Film footage from the 1920s often shows ornate marquees streaming with colorful lights flashing movie titles, theater performances, and more. Then the Depression struck, and down went the lights, the jumping and jiving. Other than Times Square and Tokyo now, few places seem to broadcast our technology back to us. Yet video, discreet and domestic, now takes the place of big lights broadcasting the future. The Economist recently ran a piece noting that fewer people attend movies at movie theaters now, preferring video on demand at home. Gauging this trend, independent film companies are offering video premieres at home the same day their films open at Sundance.
What’s all this got to do with Dallas? Bart Weiss, area coordinator of the film/video program at UT Arlington, was ahead of the curve in 1987, opening one of the first U.S. video festivals. As video continues to grow in the place of film, Dallas got the ball rolling. In 1986, the Dallas Museum of Art hosted “Video as a Creative Medium,” and Weiss thought he’d prolong the show by starting up the Dallas VideoFest the next year. Now it draws thousands of submissions annually, premiering 100 to 250 videos each festival at the Angelika. (This year's festival runs November 5-8.) While no longer exclusively for video—works originating on film are also shown—the VideoFest includes everything from shorts to video art, drama, media on media, animation, and documentaries.
Known for his inclusive tastes, Weiss reviews each submission and curates the majority of the show. In addition to running the VideoFest, he teaches video at a summer workshop in Maine. He visited Pakistan this past summer, meeting students and journalists, showing films, and bringing some of their work back for this year’s VideoFest. He also encourages young video contributors. This year, a Greenhill student, Ryan Kline, will produce the festival’s introduction.
With so much expertise, Weiss has gained a following. Documentary maker Mark Birnbaum, known for works on Tom Delay and the Vatican, has been showing at the VideoFest for more than 20 years. “The VideoFest is so eclectic. It paints the globe,” he says. “The variety of the work is astonishing, setting it aside from other festivals more focused on the best independent drama or the best nature films.” With Manny Mendoza, Birnbaum submitted Dig Deep to this year’s VideoFest. “It’s a piece about Deep Ellum and Frank Campagna, a muralist who’s had a lot of his work on Deep Ellum’s walls and who’s responsible for the new mural project by the DART rail station.” Birnbaum travels and films internationally, but his work clearly involves local issues, engaging a local forum in which to show it.
Husband and wife visual artists Alan Govenar and Kaleta Doolin, founders of Documentary Arts and Contemporary Culture respectively, also admire Weiss’ work. Years ago, Doolin debuted Alexander Wiggletooth, a piece about her son losing his baby teeth, at the VideoFest. Though she and Govenar split time between Dallas and New York City, Doolin is “a native Dallasite with Texas roots. It’s possible that my creative energy comes from Texas.” The VideoFest reinforces that connection. She uses Contemporary Culture to do outreach programs throughout the city in art education.
Govenar, the author of 20 books, has archived African-American visual art, written books on tattoo artists, and tried to preserve the blues history of Dallas. He and Dallas actor Akin Babatunde developed Blind Lemon Blues, a production about Dallas’ blues history. “We were hoping it could become a signature piece and be performed at DTC,” Govenar says, “but it never was. Maybe it’s never been fully understood here. It had world premieres in Paris and Geneva, but it hasn’t had a fully sustained production in Dallas.” Founder of the Dallas Folk Festival, Govenar is wary of the fact that the Arts District might stave off locally generated pieces for more international fanfare. “The Arts District can’t only focus on large groups. It has to become a vehicle for communities to participate,” he says. “The folk festival needed partnerships between private and public interests, and it couldn’t be sustained.” Govenar wants to see the cultural resources of the city lend themselves to a larger swath of the community.
If it’s a greater communal and cultural synergy Dallas needs, Weiss’ VideoFest seems like a solution. Though money is tight and finding publicity hard, the VideoFest will use Facebook, flyers, posters, and word of mouth this year. It makes some money from the 24-Hour Video Race, ticket sales, and t-shirts, and it received a $20,000 federal stimulus grant this year. Weiss takes no salary from the VideoFest, viewing it as its own reward. For him, democratization shapes his work, giving power to the people and showing everyday stories.
This VideoFest, a tribute will go to Chuck Morgan, the director of in-park entertainment at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Weiss says, “When the Rangers are losing, sometimes Chuck’s the thing that makes the stadium exciting. The video elements he produces are communicative and entertaining, and he makes things interesting. He’s the auteur of stadiums.”
Morgan’s tribute encapsulates what Weiss has always tried to do with his VideoFest. “It’s a program for a diverse audience,” he says. “I choose what needs to be seen, things that will make the world a better place.”
Write to Joan Arbery at [email protected].