Underground Cinema: mind the gap

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A text pings. It’s UGC making contact. The message is to the point. It reveals the where and the when and what to bring at a secret location in the next 24 hours. Like all UGC communications,  these details are to be kept secret.

This is not the opening scene in the next Bourne instalment, but the operating procedure of UGC, otherwise known as Underground Cinema.
The secrecy surrounding Underground Cinema  is as exciting as it is unsettling. You have absolutely no idea what’s in store for you when you sign up to its way of offering big screen entertainment.
As cinema goers we’re usually primed for a movie release with months, if not years with teasers and trailers leading up to an eventual release date. Plot lines, themes and costumes are telegraphed so far in advance that a film can feel genuinely familiar before you’ve ever seen it.
But Underground Cinema is not simply a film screening. It really doesn’t matter if you know your Fellini from your Pasolini, since the film screening itself is the culmination of a couple of hours that may see you solving murder mysteries, learning scientific techniques and most likely having a few themed drinks.
Across seven sessions last weekend, hundreds members attended the Melbourne instalment of Underground Cinema, all of them wearing gumboots, but more on that later.
And then…
Unfortunately, for now, that ‘s all that I can reveal; at least until Sydney has its chance this weekend when it has its turn.
You see, the basic premise of UGC is its secrecy.
Subscribers to the mailing list are presented with the basic facts – the city, the time and date, and the theme which last weekend was “Water” which is why prospective attendees were ominously told to wear gumboots.
The most ingenious part of UGC is the thin line it treads between immersive theatre and a cinema themed party. Even if you succeed in the inevitable game of picking the chosen film, the immersive nature of the event creates an entirely different experience.
If the modus operandi of cinema is to transport the audience to another world, if but for a brief few hours, than Underground Cinema operates by physically creating that world for you to step through.
It’s a celluloid inspired parallel universe right in the heart of the city.
The first time I went to UGC  in 2011, I was directed to a tram stop at the end of Collins Street in Melbourne’s CBD  and told to bring whatever was necessary to survive. Camouflaged, plastic gun toting revolutionaries met me before escorting me down into an Docklands industrial estate, purportedly towards the refugee camp ahead. After passing a rigorous medical examination, we were led in to the camp; a formerly disused warehouse overlooking Victoria Harbour.
Haggard, tired-eyed characters  dressed in ripped dirty clothing accosted me  in rough British accents, asking if I’d seen lost children, preaching the end is nigh, all while walking through various scenes of a post-apocalyptic nightmare.
As the night progressed more refugees descended upon the site, a sole sickly man began crawling through the door, rasping and grabbing at people. Slowly but surely, more and more of the characters around me become infected by this strange virus until the crowd was surrounded by the shrieking of the afflicted.
After the newly infected horde moved on to the next room, the 200 patrons who survived followed. Tip-toeing over the suddenly immobile bodies of the infected I took my seat  in the temporarily constructed theatre. The lights went down, the film began to play and as the rage-infected masses of Danny Boyle’s zombie movie 28 Days Later begin to stir, so did those on the floor around me and a sudden jolting terror descended upon the audience.
That alas, was the final stage of the theatrical pasrt of the evening and as the film ended and everyone drifted away from the post-apocalyptic zombiescape and returned into normal life.
For an event which lasts four hours and which may culminate in a film you’ve seen several times before, the price of around $45 (adult including booking fee) may initially seem steep. But it’s the incredible production values and attention to detail which sets Underground Cinema far and beyond the average cinema experience.
A reputed seven strong crew of costume designers take delicious care in assembling a wardrobe of colour and class to match. The location designers take meticulous care in turning single momentary shots become the inspiration for elements of the set or acted out script. Later while watching the film audible knowing gasps of mutual recognition fill the air. My favourite from “Water” was when an egg carton I spied earlier in the night made an appearance in the interactions of two prominent characters.
Said fellow punter at “Water”, Andy Lynch: “It’s so exciting to be in a space where you can taste, smell hear and feel the film – by the time you arrive at the screening your guard is completely down and the whole thing just washes over you.”
If the modus operandi of cinema is to transport the audience to another world, if but for a brief few hours, than Underground Cinema operates by physically creating that world for you to step through; a sprinkle of movie magic that descends upon otherwise ordinary locations for a few hours.
And then, disappears.
[box]UGC is in Sydney this weekend. For details, go to[/box]

One response to “Underground Cinema: mind the gap

  1. Sorry guys, great concept but the execution let it down. I attended my first one tonight called Epidemic. We waited at the meeting point for about 15 minutes where there was some attempt at theatre before running our way to a warehouse where the film was to be screened. However once there nothing happened besides being left at the mercy of overpriced drinks and bad food ($12 for mixed drink, $6 for small cup of cold bread and butter pudding, $12 for a sandwich), no BYO. I was told that the film would be screened 1 and a half hours after getting to the warehouse but that there is some other stuff that happens during that time. However after 50 minutes of nothing we gave up and left. I also didnt quite get the aggression of the actors towards us. The theme was Epidemic with us being the survivors, but it felt more like we were prisoners in a prison camp. Maybe this would have become clear in the movie. I also lost my ticket and it was virtually impossible to get in touch with anyone to resolve it. It seems like the UC has become a business more intent on gouging its customers than delivering on the experience.

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