Founded in New York City in 2004, the Found Footage Festival is a celebration of those VHS tapes long left abandoned in dark corners of charity shops and bargain bins.
After hosting sold out shows across the USA and Canada featuring clips from corporate training videos, home movies and other unusual sources, co-curators and hosts Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher arrive in Scotland this month as part of their latest UK tour, showcasing VHS finds from around the globe.
I asked Nick Prueher to explain more about the Found Footage Festival ahead of next week’s events in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Jonathan Melville: When did you first hit upon the idea of collecting video tapes?
Nick Prueher: I was a freshman in high school and I found a training video for janitors in the break room of the McDonald’s where I was working. Out of boredom, I popped it in the VCR and I could not believe what I saw. It was the most ridiculous, over-the-top, insulting dumb video I had ever seen.
My first thought was, “This cannot stay in the break room. It needs to be seen by the world!” And indeed, the video was big hit with my friends and really compelled us to start looking in other out-of-the-way places for other videos that might be lying around. Now, 21 years later, our collection is over 6000 VHS tapes and continues to grow.
At what point did you realise you had enough titles to create a festival?
In 2004, Joe [Pickett] and I were making a feature length documentary called Dirty Country and we were having trouble raising money for it. Really, the only thing of value we had was our prized collection of videotapes that we would screen to friends, and we certainly were not going to sell it, so we thought, “Let’s screen our best videos in public and see if anybody shows up”.
It was at the back of this bar in New York that had about 50 seats and a small screen, and for whatever reason, about 200 people showed up. That’s when we realised we might be on to something.
Where do you keep the tapes?
Our collection of over 6000 tapes spills out over my apartment, Joe’s apartment, and three storage lockers in my neighborhood in Queens, New York. There’s no temperature controlled vault at the Smithsonian for VHS so we do our best to preserve them.
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How do you find your videos?
We are on the road about nine months a year bringing our show to different cities, and whenever we get to a new town we go hunting for videos at local thrift stores. I think all the last holdouts who still had VCRs – maybe daycares and nursing homes – have finally gotten rid of their VHS collections, so it’s open season for us right now.
The discouraging thing is that thrift store employees have told us they’re not even accepting VHS tapes anymore because no one is buying them, and that scares us to death. That’s why we are touring all over the world this year to try and rescue all the videos we can before they’re gone forever.
What’s the strangest title you’ve discovered?
We found one video that was simply labeled “Something’s Happening!” and it turned out to be a local television chat show from Oakland, California where a man named Arthur Bloom told the host all about this miracle health cure he’d discovered.
He was convinced that the mucous in our mouths was toxic and was killing us and his cure, which he refers to as “extracting death from the mouth,” involves spraying grape juice in your mouth with a spray bottle and spitting the purple foam into a coffee filter, which he then burns with a blowtorch to prove how toxic it is. It is very strange but I have to say, it lives up to the title on the video, because something is definitely happening in that show.
What’s the most charming/interesting you’ve found?
I like the hand-labeled videos we find at thrift stores because they sometimes tell a story. We found one recently where the person had taped a documentary about Anne Frank off TV and wrote “Anne Frank” on the video label, but at some point they must have taped over it because “Anne Frank” is crossed out and just below it are the words “Tremors 2“.
Do you think of yourself as archivists for programmes/films that would otherwise be obsolete?
We’re primarily trying to make a funny show out of our favorite VHS finds, but I think there is some value in hanging onto these videotaped moments – some of them regrettable – that would otherwise be lost for the ages. In a way, these amateur videos are a lot more truthful representation of who we are as a people than the greatest films of the last 75 years.
Is there a Holy Grail of videos that you’re searching for?
We don’t take any videos off the internet – that’s cheating – so it’s sometimes frustrating when a friend sends us a link to something that we wished we had found. There’s one video called The Super Broker Shuffle that came out after the 1985 Chicago Bears released The Super Bowl Shuffle, but it’s a bunch of corporate financial brokers trying to rap. If I could find that original videotape I could die happy.
Why are people are so fond of VHS when we now have Blu-rays and downloads?
For a lot of people, including us, VHS has a strong nostalgic pull because it’s the format we grew up with. In the same way that record collectors appreciate all the hisses and pops and imperfections of vinyl, we really like all the tracking problems, washed-out colours and general clunkiness of VHS. Especially as more and more content moves to streaming and online methods of distribution, we clamor to have a tangible piece of media that you can hold in your hand.
Is the same range of titles available on DVD?
No, I think VHS was a unique moment in time. People forget how revolutionary it was at the time. For the first time, you could bring video into your home and record things off TV! It was easy, affordable, and it was everywhere. Then, when Jane Fonda’s Workout came out and was priced under $30, it sold like hotcakes to a brand-new home video market. That opened the floodgates to a bunch of mom-and-pop producers who wanted to find the next big then, so you ended up with a glut of weird, esoteric things committed to videotape. It was lightning in a bottle.
What titles can people expect at your Scottish shows?
Well, we did find two bagpiping videos in Glasgow last year but they were boring so we’re not going to subject people to those, but we’ve got an incredible collection of other videos the share. Those include a new collection of exercise tapes, including one called The Sexy Treadmill Workout, a home movie from a drunken spring break trip to Florida in 1985 and a 1996 video about how to care for your pet ferret.
Do you also collect feature films?
We focus on things like exercise videos, training videos, home movies and other stuff that wasn’t meant to be shown in public. A feature film has to be truly remarkable for us to pick it up on VHS. I think one of our prized possessions is a failed sex comedy from the mid-80s called Computer Beach Party. Well worth seeking out.
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