Documentaries often go through cycles.
Profile docs have their moments, there were times when you couldn’t watch a documentary without some form of animation, and unsurprisingly experimental VR is predicted to be the next big thing. And although it doesn’t necessarily qualify as a ‘trend’ in documentary storytelling, VHS footage has been a recurring theme in some films which have stuck in my mind this past year or so. It became apparent the other day when I came across Say Something Intelligent—a ‘documentary’ short film comprised only of edited family footage—just how good crude home video footage is. Maybe it’s because those archaic, clunky prisms of black plastic are like a portal to your coming of age. I don’t think I’m speaking just for myself when I say that somewhere, stacked away in the very bowels of the family house, live birthdays, family holidays, on-camera tantrums, forgotten fashion du jours (see “Ice Is Cool” t-shirt in video below) and hours upon hours of nothingness, that when put together equate to the years on earth you’ve long since forgotten. There’s a beauty in the horrible quality and awkward zooms of those old tapes, and these three documentaries in particular call for a revival of all things VHS.
Say Something Intelligent
If there’s a case for digitising your old home videos, Say Something Intelligent is it. Although filmmaker Lewis Bennett cherry picks moments from his childhood for this three minute short, it kind of makes you feel like you’re looking back on your own. There are just certain elements to old home videos that are universal, like the (often irritating) voiceover courtesy of whichever parent is holding the camera at the time, or the general stupidity of male family members resulting in accidents and tears caught on tape. Even though we’re well equipped with iPhones these days if the need to capture a moment arises, you’ve got to feel nostalgic for the days when you’d hit that little red button on the camcorder and record it all, no matter how mundane.
It’s those hours of sometimes pointless footage that Bennett had to trawl through to make his, “documentary”. Bennett said in an interview with Vimeo that he can classify it as such, because although it’s not what his Dad had intended when he was shooting it many years before, it became a documentary after he began to edit it 24 years later. Without the glue of his father’s prompts/demands to “say something intelligent,” that tie the cuts together, the film would be little more than a funny collection of family memories. But by using this common thread of the recurring slogan to piece together a snapshot into his childhood, he creates a purpose for the film. The beauty and success of this film is in the edit, which Bennett has said is his favourite part of the filmmaking process. By cutting up all his family archival footage to make Say Something Intelligent, he’s proved that you don’t need a big budget or even to film new material, to make a movie that resonates.
Heavy Metal Parking Lot
Although this one was all over the internet a little while ago, Heavy Metal Parking Lot is one of the best examples of VHS cut footage in the music documentary sphere you can get. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll let the movie’s YouTube description describe it in a way I never could: “The quintessential ’80s magnum opus, made complete with a vast display of muscle cars, spandex, bleach-blonde frizzy perms, bare-chested dudes, mullets from hell, faded denim metal chicks, and the largest collection of late ’70s Camaros ever seen in one location.”
So there you have it. It’s 17 minutes of mid-80s, metalhead glory, and the best part about it is the film never even ventures outside of the parking lot. When Mark Twain said that “Truth is better than fiction,” I’m sure he wasn’t talking about Heavy Metal Parking Lot, but he may as well have been. You couldn’t cast the main characters of this film—a bunch of young, boozed up, die-hard fans who’re high on life, a plethora of drugs and the prospect of being on camera. The guys behind the camera, John Heyn and Jeff Krulik, borrowed a video camera from a local station, and headed down to the parking lot outside Judas Priest’s Maryland concert venue and got a little over an hour of footage, which they’d later cut down to the 17 minutes you see today. Before going viral on the internet in recent years, it was largely unknown to a mainstream audience. For the decades following its release, video fanatics and music fans would make bootleg versions of the film to pass between friends.
The filmmakers have tried over the years to recreate the magic of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, with Harry Potter Parking Lot, Neil Diamond Parking Lot and Monster Truck Parking Lot (never released) but the original, as usual, was the best. So, to leave you with the wise words of the zebra print clad man at about 9 minutes in, “Heavy metal rules, all the punk shit sucks. It doesn’t belong in this world, it belongs on fucking Mars man…Madonna can go to hell as far as I’m concerned, she’s a dick.”
Just like Say Something Intelligent, this VHS-based ‘documentary’ came from a filmmaker with a love of editing. But unlike SSI, director Dean Fleishcer-Camp (the guy behind the hugely popular short Marcel The Shell With Shoes On) used footage that didn’t belong to him, but to another family who’d he’d actually never met. After wormholing his way through hours and hours of completely unedited family home videos uploaded onto one YouTube channel, Fleishcer-Camp got in contact with the father who the videos belonged to ask his permission in using his videos to create something completely new—a faux family crime documentary.
Even if Fraud isn’t necessarily your thing, you have to admit he has incredible narrative control in being able to turn hours of mundane family footage into a Bonnie and Clyde style movie about a family on the run, who encounter money problems, crime and sinister dealings along the way. When it was premiered at Hot Docs festival in Toronto, it made a whole bunch of movie traditionalists all hot under the collar, as they accused him of being a con artist and a liar, in calling this film a documentary. While the story itself is not true, and the family in the videos are, in reality, far from being criminals on the run, does that necessarily make him a liar in calling it a documentary? After all, none of the footage was staged (except for very small parts of the film taken from other home videos found on the web), it was just expertly rearranged to fit the notion and timeline of the story that Fleishcer-Camp had created in his mind. No mean feat in itself—it apparently took him a few years of thinking about the footage before he could shape the eventual idea for Fraud. A little bit of lies, a lot of truth, and an amazing rework of some old family videos that would’ve been buried in the dark depths of the internet, had it not been for Fleishcer-Camp’s creative approach to editing.