This year’s Unnamed Footage Film Festival was a 24-hour livestream that illuminated the best and worst traits of the found footage genre.
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At 6am GMT, last Friday, I woke up bleary eyed after just a few hours of sleep, ready for a day of found footage screenings. “Ready” is maybe an overstatement — my body begged me to stay in bed as I traipsed to my laptop, armed with nothing but a bag of popcorn and a hell of a lot of tea. I switched on the Unnamed Footage Film Festival livestream, which had already been running for seven of its advertised twenty-four hours, and was greeted with blurry images of bloody murder. The previous feature, REEL 2, was just wrapping up.
The Unnamed Footage Film Festival (UFF) held its fourth edition last week, and its first live streamed edition. Previously, the festival had been held in person at various San Francisco venues. But as their website states, “Strange times call for strange measures,” and this year’s festival, like so many others, was forced online by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. It was held as a twenty-four hour livestream broadcasting to various countries around the world, including the US, Canada, and the UK, where I was watching from.
It was an event unlike any other virtual festival I’ve attended this past year, not least because the festival seems ready made for virtual viewing. It screens genre films of the found footage, POV, and Screen Life variety. (Screen Life is the name for films that take place entirely on a laptop or phone screen.) For many of these films, watching them alone, on a laptop, TV, or sometimes even a phone adds an extra intimacy to the viewing experience. You’re experiencing the on-screen events in the same way that the characters are.
The event felt intimate as a collective viewing experience. The livestream meant every attendee watched the films in sync, plus an inbuilt chat feature meant we could discuss the films as they were screening, if we wanted to. I watched the stream alongside a real life friend — also a found footage fan — whom I texted throughout. Knowing that we were reacting to each film’s many twists and turns in unison made the festival feel like a true collective experience, one which previous virtual festivals have only gestured at.
It was a great time, not because all the films were great (a solid 50% of them were meh to awful), but because watching nine found-footage-adjacent films back to back taught me so much about how the genre works, what I like about it, and what I don’t: these films are working with a new cinematic language that’s evolving just as fast as technology itself. But it’s easy to see why so many viewers grew bored of found footage almost immediately after it was popularised by The Blair Witch Project (1999). It’s possibly the cheapest genre of film to make, because poor camera and sound quality are often baked into the text of the film. That means there’s plenty of absolutely terrible, derivative found footage films made by filmmakers who thought they could make the next Blair Witch. But the genre is filled with fascinating, inventive, and boundary-pushing curios, if you know where to look.
Even the bad films at UFF felt like an essential part of my festival experience, because they helped me understand and appreciate the genre tropes that the good films were avoiding, or subverting. When a lot of film fans think of found footage, they think of a group of annoying, but mostly innocent teenagers wandering into the woods, or a haunted house, and slowly being picked off by a malevolent force. There are weird camera glitches, ghosts walking unseen in the background of shots, and plenty of difficult-to-make-out night time scenes. You’re bound to spend most of the third act wondering why the characters are still filming when they’re supposed to be fighting for their lives.
Of all the films I saw at UFF, Dwellers was the most archetypal embodiment of this formula, albeit focusing on adult filmmakers rather than clueless teens. It’s entertaining for a bit, as we watch three documentarians interview LA’s homeless population about a rash of recent disappearances, and learn that the mysterious cause may be located somewhere in the city’s sewers. But as soon as they brave the sewers, the film loses steam, giving in to predictable scares. Here, found footage is mostly used for its aesthetics rather than its ideas: actual tension and character building are replaced by shaky cam and underlit scenes.
I Am Sophie is a bizarre two-hour slog that was adapted from a YouTube series of the same name: a privileged, vapid rich girl, Sophie, runs a lifestyle channel, but things get weird when a strange presence starts to invade her videos. It’s an intriguing set up — the series was originally presented on YouTube as a real lifestyle channel, and viewers slowly realised just how fake Sophie was as her innocent videos turned into horror movies. But potential explorations of class and how we present ourselves online are dropped in favour of yet more things that go bump in the night. I Am Sophie is interested in exploiting how found footage and Screen Life can trick us into thinking something is real, but once it’s pulled the rug out from under us, there’s not a whole lot there.
The best films at the festival were the ones that played with viewer expectations, pulling the rug out from under us, and challenging the idea of what a found footage film should be. By the end of the day (the livestream ended up clocking in at twenty-eight, rather than twenty-four, hours), I felt better equipped to explain what kinds of found footage films interest me. They’re films where our protagonist is also our villain (I Blame Society, Long Pigs, Descent Into Darkness), so the film is more about their psychology than it is waiting for jumpscares. They’re films that blur the line between reality and fiction, to the point where everything feels scarily real (Fake Blood, Murder Death Koreatown).
In fact, it occured to me while watching these films that the elements that make a great found footage film are similar to the elements that make a great creative nonfiction film. Seventh Row is deeply interested in creative nonfiction techniques, and I’ve interviewed many filmmakers who work in the genre, from Kirsten Johnson to Pacho Velez to Eliane Raheb. All three filmmakers talk about the importance of revealing who’s behind the camera making choices about what to show and what not to show, and all three appear on screen in their films. Found footage, like creative nonfiction, is a genre that — at its best — interrogates the relationship between subject and filmmaker. In Murder Death Koreatown, for example, the camera and the person holding it are just as much the subject of the film as the thing that they’re shooting. In fact, in all of the films I’m about to talk about, the director appears in the film, either on camera or as a voice behind the camera, and in many cases, they play a version of themselves.
I Blame Society, a comedy-horror that was released earlier this year, opened the festival with lots of laughs and a sharp use of the cinematic language of found footage. Writer-director-star Gillian Wallace Horvat plays a version of herself: a struggling LA filmmaker making a documentary about how to pull off the perfect murder, who ends up spiralling and actually becoming a serial killer. In my interview with Wallace Horvat, she talked about creating “a visual character arc” for her character. “She starts off as a beginner not really knowing how to work a camera or light, and then, over the course of the film, she becomes more ambitious, adept, and sophisticated. There’s a sharp tone change where it starts to look more quote unquote cinematic, because it’s how the character conceives of what a movie looks like, and that’s what she wants her life to look like.” We learn just as much about the character of Gillian from observing each camera set up as we do from watching her actions and hearing her talk.
Gillian isn’t unlike the subjects of Long Pigs and Descent Into Darkness: My European Nightmare, two slightly older films that screened at the festival, both dark comedies about surprisingly likeable serial killers. Both are extremely entertaining, if not as cinematically rich as I Blame Society — the filmmaking doesn’t reveal character in quite the same way.
Long Pigs is a 2007 Canadian mockumentary about the most polite cannibalistic serial killer you’ve ever met. Two documentary filmmakers follow him as he cheerily walks them through how to kidnap a woman, skin her alive, and cook her into stew (the special effects are eerily realistic). There’s not much character development in the film, but that’s sort of the point: any time we expect there to be some revelation, or a hint at bubbling anger behind the killer’s affable surface, the film leans in harder to his wholesome likeability. The filmmaking itself mimics a rather standard character portrait documentary, which is amusing in how mundane it is. But I would have liked a bit more of a glimpse at the two filmmakers behind the camera: how do they feel about filming this man’s brutal murders? What’s their motivation? The film touches on this, but it’s so focused on the man in front of the camera that it often forgets the characters who are behind it.
Descent Into Darkness: My European Nightmare (2013) takes a different tack, presenting one of the most extreme character arcs I’ve ever seen on screen. It starts off purposefully riffing on Borat, with a loveable, goofy, and a little clueless Eastern European tourist making a vlog about his travels in Europe. Absolutely everything goes wrong. Within a week in Paris, he’s been stolen from, beaten up on the street, and gotten so drunk and desperate that, in a moment of despair, he burns his passport. It gets way darker from there, culminating in a truly depraved final act that has to be seen to be believed. It seems the film was made by the one-man show of Rafael Cherkaski, who writes, directs, and stars. I appreciated the film’s attention to detail regarding the character’s various camera set-ups: he has one camera strapped to his head and another attached to a body harness that’s pointing at his face. However, the film is more commendable for Cherkaski’s performance and character work than his camerawork, which devolves into utter (and utterly enjoyable) chaos by the end.
Another Canadian film, Fake Blood (2017), had my heart beating fast, because I was never sure if I was watching a documentary or a mockumentary. Genre filmmakers Rob Grant and Mike Kovac present the film as a documentary about movie violence, and it certainly seems that some of what we see on screen is real, although the film craftily mixes in fictional plot threads that are stylistically indistinguishable from the real scenes. It ends up being a mixture of documentary and mockumentary, although the line between the two is never clearly delineated.
The film was made in the wake of a fan’s disturbing video response to one of their previous collaborations, Mon Ami (2012). Mon Ami is about two friends disposing of a body, and in the fan video, the fan buys a series of dangerous power tools and remarks that he would dispose of a body another way. The video prompts Grant and Kovac to consider their responsibility as filmmakers when depicting violence on screen.
In Fake Blood, they conduct some real interviews with experts and film fans, although fictional elements are introduced when they interview a former gang member, in a series of nail-bitingly intense interactions. These scenes are so excruciating because it’s not immediately clear whether what you’re watching is real or staged. Things eventually go so far that the latter must be true, but the way Grant and Kovac distort our sense of reality is impressive. The fake scenes with the gang member feel so real because they’re chillingly well acted, and there’s impeccable attention to detail regarding how they’re shot — we hear discussions of how they’re going to get permission to show his face on screen, or where the cinematographer should stand to ensure her safety.
Truth and reality are also blended in Murder Death Koreatown, which premiered at UFF last year and made a return to the festival this year with a new director’s cut. The cut was delivered to the UFF host via a VHS tape, and after the film ended, the festival livestreamed running the tape over with a car and destroying it, as per the filmmaker’s instructions — this cut was never to be screened again. The changes to the film only amounted to a couple of mostly inconsequential bookends. Still, it was a fun way to add to the mystique of this already mysterious film: it was made by an anonymous LA filmmaker, whose identity has successfully stayed hidden for over a year now, even as his film became an instant cult favourite. The film is based on a real murder case that happened on the filmmaker’s street, and many of the people the filmmaker interacts with are his actual neighbours.
Murder Death Koreatown plays a sly trick on the viewer. The viewer is invited to explore the murder case along with the unseen filmmaker, who always remains behind the camera — but the film soon reveals itself to be more about how pathetic the filmmaker is than about actually solving the murder. He becomes so obsessed with picking up clues as to the real cause of his neighbour’s murder that he ignores all his responsibilities and is horrible to his long-suffering girlfriend. The people he films (many of them seemingly real people the filmmaker met on the street) all look at him with expressions somewhere on the spectrum between disdain and pity, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
It’s one of the most creative uses of found footage I’ve seen in recent years, because it understands the power the genre has to make us consider who’s holding the camera, and how that changes the way a story is told. Murder Death Koreatown effectively pulls off a character study despite never showing us the character’s face, instead asking us to read between the lines of what he says. We learn very little about his life; he mentions that he’s unemployed, but doesn’t tell us much else. His increasing hysteria and wild commitment to filming his investigation, as well as the withering looks his girlfriend shoots him, fills in the blanks. I likely won’t be able to watch a true crime documentary in the same way again, as Murder Death Koreatown asks us to consider the people behind the camera telling those stories, and whether they’re driven by the greater good or by selfish morbid curiosity.
We’ll keep you up to date with where to see these Unnamed Footage Film Festival films.
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