The 17th Melbourne Underground Film Festival

The often confronting and ever-exciting Melbourne Underground Film Festival celebrates a whopping 17 years of shock and awe in 2016. For filmmaker, founder and festival director Richard Wolstencroft, the independent spirit of the experimental and high-octane genre features that populate its bounds rage stronger than ever.

Wolstencroft worked at Beat Magazine around 1991, and ran Melbourne kink nightclub The Hellfire Club until 2002, but film had always been his big love. When his 1999 feature Pearls Before Swine was rejected by the Melbourne International Film Festival, Wolstencroft decided that there needed to be an alternative event to showcase films that dealt with more extreme content, free from pressure to censor the purity of artistic vision. The rest is, evidently, history.
"I think The Melbourne Underground Film Festival has become the fostering ground, or a kind of leaping board, for a lot of the newer Australian talent," Wolstencroft says. MUFF has had the honour of being first in the world to premiere work from the likes of James Wan (Saw), Greg McLean (Wolf Creek), Abe Forsythe (Down Under) and Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3).
"It's because we're aggressive, and we accept people," Wolstencroft explains. "We accept people that make interesting work that's not politically correct. This attitude of acceptance means that we are changing the entire attitude of filmmaking in this country, which is fantastic."
Wolstencroft himself happily embodies the very ethos of the festival – he's potentially controversial and outspoken, but unapologetically passionate about his craft. He loves the creative freedom that film affords, and is in staunch opposition to anything that would hinder the process. He's not shy about his distaste for what he perceives to be a stuffy, stubborn pabulum that has set into the arts, and he considers himself a colourful creative catalyst.
"My whole ethos was that I would critique the industry," Wolstencroft explains. "I was immediately told that if I critiqued the industry that I'd never get funding - which has been quite true – but I thought someone had to actually say the truth about the Australian film industry."
Wolstencroft himself has a varied filmography. In 2010, he released a modern adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful & The Damned. In 2013, he released the documentary The Last Days Of Joe Blow, a true taleabout his friend and fellow filmmaker Michael Tierney who abruptly decided to become a porn star around the age of 40. He'll be shooting his latest feature The Debt Collector in October, and as expected, it sounds to be a gloriously thrilling affair. Chock-a-block full of murder, mayhem, and sordid vigilante justice, it's a gleeful nod to the raw grit of classic Ozsploitation cinema like Turkey Shoot.
"People love controversy," Wolstencroft says. "That what I don't think Australian filmmakers realise and I think that's the problem often with the government-funded movies. Often, if something's a bit too controversial, they try to remove it. You should encourage it. Whatever the controversial thing is, play it up, because that's what people want to see. They don't want to see safe things.
"There needs to be more rebels in the film industry," Wolstencroft continues. "Our local film industry is pathetic. We just make the same kind of politically correct nonsense that we've been making for years."
Wolstencroft likes to shake things up. He's had his house raided for illegally showing banned films like Bruce LaBruce's LA Zombie, embedding low-budget exploitation filmmaking with philosophical theory and even won over sworn enemies with his stance on the industry at large – something he wears with a cheeky sense of pride.
"I love walkouts," Wolstencroft smiles. "I think the underground screening we did on Bruce LaBruce's LA Zombie was a highlight. It was just a public disobedience thing. We got very rebellious, kind of punk spirit. I have a kind of punk sensibility, a do-it-yourself attitude. It's great to do that. Everyone loved it, of course. No one walked out of that."
Wolstencroft laments that directors like James Wan have been turned down by Australian funding bodies despite their eagerness to work here, finding freedom and unfathomable success overseas. MUFF boasts no shortage of excitement, however, with the likes of Melbourne-filmed psychological-horror Shotgun, action-packed vengeance flick Revenge of the Gweilo, and dark Dostoyevkyen thriller Crime & Punishment. Genre-filmmaking is back, and from the Sydney Underground Film Festival to Melbourne's own horror showcase Monster Fest, it seems that the world is only going to pay more attention.
"There are a whole group of us that need to be involved in the future of Australian cinema, even if it's only 20 percent of the time," Wolstencroft asserts. "Even ten percent. It's all we need. Ten percent of things to go our way, and this whole industry will be transformed. Give it three years, and it could become the most dynamic film industry in the world, I'll tell you right now. The vision for the Australian film industry is quite epic – we're just never going to fully realize it – but it's amazing to see the talent that we are seeing. All this talent needs is some funding. It doesn't need multi-millions of dollars; it just needs about a hundred grand, two hundred grand, with each independent filmmaker, and you do ten films like that a year. The whole industry will transform."

THE 17TH MELBOURNE UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL will run from Friday September 9 - Saturday September 17 at the Alex Theatre, St Kilda and Backlot Cinema, Southbank. Tickets via the MUFF website.