“The best part about a festival is bringing community together… it’s a very important part.”
The Boston Underground Film Festival is returning in-person for the first time since 2019, a decision that remained up in the air until just recently.
“It was around January [when] I was like, is this happening? Or is it not?” said Nicole McControversy, Director of Programming at BUFF.
BUFF, known for screening unorthodox and obscure films, will take place March 23-27 at the Brattle Theatre, its host since 2012. When staff members had to cancel the last scheduled in-person festival in March 2020, they faced their worst case scenario.
“It was heartbreaking to tell you the truth because it’s an all volunteer festival. None of us get paid really, it’s just a labor of love,” Artistic Director Kevin Monahan said.
The organization initially announced its intent to postpone the festival to a later date. But as the pandemic progressed, staff members searched for other ways to operate. BUFF joined three other film festivals across the country to create a virtual festival called Nightstream, which allowed them to recoup financial losses.
Nightstream took place that October as well as the following fall. Now, after months of reopening efforts, BUFF is coming back to the Brattle with safety precautions enforced. The Brattle requires masks, proof of COVID vaccination or a negative test, and limited capacity.
“Bringing the festival partners back has really been an indicator of some kind of return to normal for us,” said Ned Hinkle, creative director at the Brattle.
The organization process for each BUFF edition typically begins the preceding May when staff open submissions. In spring 2021, staff members began preparations for an in-person festival but also the possibility of another cancellation. They decided to refund submissions if the plans were scrapped.
“We felt like it could go either way. We might have one, we might not,” McControversy said.
Logistical arrangements are usually made in November, but staff members waited out the holidays before approaching the Brattle in January. In addition, the staff had to determine how they would host networking parties for the filmmakers as they did in previous years. They searched for venues that would allow ventilation and social distancing.
“The best part about a festival is bringing community together… it’s a very important part of the festival,” McControversy said.
As for the screenings themselves, there has been chatter online, but those behind the scenes aren’t sure what to expect.
“I’m really hoping that it’s electric,” Hinkle said. “The atmosphere at BUFF in general is just really enthusiastic.”
Hinkle described BUFF’s reputation as particularly “curatorial,” which local residents are drawn to.
“They are not pigeonholing themselves and really just dedicating themselves to showing films that would otherwise be overlooked,” said Hinkle.
BUFF is considered a genre festival but doesn’t focus on defined categories like horror or comedy. Its niche encompasses those categories and specifically locates films within them that match its abnormal taste.
“We really like weird, which is kind of a subjective thing, we know weird when we see it,” McControversy said.
The festival has featured a plethora of independent and international films over the years, and staff members look to evolve selection to showcase more diverse filmmakers.
McControversy estimates that 35 to 50 people attend each year as devoted fans. BUFF used to host Kickstarter events to raise money, and some audience members would purchase badges even before the festival schedule was announced.
Monahan also emphasized the loyalty of long-time festival go-ers.
“Most of our audience is sort of more casual, [and] they don’t go to every single screening. But there is that sort of core component whose support is just bottomless,” Monahan said.