EDITORIAL: Did you know about Videofreex?

IN THEORY people in the news business don’t make news. We report it. Yeah, right. Just ask Clark Kent how fair and balanced he was covering the Superman beat. The blogosphere and social media are our standards now, all first-person all the time.

So here’s some self promotion about one of the films playing at this year’s FilmColumbia film festival in Chatham and, for a few screenings, Hudson. It’s a documentary called “Here Come the Videofreex” made by Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin. It uses video footage from the late 1960s and ’70s to tell the story of a group whose members experimented with portable video recording gear when that stuff was a new medium. The Videofreex (pronounced Video-freaks) ended up operating a pirate TV station on a mountainside just across the river from here. I was one of the people who started the group.

I’ve written and spoken frequently about Videofreex and Channel 3, Lanesville TV, our pirate station. But few of the tapes we made could be viewed because the equipment was obsolete and hard to find. In the last few years, however, interest has grown in how society transformed from passive TV viewers into a culture where anyone can post video on YouTube that the world can view instantaneously.

I did not invent cat videos, okay? Yes, I made a videotape starring a kitten and a dog in 1971. But just one, which cannot have been the first. My wife, Carol Vontobel, also a member of Videofreex, made a tape of cows at around the same time. No one blames her for spawning bovine video fixation disorder. Fortunately, the documentary looks at the larger picture.

Making the film was possible because an organization in Chicago has archived hundreds of Videofreex tapes. As funds become available, it restores tapes so they can be viewed. The filmmakers mix the old footage–music, politics, confrontation, weird stuff–and contemporary interviews with the surviving members of the group.

Nealon and Raskin weave their story of the political and social upheaval of the era and the journey of the Videofreex, six men and four women, from our New York City loft (most of us came from other places) to our new home in an old boarding house in the heart of the Catskills. Local media doesn’t get more local than that. No spoiler alert here: One of the themes that emerges from the tapes is the conversation between the Videofreex behind the cameras and anyone being recorded.
It feels odd to watch how strangers, the filmmakers, tell your story to an audience. Strange, except that’s exactly what this newspaper does every week. After helping retell people’s stories–and sometimes their fantasies–on Lanesville TV, it wasn’t such a big leap to transfer some of those skills to local newspapers. It turns out that the medium doesn’t matter nearly as much as the mindset when the goal is sharing information with your neighbors.

If the principle is the same, so are the challenges. The film doesn’t dwell on the question of how to sustain community media. In the case of Videofreex, some members drifted away to pursue other interests, others stuck it out longer. But finding the money and the unifying sense of purpose to keep projects like that going remains as difficult a proposition today as it was half a century ago, maybe more difficult when you look at all the publications that have disappeared in the last decade.

The Columbia Paper is a business not an artists’ collective. We don’t receive grants and don’t pursue any. We pay our way like most small businesses. As long as we continue to provide our readers with information they want and our advertisers with a way to tell our readers about local goods and services, we’ll be around.

The film doesn’t make me nostalgic for some imagined good old days of TV and video. It reminds me instead how much we depend on the people of Columbia County and how that’s a good position to be in. It also renews my enthusiasm for the endless task of mastering new technologies before they overwhelm us. We can’t chase every new gadget or abandon reporting what we think is newsworthy, but we’ve got to keep up. That’s why we’ve added video to our website. Imagine that, after all these years, starting over again.

“Here Come the VideoFreex” plays Saturday, October 24 at 4:30 p.m. in Hudson and Sunday, October 25 at 8:45 p.m. at the Crandell Theatre in Chatham.

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