A Conversation With
Bryan Wendorf

Byran Wendorf is the co-founder and Artistic Director of the Chicago Underground Film Festival. In anticipation of the 24th annual festival, running from Wednesday, May 31 through Sunday, June 4 at the Logan Theatre, Northwestern University film student Courtney Morrison sat down with Bryan to talk about CUFF's history and the challenges in programming a subversive festival in today's mainstream. More information about this year's screenings and special events can be found here. Sign up for CUFF's newsletter here.


Courtney: Can you start by explaining your role and how long you’ve been in this position?

Bryan: I am the Artistic Director and Programming Director for Chicago Underground Film Festival and a founder of the Festival. It started in 1994, so I’ve been with the festival since the beginning.  My friend Jay Bliznick and I worked together at a video store in Evanston called Video Adventures. He had the idea to start this festival and came to me with the idea. We had a crew of five of us in the first year and it was a three day event. Jay was the original director and (…) and I became the festival programmer. After the first six years, Jay decided he wanted to do other things, while I was more dedicated to keeping the festival going. He basically said, “It’s yours, go with it.” I make the final decision about what films get programmed and the artistic direction (…) All the things that make the festival unique and keep the vision of the festival in place.

Courtney: Do you curate for your audience?

Bryan:  People who come to CUFF regularly know what we do and are into the kind of films we’re showing. But we also wanna find ways of how we can bring in new audiences. You can’t do something like this and everybody (…) will like every film they see. No two people have exactly the same taste, but you do wanna find ways of expanding your audience. 

Courtney: As CUFF is expanding and growing, how do you maintain a subculture without becoming ‘mainstream’?

Bryan: Part of this is redefining and leaving an open definition of what underground is, because it’s fluid. One thing becomes over-exposed and bigger and people are looking for the next thing, so we’re constantly looking for what’s new now. Every year we program from a “call for submissions”. I don’t do a lot of inviting of films unless I hear of something that sounds like it’s really right for CUFF, but they may not know we exist. (…) We try to keep a variety of different things going. Some of the filmmakers we show are teachers, some are in museums and more in the fine art world than the regular film world.

Courtney:  What do you find particularly challenging or fulfilling about programming? 

Bryan: The thing I find the most challenging is keeping the festival fresh and relevant. So, I’m 54 now and I started the festival when I was 30 and knew what the underground was. So keeping it current– and knowing the younger filmmakers who are coming up in Chicago and elsewhere – that’s fulfilling and challenging (…) The big fulfillment is when you discover something fresh and new, something that hasn’t been seen before. When there’s somebody I’ve never heard of, especially if it’s their first film, and they’ve been sending it out to festivals, but nobody is interested because it is too strange or weird and they’re not well known enough, I program it and the audience responds to it and the grand jury of the festival responds to it. Five years ago, I showed this film by a student called A Body Without Organs. I remember being at home watching festival submissions and 20 minutes into the film I’m texting other people working for the festival: “Check out this film and tell me what you think. I think it may be kind of amazing.” And they had the same reaction. We showed it in the festival and I remember after the screening, all three of the jury members walked out of the room and I immediately knew that film is gonna win an award.

Courtney: What makes CUFF different from other festivals? I know you include parties and live music events in the festival.

Bryan:  In the early 90’s when we started, I was thirty and working at the video store, and I was trying to create a festival for people like me (…) Jay (Bliznick, CUFF co-founder) used to joke when people would ask about our festival, “We want our festival to be festive.” I want to show weird, challenging, interesting movies, but I want them to be shown in a way that is fun and accessible to a young audience.