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Dallas History

Dallas Filmmakers Unearth Alien City in Forgotten WFAA Footage

In tonight's 'Frame of Mind' episode, 10 filmmakers dig through WFAA's historical archives and discover new perspectives on Dallas' past and present
By Peter Simek |

From 1960 to 1977, WFAA shot its news footage on 16 mm film. Unlike much of the video the TV news affiliate has subsequently used to record Dallas news, that 16 mm film was never deleted, corrupted, or recorded over. Instead, it sat in storage for years until it was recently donated to SMU’s G. William Jones Film and Video Collection. The university library has since undergone the painstaking effort of identifying, cataloging, and digitizing 17 years of images of Dallas’ history.

This evening, on VideoFest and KERA’s Frame of Mind program, you can see some of that footage. As part of the show’s 25th anniversary season, Frame of Mind producer and VideoFest director Bart Weiss handed over access of the WFAA footage — all 1.3 terabytes of it — to 10 area filmmakers, who have each taken the fragments of history and reconstructed it into 10 new short films.

The results aren’t so much historical documents as they are interpretations and conversations with the past, as well as considerations of the way that film captures, preserves, and distorts the historical record. In fact, most of the filmmakers choose to focus on footage and themes that resonate with our current moment — race, policing, violence, equality, sexism — exploring how some of these themes percolate through the historic footage.

Perhaps what is most interesting about all of the films is the way the disconnect between the filmmakers’ individual visions and the perspective or original intent of the WFAA footage reveals latent attitudes and cultural assumptions. For example, parts of Carmen Menza’s “Beyond 10” focus not on the newsworthy footage, but on the cameramen’s lapses — moments in which the camera strays from the assignment to zoom in and leer at the bodies of young women in crowds. Similarly, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts student Madison McMakin montages footage to juxtapose the way men and women are frequently portrayed, showing men in positions of power and authority, while women often appear confined to beauty pageants or domestic spaces.

In other pieces, images of young men in Confederate uniforms; Western film trailers; crime scenes; fires; and interviews with police, politicians, businessmen, and activists re-contextualize the once-news in a way that reveals unconscious perspectives about race, gender, power, business, and politics. The Dallas of the 1960s and 1970s can appear in these films as a somewhat alien place. However, reading between the lines — or between the frames, so to speak — it becomes clear that much of Dallas today is still rooted in the lost historical city captured by WFAA’s cameramen.

The strongest films in the series take a departure from the footage as mere historical artifact. Christian Vasquez uses the film to stitch together a fictional account of a woman named Jane X, conflating document and fantasy to tell the story of a bandit on the run who leaves in her trail a litany of real-life images of death and destruction. Michael Alexander Morris’ inspired, surrealistic apocalyptic parable finds in the WFAA footage images of a calf running down a Dallas highway, a shotgun-wielding grandma, reports on mysterious monsters lurking near Lake Worth, a crashed doughnut truck, and clips of George H.W. Bush, whose voice Morris has manipulated so that it sounds like a backward tape loop similar to the dwarf in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

The film’s ambiguity works on multiple levels, registering the paranoia and fear that seems to be the common emotional denominator that links the late-1960s and the present day, as well as, perhaps, the common, underlying tone that defines the way the news captures and tells the stories of all times.

Where to watch it: Frame of Mind airs on KERA November 16 at 10:30 p.m.

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