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CUFF 2021: Found Footage Festival

By Ava Zardynezhad, May 7, 2021—

It’s not the Calgary Underground Film Festival without an evening at the Found Footage Festival (FFF) with Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher. I was really excited for this event — despite always hearing about it, this was the first time I had the chance to attend. For those of you unfamiliar with Pickett and Prueher, these childhood friends have been involved in the media and film industry for quite some time. However, since their teenage years, in the early 90s, they have pursued a strange passion of collecting VHS tapes. This hobby has resulted in vast collections of tapes which they have curated and presented, since 2005, as a part of the FFF. However, the FFF isn’t just about these videotapes and their outrageous contents. Over the years, through the collection of these tapes, Pickett and Prueher have come to build a community that includes both avid found footage enthusiasts as well as many of the creators of these timeless videos. 

The focus of this year’s FFF was Tape Trading Classics. 

“These are pre-internet videos, so [they] would be handed off on physical media — on VHS — from one weirdo to another,” Prueher described. 

As you might imagine, since many of these tapes have been passed around and copied in the collector community, they have lost their original quality. Some of these tapes are also from unknown origins. However, in the “most academic show [they] have ever done,” according to Pickett, he and Prueher curated a series of clips from tapes that belong in the “tape trading hall of fame” while also schooling the folks less involved in the community in the origins and history of these tapes. 

The event opened with segments from Heavy Metal Parking Lot, a documentary short by Jeff Krulik and John Heyn, which features fans of the band Judas Priest at a parking lot in Maryland, before a concert, on May 31, 1986. Pickett called it “the ultimate tape-traded video back in the 80s and 90s.” On the 35th anniversary of the concert, the FFF will be holding a Zoom event that will be attended by the directors and cast. The video definitely made me nostalgic for the pre-pandemic days. 

The rest of the selections for the event included approximately a dozen videos. Not all were to my taste but some of my favourites included “Celebrity Outtakes,” “Harvey Sid Fisher,” “Welcome to my Home” and “News Bloopers.” 

“Celebrity Outtakes” was the first segment. The video included a clip of a visibly drunk Orson Welles doing a commercial for Paul Masson California wine. The closest thing to a description I can provide is that it shared the same energy as Moira Rose’s attempts at recording a commercial for Herb Ertlinger Fruit Wine. This was followed by profanity-filled clips of Richard Simmons and the late Alex Trebek behind the scenes of their respective shows. But the most amusing might have been a clip of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert engaged in a very passive-aggressive back and forth on the set of At the Movies

“Harvey Sid Fisher” was an absolutely ridiculous delight that was discovered by the duo in Los Angeles. The video was a short demo by Musician Harvey Sid Fisher for a series of songs he made about astrological signs. Fisher hired interpretive dancers for the music videos, which just added to the fun of watching them. My words will not do it justice, so I suggest you watch all 12 music videos on YouTube

One of the more enjoyable videos was “Welcome to my Home,” produced by Brenda Dickson — soap opera actress on The Young and the Restless. This video is the closest pre-internet video to a vlog. In the video, Dickson gives the audience a house tour, a closet tour and a leotard-clad workout routine video wrapped in one. 

Lastly, “News Bloopers” is pretty self-explanatory, but there’s a lot of history behind it. Allegedly, the video is quite famous, so much that “it was on almost every tape-traded mix” back in the early days of the duo’s collection and trading journey, according to Prueher. The clip came from a collection of videos titled Tapes of Wrath, a 23-minute version of which is available on YouTube. The clips were compiled by editors who worked at Washington DC News and at one point it was played at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Prueher added. Despite its long history, the duo only caught wind of it in the 80s and 90s. The montage was absolutely hilarious, proving why this genre of videos is still so popular. 

Another segment that I found quite fascinating was all about IMGs. Pickett and Prueher drew present day comparisons to tape trading — which they decided, would be sending video links. In that spirit, they presented a series of IMGs, which Pickett described as “Youtube videos that have barely seen the light of day.” These are videos that have been uploaded to Youtube without even their original file names being changed. These were definitely hidden gems that I hadn’t previously heard of but was super excited to learn about. Quite similar to videotapes, these are short, rare, often bizarre videos that people have publicly shared on the internet.

I must admit, before going into the event, I had some concerns about tape trading. I regard VHS tapes as private possessions, especially those containing home films. When I heard that Pickett and Prueher collected some of their tapes at thrift stores or garage sales, I was perplexed. I was extremely uncomfortable with the idea of screening someone else’s videos for an audience, without their consent. 

However, once I attended the event, I found that a lot of the videos included in the selection were meant to be shared. Outtakes and bloopers would not have been available unless they were made public by the producers, creators and editors of the shows they were taken from. Similar types of videos on the event’s selection included clips from television programs and news shows. Most of the other videos, although made by people in their homes or in small studios, were meant to be seen by the public eye. “Harvey Sid Fisher” and “Welcome to my Home” are previously mentioned examples. Other such videos included a home workout video by the name of “Rock’s Winning Workout Without Weights.” Another type of video included edited versions of videos that were purchasable in stores at a certain point of time. A video called “Pastor Gas” — with a self-descriptive title — belonged to this genre. 

However, there were some videos that I would place in a grey area and one particular video that made me very uncomfortable. The video in question was a compilation of clips from various wedding videos and similar large gatherings — it was shot by a mysterious man who attended and videographed private events, particularly weddings. The duo don’t know much about the identity of the creator of these videos, only that he has a British accent. This is where my worries about consent manifested themselves the most. 

Pickett, in agreement, expressed that he does think about the possibility that the individuals in the wedding videos might not want their private moments to be showcased publicly. However, he did also add that what they do is primarily focused on celebrating these videos. Prueher mentioned that when it comes to selecting video clips for their shows, they draw the line at whether it would be exploitative to show the video to an audience. 

“We’ve never lost a moment’s sleep about showing these videos publicly because the tone of our show isn’t mocking or dismissive, it’s done with genuine affection for this footage we’ve dug up,” Prueher said. “There are definitely some folks who made VHS mixtapes back in the 90s that we deemed to be in poor taste, so there’s definitely a line there.” 

Prueher put a lot of emphasis on how the beauty in what they do and the value they bring to their videos is in how the duo carefully curates and presents them from their own point-of-view and with their own artistic voice. Not only are these videos Fair Use of the footage and can be subject to transformative editing under the law, Pickett and Prueher take great care not to present them in a derisive context or manner.

Today’s digital world and the dawn of platforms like Youtube has normalized video sharing on virtual media. A lot of home videos and funny clips get uploaded online on a daily basis that are similar to Pickett and Prueher’s VHS tapes. Obviously, when it comes to virtual video sharing, a lot of footage is also not meant to be uploaded or shared, but at the same time, the more public nature of online media has created a collective culture around this activity — so much so that we have numerous platforms and applications dedicated to it. 

Attending this event made me rethink a lot of things that social media has normalized, especially when it comes to accountability and consent in sharing photos and videos. In today’s online culture, the consequences of sharing media without the consent of those depicted in them is rarely considered. Although, the act of recording in public is oftentimes legal and especially in the recent political climate has proven itself even necessary, sharing that footage gets more complicated. 

Putting this in the context of tape trading, Pickett and Prueher included an example of a VHS tape that went viral on virtual and physical media — although without focusing on that aspect of it. The video was titled “Jack Rebney.” Many might know Jack Rebney as Winnebago man. The video shown at the FFF was indeed the infamous, viral video of Rebney shouting profanities on the set of a promotional video for Winnebago motorhomes. The video is an example of the impact of video sharing on the lives of those whose stories get passed around as entertainment. As the digitized video was shared on the internet, Rebney became an icon. Filmmaker Ben Steinbauer has dedicated a documentary to Winnebago-man, where Rebney discusses how the video has impacted his life and how unhappy he is with the image that the video associated him with.

On the other hand, Pickett and Prueher also emphasized how trading tapes has helped them build a community. 

“We always try to track down the folks in the videos to find out more — each one is a mystery — and in every case, these folks have long since forgotten about the footage and love talking about it,” he said. During the event, they did expand on the experiences they had with the individuals whose tapes made it to the selection.  

They talked about how during one of their shows in LA, they called the phone number that appeared in Fisher’s music videos. Lo and behold, Fisher picked up and the duo invited him to their show. Pickett and Prueher claim that they are now golfing buddies with Fisher, having visual evidence to prove it. 

The tape trading community is quite diverse and more extensive than I imagined going into the event. Pickett commented on how a lot of videos are traded on film sets, mentioning, as an example, how he had acquired the “Harvey Sid Fisher” video from a “sound guy” on a film set he was working on. One of the traded tapes, to my surprise, came from a very unexpected trader — actor and comedian, David Cross. Although a lot of these tapes might just be “exercise videos, kids videos, [or] instructional videos that came with beard trimmers,” as Prueher put it, many are eccentric finds and valuable gems that are collected and edited by the hands of a select well-intentioned few — such as Pickett and Prueher — whom, with a lot of appreciation, have set out to celebrate the collective human spirit. 

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