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Experimental Film Festivals

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 7/22/2010

Here is a look at the experimental film festival circuit and scene in the United States.

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    Generic Film Festival

    Many film festivals are genre themed as a way of narrowing down the submission pool and attracting in a specific audience and set of artists. This can delve itself into documentary-only festivals, over-the-top horror film festivals, or ones specifically for different types of under-represented minority filmmakers. Experimental film festivals have their own section of the festival world as the boundaries of what has been conventionally part of the regular film world is blasted open and a whole new range of works are included. Here is a look at what is often included in an experimental film festival and a few of the best experimental film festivals to enter in the United States.

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    What is Experimental Film?

    Experimental film never really has a cohesive definition, but oftentimes it can be considered a film without a recognizable narrative or educational element. This is not a satisfactory definition for what could be experimental film as this can include things that meld documentary and fiction filmmaking, items that include a more impressionistic series of images, something that has a narrative yet violates many of the fundamentals usually associated with narrative film, or items that bring in non-film elements into the presentation. What you need in your film to submit to an experimental film festival is to really feel as though your film strays from all of these boxing elements in a way that will seem substantial enough to submit to the film festival. Before submitting to an experimental specific film festival you may want to inquire with different filmmakers or academics to see if your film fits solidly in this category.

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    What to Expect

    What you get from experimental film festivals is a lot more than just films and filmmakers. Oftentimes, an experimental film festival is where other art forms will creep in, especially things like installation work and video art. You may find that there are exhibits mixing video with performance art, and a lot of different type of video work that would never be considered "black box" theater viewing work. There will also be fewer features than you would normally expect and the entire item can be much smaller than a larger festival, like Sundance or Cannes. This is actually not to say that it is any less prestigious in its own specific way, but experimental film is a smaller niche and therefore even a well-represented festival is going to be of a smaller size. You will also find that some of the best experimental film festivals will have cohabitating themes that may shift the content even further. This may include a focus on music films, or on experimental films that have melded with another genre.

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    Great Experimental Film Festivals

    There are a number of great experimental film festivals in the U.S., you just have to find a few to start off with. Once you have begun to enter into the experimental film festival circuit you will begin to have an even better understanding of each festival, which ones are perfect for you, and where you want to submit your next project.

    PDX Film Fest in Portland Oregon has always stood out as a great film festival that seeks work that goes against mainstream filmmaking and its values. PDX Film Fest did not happen in 2010, but they are already preparing for it in 2011.

    The New York Underground Film Festival and the Chicago Underground Film Festival have both become staples of the experimental film community as these are main places where emerging cultures of underground film filmmakers will exhibit their work that is pushing the independent envelope.

    The Ann Arbor Film Festival, which is a well-known and respected competitive film festival, is not specifically an experimental film festival, but has been known for their support and showcase of experimental film work.

    On the international stage, the International Film Festival Rotterdam is in the same boat, and may be a great way to shift into the European experimental film spectrum.