Boston Underground Film Festival preview: the subterranean avant-garde

By Ryan Yau, Assistant Living Arts Editor

What was once an all-night film marathon hosted by a single person—founder David Kleiler—is now one of the most celebrated film festivals in Massachusetts. Over the course of its 23-year run, the Boston Underground Film Festival’s ethos has remained the same: a passion for the unconventional, uncompromising, and cutting-edge corners of cinema.

In total, 14 feature-length movies will be screened at The Brattle Theatre from March 22–26, comprising 12 narrative films and two documentaries. In addition, there will be six short film blocks, each tied by a theme.

Common to every movie selected for the festival is an inability to be categorized; the lineup is a genre smorgasbord, ranging from folk horror to retrofuturist sci-fi to postmodern superhero fiction, emphasizing works that bend and blend the boundaries of convention.

“I’m fighting for certain films that would really benefit from being shown on a big screen, in the community, for fans,” said Director of Programming Nicole McControversy in an interview with WBUR.

The festival kicks off with the world premiere of “The Unheard,” the sophomore feature film of director Jeffrey A. Brown. It centers a deaf woman who begins aurally hallucinating after undergoing experimental hearing surgery, and begins spiraling in her Cape Cod childhood home. Through distorted sound and images, the psychological horror premise is twisted into an experiential nightmare.

“The Unheard” was entirely shot in Massachusetts, and the screenplay was written by Boston-based writers Michael and Shawn Rassmussen, who have previously worked with the likes of legendary horror directors John Carpenter and Sam Raimi. Alongside Brown, they will make an appearance for the screening.

Director Kirby McClure will also be in attendance for his feature debut “Spaghetti Junction.” The story follows a teenager amidst home trouble who one day encounters a mysterious man called “the traveler.” The stranger needs her help, and the fantastical mission becomes a newfound sense of purpose—or a coping mechanism—against the difficulties of her everyday life.

Another movie that subverts genre trappings is “Mister Organ,” a documentary by New Zealand–based journalist David Farrier. What starts as an ostensibly straightforward documentary about Michael Organ, an antique shop owner with a penchant for scamming, becomes a real-time unraveling of twists and turns. The result is a movie in which the relationship between subject and documenteur seems to be one of animosity.

Also screening is “Smoking Causes Coughing,” the latest movie by French director Quentin Dupieux, known for subversive absurdist comedies like “Rubber” and “Deerskin.” The ostensible plot features a Power Rangers–esque superhero group that harnesses the powers of nicotine, methanol, and other cigarette-bound chemicals to fight rubber-skinned kaiju, but quickly reveals itself to be far more uncontainably bizzare.

The pride of the festival is platforming movies that otherwise wouldn’t be widely seen, whether too freewheeling or bizarre for mainstream audiences—this includes representing peripheral or off-center viewpoints on the big screen.

Take Daniel Goldhaber’s “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” an adaptation of the eponymous 2021 manifesto that argued for sabotage against fossil fuel operations as fair game, to mixed reviews. The movie revolves around a fictional group of environmental activists who plan to commit the titular act.

And sometimes the elusive synopses speak for themselves, like with German director Ann Oren’s “Piaffe,” a film about an introverted foley artist who one day sprouts a horse tail. Or Emmy-nominated director Ryan Stevens Harris’ “Moon Garden,” described by the festival as “a phantasmagoric odyssey through the psyche of a comatose child.”

Closing off the festival is “Rebel,” from Belgian directing duo Adil El Arbi and Bilail Fallah. It follows a Belgian Muslim teenager who travels to help war victims in Syria, but is forcibly enrolled in a militia. His family at home fights for his return to Belgium, and—emblematic of the festival’s genre idiosyncrasies—the border-spanning family drama is interspersed with elements of action and musical films.

Ultimately, the festival is a place for film lovers to have fun with unique cinematic experiences, and for filmmakers with an eye toward the unseen to amplify their voices. A festival badge or tickets to individual screenings can be purchased in person at The Brattle or on its website.