Filmmakers anxious to get their work on the big screen should start their own festival. That’s the advice from Rusty Nails, Usama Alshaibi, and Trevor Arnholt. Frustrated by mounting submission fees and rigid programming–Nails’s comic-action short Santiago vs. Wigface was once rejected by a comedy film festival with the explanation that it should have been submitted to an action film festival–the three created Undershorts, a showcase of short films that had a trial run December 5 at the Village Theatre. It’s one of what they hope will be many such evenings offering an informal outlet for ultra-low-budget filmmakers.

There’s only one rule for submissions to Undershorts: your movie must be under 40 minutes long. (The longest screened on December 5 was Jeff Lyon’s Love, Death and the Golden Tooth, a 22-minute comedy-drama presented from a corpse’s point of view.) “At the moment we really don’t know what we could do with people’s features–they have to take care of that themselves,” says Nails. “But the short films, they just seem like these real beautiful lost children that don’t have anywhere to go….You can see so many depending on their length in a pretty short amount of time. They tend to have more experimental aspects, they’re just short, succinct, well-done–at least the ones that we want to pick.”

The three settled on a schedule of 16 short films interspersed with music and performances. “Sometimes when you’re watching a lot of films, even short films–maybe more so short films because the subjects are like change, change, change–you have to sort of regear yourself for every film,” says Nails. “We just thought it would be nice–instead of having everybody leave for all these intermissions–to bring the lights up, help your eyes out, have a great band play. And it’s sort of vaudevillelike.” Even with minimal advertising–word of mouth and flyers posted on college campuses and in the Wicker Park, Lakeview, and Rogers Park neighborhoods–the festival sold out.

As the eight o’clock starting time came and went, Nails, Alshaibi, and Arnholt scrambled to solve last-minute technical problems, keeping the ticket holders waiting in the lobby informed of the situation.

“Too interactive,” my companion said when we were asked for the third time whether the theater was too hot or too cold. But the programmers’ attempts to be accommodating seemed to be consistent with the ideas that had compelled them to put on the event in the first place. “We wanted it to be a little bit intimate between the audience and us and the filmmakers,” says Nails. “We didn’t need to walk around like stuffed shirts.”

The hosts announced early on in the program that a special guest was in our midst, filmmaker Dan Dinello. Nails explained that Dinello’s two films would be shown earlier than planned because he had to get up early the next morning to fly to New York to direct a segment of Comedy Central’s Strangers With Candy. After the screening of Shock Asylum and Wheels of Fury, Dinello accepted a plaque for his contributions to the art of short filmmaking and expressed the hope that members of the audience–many of them filmmakers and film students–would see their work included in upcoming Undershorts events.

Other movies shown that night included Nails’s Santiago vs. Wigface, which played at Tromadance (a festival in Utah) last month, Alshaibi’s Dance Habibi Dance, and Arnholt’s Fluff, a giddy faux promo for a multipurpose product whose fictional manufacturer was a fictional sponsor of the event.

An appearance by Ratso the hand puppet from Channel 19’s public-access cable dance show Chic-a-Go-Go, a number by the band Ground Speed, and pieces from the Ritualistic School of Errors and puppeteer Kate Sheehy helped keep viewers alert for the nearly three-hour evening. At one point the audience was asked if we wanted a break; the consensus was a resounding no.

The next Undershorts film festival will be held at the Music Box Theater, 3733 N. Southport, on Thursday, February 17, at 7. Admission is $7. For information about submitting to future Undershorts festivals call 312-409-3890, see, or E-mail Or just bring a VHS tape of your movie to the festival.

–Lisa Alspector

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.