In 2016, almost everyone owns some kind of video camera, even it’s just the one on your smartphone. The ability to record our surroundings and immediately share it with the rest of the world has democratized the media in many ways. But I’d like to take you back to the genesis of a free media owned and operated by the people, for the people. This is the story of the Videofreex, a group of consumer video enthusiasts from the late ’60s and early ’70s, who used this then-brand new technology to bring the raw truth directly to the general population.
“Here Come the Videofreex,” a loving, insightful, and engaging documentary about this movement, starts with video footage taken during the now legendary 1969 Woodstock concert. We’ve all seen the famous four-hour documentary “Woodstock,” or at least footage of the performances, but to watch hazy black-and-white video, sporting that overtly clean and smooth early video look, is an intoxicating experience because it manages to look dated while feeling like it was recorded yesterday.
Watching people hanging out and shooting the shit in between performances, without any artistic pretense or an attempt to aggrandize the cultural impact of Woodstock, makes the video footage feel more like a time portal to the past, as if a day has passed between now and the time the tape was recorded, instead of almost half a century. Video footage of Woodstock is very rare, since the concert took place only a year after Sony released the first consumer grade video camera to the public. So when the only two A/V nerds at the concert with video cameras found each other, it’s not a surprise that they felt the need to come together and put this new and exciting way to capture life in real time to good use.
With a couple more people joining the group, The Videofreex was born, full of amateur reporters passionate about capturing the real issues and grievances of real people. They got intimate and brutally honest interviews with radical political figures like Abbie Hoffman and Fred Hampton, covered turbulent anti and pro-Vietnam war demonstrations, and offered the oppressed and disenfranchised a direct connection to squares who might have previously marginalized them.
Like many young people in their generation, The Videofreex were disillusioned by the mainstream media’s willful ignorance of serious issues like Vietnam and the growing rift between right-wing policies with fascist tendencies and the idealism of the anti-war, pro-love movement, so they went out and used their love for the groundbreaking consumer video technology to capture the truth and share it with as many people as they could.
Directors Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin adopt a fairly chronological narrative, following the progression of The Videofreex year-by-year, intercutting vintage video footage with contemporary talking head interviews. The rise and fall of The Videofreex is edited into a fairly fast-paced three act structure, starting the with group’s genesis in Woodstock, the second act depicting their success, which included a big time CBS deal (complete with the inevitable disillusionment in network television as CBS eventually pushed for an emotionally manipulative approach instead of the intended honesty that The Videofreex aimed for), ending up with a third act where the gang created their own local live TV station, paving the way for public access.
Nealon and Raskin stick with the 4:3 aspect ratio of the vintage black-and-white video footage during the contemporary interviews, which also adopt a retro color palette, seamlessly blending the period footage with the interviews. Cutting back and forth between faded 45-year-old video and a clean and a crisp 16:9 HD look likely would have been too jarring. However, there is a moment near the end of the picture where the aspect ratio opens up to 16:9, employed to make a beautiful point about how far consumer video technology allowed the democratization of the media since the ’70s, while paying respect to the pioneering efforts of The Videofreex.
The feeling of immediacy and timelessness we get from the video footage makes us realize how much things haven’t changed, even after almost fifty years. The Videofreex’s interviews with activists supporting the rights of women and people of color, warning of the rise of fascist ideology in the US, are all issues we still face today. “Here Come the Videofreex” is not only recommended to A/V nerds who might be interested in the beginnings of consumer video technology, but to anyone who’d like to get a unusually raw, real, and resonant look at the tumultuous ’60s and ’70s in USA. [B+]
“Here Come The Videofreex” is now playing at the IFC Center in New York and will expand to the west coast in the weeks ahead.