If there’s a recurring gag in this year’s underground film festival, it’s penises. “We jokingly say this year’s theme should be penises because we have The Final Member; Unhung Hero and a video by Mr Doodleburger,” laughs the festival’s co-artistic director Stefan Popescu.

Despite the stiff competition, there’s plenty of meat to this four-day festival in Marrickville. Cheap puns aside, organisers hope the line-up of 30 features and 60 shorts will incite debate and engagement in a medium they believe is fighting for its survival.[fold]

Now in its seventh year, the festival began as a response to the increasing marginalisation of experimental film. A lack of money for experimental films from funding bodies including the Australia Council, Screen Australia and Screen NSW means the medium is at risk of being left out in the cold.

“It’s something that’s been totally overlooked in this country since the Experimental Film Fund was shut down [in 1978],” says Popescu. Video is the new black and the funding reflects this. “You’re either [celebrated Australian video artist] Shaun Gladwell or George Miller; there’s no in between anymore.”

Nevertheless, Popescu and his co-artistic director Katherine Berger claim there is an ongoing appetite for provocative films, which is where the Underground Film Festival comes in. “We’re really adventurous, we like stuff that makes us feel uncomfortable and we figure there may be others out there like us.”

With a mandate to promote discourse and expand people’s film taste, this year’s line-up includes Unlawful Killing, the documentary that alleges a cover-up by the British establishment of details of Princess Diana’s death in 1997. The film is banned in Britain and yet to be approved for screening here, but Popescu is confident it will get the green light from the Australian Classification Board. “We’ve had a lot of support for that film, people [including] parliamentarians are saying they’ll come out of the woodwork to see it,” says Popescu, declining to name specific people. “You do risk a $10,000 fine and a year in prison [but] I’m confident it will get through!”

Also bound to inspire some interesting debates is Mr Doodleburger’s video, which takes characters including Ray Meagher’s Alf Stewart (Home and Away) and Robert Hughes’s character Martin Kelly (Hey Dad!) and dubs them with obscene sexual, racist and violent dialogue. “I think Doodleburger is the best thing to ever happen to Ray Meagher, it’s given him notoriety,” says Popescu. “It’s a very contemporary thing now, trans-media storytelling where someone like Alf goes beyond Home and Away.”

Nevertheless Popescu is at pains to point out films are never selected simply because they’re controversial. “I’m a big believer in films having discursive value,” he says. “We like cinema that’s trying to do new things. We’re a festival that celebrates difference. Even if you hate it, you’ll get something out of it.” Popescu cites last year’s controversial film from American filmmaker Harmony Korine, Trash Humpers, as a film that sparked a near-riot, so deep was the hatred from some audience members including his own friends. Once it had percolated, however, some of them were prepared to admit it had merit. “We’re very big on films that do something to you and are different,” he says. “Even if they don’t like it we encourage people to come along because we can invoke a discourse.”

If the box office is anything to go by Popescu and Berger are on to something. Initially screening in just one cinema, this year’s festival will host back-to-back screenings in four cinemas at Marrickville’s Factory Theatre, while the cinema bar will provide the perfect spot to continue the debate and meet the filmmakers. This year Popescu is confident of reaching a 20 per cent increase on the 2012 event’s 5000 ticket sales.

Other films that are selling well include the opening film Dance of Reality by Chilean Alejandro Jodorowsky (his first new feature for 23 years, which screened at the Cannes and Melbourne Film Festivals earlier this year) and the Australian premiere of The Canyons by Taxi Driver and Raging Bull’s Paul Schrader, starring Lindsay Lohan. Best Worst Movie Bingo – in which audience members can mark off their bingo cards each time a cringe-worthy line is delivered from select films – is already proving a hit.

The films selected include titles from Australia, Canada, the US, Norway and Germany but surprisingly few from Southeast Asia. The feature line-up includes 12 documentaries. “Documentaries are becoming quite the form,” suggests Popescu. “It’s one of the few areas of cinema that is moving along and shifting, I guess because people have cameras in their phones.”

The Sydney Underground Film Festival runs September 5-8 at the Factory Theatre, Marrickville.

For more information visit suff.com.au