Recognizing a void in Southern California for experimental and truly independent cinema, Ryan Betschart and Rachel Nakawatase decided to found an independent film festival in the perhaps unexpected setting of San Diego three years ago.

Since that time, San Diego Underground Film Festival (SDUFF) has found a niche, carefully curating short blocks (shorts being the most appropriate medium for experimental cinema) alongside live cinema performances, installations, and musical performances.

SDUFF dabbled in virtual and augmented reality this year with VR pioneer Dekker Dreyer’s occult installation “The Summoning.” Yet the festival doesn’t signify VR or AR as the heir apparent to traditional cinema, choosing to look elsewhere with its new program titled Expanded Cinema. A clear highlight of the 2017 fest, Expanded Cinema comprised performative projection pieces that were consistently forward-thinking in form and craft.

Kristin Reeves drove her Prius to SDUFF from Kentucky, her nine 16mm projectors in tow, to present and perform “What Is Nothing [After What is Nothing],” which had viewers alternating their visions from the nine images on screen to Reeves traveling from projector to projector on a step stool, changing the film reels and troubleshooting any issues in real time. Michael Morris’s Expanded Cinema’s offerings, “Second Hermeneutic” and “Third Hermeneutic,” brought to mind San Diego artist Margaret Honda’s ground breaking color field work “Spectrum Reverse Spectrum” and Color Correction. Morris’ perfect mix of hypnotic visuals, too stunning to ever grow tiresome, belie his technical rigor; he explained how the audio for his pieces is created via analog signals in the camera corresponding to the visuals in real time. It can be hard to wrap your head around, but the experience is nothing less than transcendent.

From the Lynchian trappings of Kati Skelton’s darkly comedic “Business,” the crude animation of Peter Millard’s hilariously simple of “Six god alphabet Peter,” to the stranger-than-fiction doc “Balloonfest,” which follows Cleveland’s ill-advised 1986 plan to unleash millions of balloons downtown (spoiler alert: disaster ensues)—I found the Saturday afternoon shorts block to be the kind of humorous breath of fresh air that can often pervade “experimental” cinema.

Worried that experimentation comes hand in hand with pretension? With endless cycles of themed shorts blocks to sift through and the occasional long-form piece or retrospective (this year’s retro surveying Kate McCabe—one of the filmmakers SDUFF screened at their inaugural edition), the flashes of formal brilliance here and there can easily eclipse things like narrative. That said, it is all the more impressive that the film that stuck out most to me did not fall into any of these easily defined categories. Ross Meckfessel’s “A Century Plant in Bloom” certainly benefitted from its beautiful 16mm projection, though the logistics of its film projection required it to be screened last in its block. Leaving an indelible impression, like a dream half-remembered, the film contrasted metropolitan architecture with shadows of lattice in the Moroccan desert. Watching it you realize that the shades of the desert are among the most beautiful colors film stock can capture. MM

San Diego Underground Film Festival 2017 ran from August 24-27, 2017. For more information, visit their website hereFeatured image: Riston Diggs delivers an intense performance of his song “Can’t Remember” at San Diego Underground Film Festival 2017. Photograph by Dustin Supencheck.