Underground but not in hiding

From top: Mojados: Through the Night, a documentary by McAllen filmmaker Tommy Davis, follows the attempt of illegal Mexican immigrants to cross into the United States. Stills from a documentary about the legendary Austin nightclub, Antone's, and Moonlight, both of which will screen this weekend at the San Antonio Underground Film Festival.
Underground but not in hiding

By John DeFore

It still screens on VHS, but the San Antonio Underground Film Festival has a Sunset Station-size audience

Our city's most prominent film festival may be "underground," but that doesn't mean it's unknown. This year, the San Antonio Underground Film Festival was forced to find a larger venue, having filled the Alameda to standing room capacity for two nights of last year's run. Fest founder and organizer Adam Rocha displays characteristically uninhibited pride in explaining the move to Sunset Station: "That's the beauty of it; it's grown like a motherfucker."

The event, now in its 10th year, was inspired by Rocha's experiences at the San Diego Latino Film Festival, where the aspiring filmmaker was screening a film. He spent a week observing that event's administrators, and figured he could pull off something of the sort in SA. "I wanted to bring Sundance-type films to the Alamo City," he once told Movie Maker magazine - but the definition of "Sundance-type films" has changed dramatically over the years. Rocha's three-day program is more likely to feature 12-minute shorts with three-person crews than Memento or In The Bedroom, the kind of movies Sundance launches.

"Ultimately we prefer shorts to features," he admits, recognizing the difference between a high-profile, media-saturated movie market and a micro-budgeted celebration of homemade flicks. Sundance hopefuls may compete for a blurb in Premiere or an advance from Miramax, but the top prize at SAUFF is a low-rider bicycle. (Even rejected entrants, though, get a T-shirt as a consolation prize.)

This year the festival received 103 entries, Rocha says, a number light on feature-length titles and heavy on non-fiction ones. A panel headed by Dagoberto Patlan whittled those down to 55 selections - a fifth of them made locally, the rest from as far away as Australia and Portugal - all of which will be screening here for the first time. Approximately a third of the films have made appearances at such well known events as Cannes, SXSW, and Sundance.

Whether the original film was shot on celluloid or consumer-grade VHS, everything at SAUFF is shown on video. Attendees are advised not to complain, as the subject makes Rocha a little testy: "Yes, we are still projecting from video, unless I can borrow your 35mm projector or $5K to rent one. I started this festival with the money I made as a busboy. Ten years later, I'm a school teacher, i.e. don't make any kind of money to finance a film projected festival."

Glancing through the program, some of this year's entries appear engineered to stand out from the crowd. Where else might San Antonio film buffs encounter Cannibal Maniac, Commode Creations: The Artwork of Barney Smith, or Booze Clues? Rocha recommends catching this year's documentaries such as Mojados: Through the Night, McAllen filmmaker Tommy Davis' hour-long chronicle of four Mexican men trying to cross illegally into the U.S. Also promising is Half Cocked Firelock: Time Served in Santa Anna's Army, in which David N. Reyes interviews Texas men who were paid $100 a day to play Mexican soldiers in Disney's version of The Alamo.

The 10th Annual
San Antonio Underground
Film Festival

Friday through Sunday,
June 25 - 27
$10 each day (all-day pass)
Sunset Station Complex
1174 E. Commerce
For schedule and more info: www.safilm.com
Audience members hoping to see stars of the silver screen will have slimmer pickings here than at other cities' festivals, but will spy Bruce Davison (mutant-phobic Senator Kelly from X-Men) in Marton Varo, Jr.'s short Rules of the Game (not to be confused with Jean Renoir's classic French film). Sometime Austinite Sandra Bullock pops up in Antone's: Home of the Blues, a doc about the celebrated nightclub that also contains clips of B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Willie Nelson. There's also the poignant opportunity to see Spalding Gray's final film appearance (the actor and monologist died early this year in an apparent suicide) in The Paper Maché Chase `sic`, a 12-minute comedy in which he plays the headmaster of the nation's most selective preschool.

Finally, aspiring filmmakers should take note of two free workshops, one of which has a facetious title: "How To Shoot A Nude Scene: Undressing Your Actors," which appears to be more concerned with emotional nudity than the NC-17 kind; and one of which doesn't: "Filmmaker's Funding Opportunity Workshop," in which Elisabeth Sikes of the Austin Film Society will discuss ways to raise cash for indie projects. With AFS offering $10,000 more in grants this year than they did in 2003, chances are Rocha will have even more stories about vengeful yetis, Fiestaware collectors, and "mutant zombie ninja mad-scientist women in prison" to comb through for his 2005 event. •

By John DeFore