive to this day.

CEO and Festival Director Garen Daly has worked with Boston SciFi since its third festival in 1978. Throughout its history, its one constant has been community engagement.

“We’re always figuring out ways to make the event more community-oriented,” Daly said. “The community is what sustains the festival.”

The 48th annual festival was held from Feb. 15 to Feb. 20. Like many film festivals as of late, the lineup this year was hybrid: there were 13 in-person screenings, and more could be watched online with a virtual festival pass.

In addition to features, the festival had shorts programs, filmmaker panels, and community events—the festival uniquely hosts interactive events for the audience to participate in.

Boston SciFi’s most notable tradition is the 24-hour marathon that caps every festival. From noon to noon, festivalgoers check in and out to a continuous screening of sci-fi hits and misses, from “Back to the Future 2” to “Terminator 3.”

“We have people who have been coming to this event for 40-odd years,” Daly said. “And that support has sustained—it says something about the longevity of the festival.”

But the community is not limited to the audience—the festival allows newer filmmakers with sci-fi interests to connect with like-minded peers, and showcases fresh perspectives to the audience.

“We look for young filmmakers with a new vision,” Daly said. “That’s one of the things we take incredible pride in, because that’s the future of filmmaking. We act as a place where people can share the same passion they have for the genre.”

Steven Tsapelas’ feature directorial debut “UFO Club” was one of the first screenings at the festival this year. Tsapelas and producer Kenneth Frank had met at the Long Island International Film Expo, and connected because they both were around the same age and had grown up in Long Island.

Tsapelas joined In the Garage Productions, Frank’s low-budget film studio, and the two forged a strong working relationship.

“You meet a lot of people at festivals,” Tsapelas said. “Rarely do you meet someone you can connect with and make something with, but it’s still worth going to festivals for things like that, because they do happen.”

“UFO Club” is a period piece set in 1998 that follows William—played by Spencer Gonzalez—a high schooler obsessed with the X-Files and extraterrestrials. As one of his two friends is about to leave Long Island for college, he occupies himself with solving a gubernatorial conspiracy involving the arrest of a notable paranormal expert. However, to obtain the evidence needed for exoneration, he must leave his basement and talk to a girl.

The movie draws from sci-fi concepts, but homages the structure of 90s rom-coms. The nonchalant dialogue and deadpan pacing could make the movie seem more parodic than sincere, but the performances are emotive enough that “UFO Club” feels like an honest, if embellished, truth.

“He wants to know what the secrets of the universe are,” Frank said. “The idea is that he can never know what is out there if he stays in this basement, and that’s the journey we’re on with him.”

Many movies screened at Boston SciFi are low-budget, independent projects. “UFO Club” was made on a $10,000 budget and was shot in 10 days, but resources were made the most of. Tsapelas’ old high school was used as a location, and props were brought in from his and Frank’s childhoods—these details add to the authenticity of the movie.

In their festival run, Tsapelas and Frank targeted genre festivals, which are generally more open to newer filmmakers. Boston SciFi audiences were willing to give the movie a chance based on the premise, even with no prior attachment.

“Science fiction has such a fervent fan base and community,” Frank said. “People will show up for films they have no idea about—they don’t know the filmmaker, they don’t know the actors. They just love that stuff. As someone who’s made dramas and comedies, that sounds amazing.”

“UFO Club” is currently available for purchase on Amazon Prime.

Many movies screened at the festival revolve around niche interests within the sci-fi genre. “Doctor Who Am I” is one of these, and even won Boston SciFi’s Best Documentary award.

The documentary was directed by Vanessa Yuille and Matthew Jacobs. It centers on Jacobs, who wrote the notoriously disliked 1996 “Doctor Who” TV movie. Since, he had been avoiding “Doctor Who” fan conventions—the documentary chronicles his first convention appearance in the U.S.

Jacobs was Yuille’s film professor at Academy of Art University, and the two ended up becoming friends and working on various projects together. Together they founded American Anorak, an independent production company.

Yuille had not known Jacobs wrote the TV movie—when she found out, she had the instinct to document things. Filming began in 2015 and took nearly eight years to complete—much of that time was discovering the direction to take the documentary in.

“We thought there would be a story there, but we weren’t quite sure what it was,” Jacobs said. “Bit-by-bit we realized there’s a deeper story to be told—not just about me, but about that issue of how the Doctor affects us, and how that affects fandom.”

“Doctor Who Am I” is a passion project in the purest sense. The documentary was shot on a budget of zero dollars, which required Yuille to take time off from her job to shoot and edit. 

“It’s about the most independently funded film I’ve ever worked on,” Jacobs said. “But the sweat equity that went into it actually makes it one of the most expensive films ever made.”

When Jacobs enters the “Doctor Who” convention, he learns that the fans regard him as a microcelebrity, and many support his work whether they like it or not. The documentary examines how communities with idiosyncratic interests can be a sanctuary for many, and ultimately acts as a love letter to “Doctor Who” fans—and fandom at large.

After nearly a decade, Jacobs and Yuille are happy with how “Doctor Who Am I” has been received among fans—its Boston SciFi screening was populated with fans of the franchise, who were very receptive to its story.

“Doctor Who Am I” will be available for purchase on iTunes on March 28.

Boston SciFi is a testament to the low-budget ideas that become fully realized against all odds and the community willing to bolster independent filmmakers who often have little more than a camera and a dream.

“That’s why I call them festivals,” Yuille said. “You have to celebrate the fact that people finish these movies.”

The entire festival itself is a volunteer-driven effort. Even Daly, who has been directing the festival for nearly its entire history, does so out of love.

“Nobody gets paid,” he said. “We do it for the love of movies, we do it for the love of independent filmmakers, and we do it for the love of the genre.”