Sleeze Lake: Vanlife at its Lowest & Best screens at ChiTown Movies on Friday as part of this year's CUFF.

Nowadays, what, exactly, is underground?

“I feel like it’s harder than ever to define,” says Chicago Underground Film Festival (CUFF) cofounder, programmer, and director Bryan Wendorf. “I honestly don’t know anymore. Right now, in this climate, everything feels kind of underground—and at the same time, nothing does.”

“There’s so much media and so much culture available out there that it’s all kind of underground,” he continues. “Everything’s available, but how do you find any of it when there’s so much of it?”

One such way is through a festival like CUFF, which is now in its 27th year. Like other film festivals that have persisted in spite of COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns, CUFF has had to adjust, presenting the festival online through November 22 with two nights of drive-in screenings at ChiTown Movies (2343 S. Throop) this Thursday and Friday. The drive-in screenings, copresented by South Side Projections, include two programs featuring all the Chicago-made shorts in the festival and two Chicago-made features: Mark Bosco and Elizabeth Coffman’s Flannery, a documentary about acclaimed Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, and Andrew J. Morgan and Nick Nummerdor’s Sleeze Lake: Vanlife at its Lowest & Best, which tells the story of Midwest Vans Ltd, a south-side van club that originated in the 70s. Three short documentaries from These Days magazine will play between the shorts program and Sleeze Lake on Friday.

Early to Bed, a feminist sex shop based in Andersonville, has donated condoms and lube for the occasion. “We’re promoting safe sex at the drive-in,” says the festival’s executive producer Taila Howe. “So for anyone who doesn’t vibe with the movies. . . that is an option.”

These films will also be available to screen virtually—which you can watch at home, where, you know, is always an option—though the festival is employing a different approach than that of their “Best of CUFF” event, which took place online during the summer and offered all the programming for its month-long duration. Now, one feature (narrative, documentary, or experimental) and one shorts program will be available each night, with an extra shorts program on Sunday, November 15; after programs become available, they must be started within 24 hours of rental and then finished within that same amount of time.

“We decided to try this to make it more like going to a festival where this film is playing at this time—make the time to come and watch it,” says Wendorf about this approach. “And even though you’re not really interacting with the audience, you know that all these people are watching [it] right now.”

Full festival passes, which include virtual access and all drive-in screenings, are $120. Single-screening drive-in tickets are $40, while all-access tickets for Thursday and Friday, respectively, are $70. Passes for the virtual portion are $30. Instead of live Zoom Q&As, which they did during “Best of CUFF,” filmmakers were asked to record video messages that will play after their films.

Every year, the Chicago film community descends upon the Logan Theatre, where, for five days, it attends something like summer camp, old and new friends coming together under the auspices of enjoying the world’s longest-running underground film festival. Cofounded in 1993 by Wendorf and then-Columbia College film student Jay Bliznick, its 27-year tenure hasn’t been without changes. Recently, the festival broke off from IFP Chicago (which had produced the event since 2007) and is again fully independent. Susceptible as any film organization is to the tumultuousness of the industry, one might have thought that even a pandemic couldn’t throw these film freaks off their game. But, as it turns out, underground film lovers are people, too.

“I was really stoked with the way that the festival was panning out, and then. . . COVID,” says Howe. “I went and had a beautiful experience with psychedelic mushrooms in the woods, and it was absolutely fantastic, and then that helped me recenter.”

And that right there is the spirit of the festival, where industry (and sometimes even societal) norms are shed in favor of modes of art and life that some might find shocking. As Roger Ebert once said of CUFF: “What you get for your money is not just admission to the films but admission to a subculture.”

While the festival’s structure may have changed, the programming has not. “I think the films are strong as ever,” says Wendorf. “I mean, really, when it comes down to it, that’s what makes the festival what it is, the strength of the films.”

Indeed. The makers of these films aren’t household names; underground being such an elastic term, the programming always runs the gamut. Each year there’s work by filmmakers whose appeal might extend beyond this subterranean of cinema, but the festival is largely comprised of films that, for whatever reason, don’t fit neatly into common perceptions of “film-festival” films, whatever that even means. It’s hard to recommend CUFF films because deciding which oddball movie suits your particular brand of oddballness is what the festival is all about. There are 14 dedicated shorts programs and 15 features; some of the features are paired with one or two shorts, as well.

The CUFF after-parties are legendary and will be sorely missed this year, but in lieu of IRL hangs will be a concert on Tuesday, November 17 at 7:30 PM, taking place in Minecraft. A group of game developers from France, England, and Chicago recreated a futuristic version of our great city, complete with digital renderings of the Empty Bottle (with whom the festival has partnered for the event), Thalia Hall, and even the Garfield Park Conservatory. Billy Lemos—or, at least, his avatar—will perform at the Empty Bottle, Haiku Hands at the Garfield Park Conservatory, and CHAI will close out the event at the Empty Bottle. For those like me who have no idea how to get in or to Minecraft (seriously, what’s a Minecraft?), the event will stream on Elastic Art’s Twitch page.

Wendorf and Howe are forthright about the struggles they’ve faced in putting on this festival, which relies heavily on staffers and volunteers who don’t necessarily do this as their full-time job. Everything will be awesome, they say, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to pretend everything has been awesome. “It is what it is,” says Wendorf. “This has been our motto this year.” Still, Howe is admirably optimistic.

“We’ve had to redetermine what success looks like for us this year,” says Howe. “Before COVID, success looked different. But now that we’re living in times where, sometimes, waking up and getting out of bed is difficult, if we were able to do that that day and get through watching a couple films. . . fuck yeah, way to go, we did something, and we’re putting something on and we’re continuing to be creative and hopefully being a platform where more people can see the work these filmmakers have done this year.”   v