Last night, VideoFest kicked off the start of the end with an event tailored to the outsized role the festival has played in the Dallas film community for the past 35 years.
Docufest + —the festival’s latest iteration — screened Dziga Vertov’s groundbreaking film Man with a camera, a silent Soviet experimental documentary from 1929, accompanied by an original score by the late Jack Waldenmaier which was first commissioned for VideoFest 25e birthday. Following the screening, there was a memorial service to commemorate all local filmmakers who died in the past 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The evening showcased three essential elements of VideoFest’s programmatic DNA: an appreciation of the history and evolution of visual media; an ambition to create new ways of experiencing visual art; and a mission to nurture and celebrate the Dallas arts community. It was a bittersweet evening. Following this weekend’s list of documentaries, VideoFest’s long run as the city’s most ambitious and exciting film festival will come to an end.
It was a hell of a race. VideoFest began when Bart Weiss was invited to help organize an exhibition called “Video as Creative Medium” at the Dallas Museum of Art in 1986. At that time, the idea that video could be considered a legitimate form artistic expression was still under debate in some circles. The following year, when Weiss hosted a four-day festival dedicated to the medium, he made it his mission to show just how impactful and innovative video can be. And as video made its way to legitimacy – to eventually completely dominate visual culture – the Weiss Festival evolved along with it.
When I started writing about film and art full time for D Magazine in 2011, VideoFest was one of my annual highlights. By this time, the schedule for the now busy North Texas film festival was already filling up. The USA Film Festival was one of the oldest film festivals in the country. The Denton Thin Line Film Festival began its exclusive documentary programming in 2004. The Dallas Asian Film Festival began in 2002, and the Dallas Film Festival was launched in 2007 as AFI Dallas.
But VideoFest stood out.
When I received Weiss’s stack of screeners, I knew everything I would watch would be fascinating, empowering, and different from anything I would see at any other festival in town, let alone the theaters. There were documentaries, experimental feature films, animated shorts, video art, and films that did not fit into any category of readymade. The selections have always been ambitious, politically astute, unabashed and keenly aware of how moving images work as an artistic medium. As I put each DVD in the drive, I knew little about the movies or the filmmakers – or if what I was about to watch would be funny, disturbing, infuriating, or inspiring. But I always knew it would be empowering and worth it.
That’s because VideoFest has created space for the huge collection of movies made each year that don’t fit into the familiar distribution channels that tend to limit movies to popular entertainment. Not that the VideoFest movies weren’t entertaining – they were often delicious and hilarious. But by focusing on finding ambitious and committed work, Weiss has helped create a home for films and filmmakers within an American artistic ecosystem that leaves so many great artists homeless.
This was reflected in the way VideoFest worked to champion Dallas-based artists as well. The first time I attended the Dallas Video Festival, I didn’t even know I was at the Dallas Video Festival. It was 2002 or 2003 and I was a recent college graduate who had come across a motley cohort of young artists and filmmakers based in the Continental Gin building in Deep Ellum. By the time I met these guys, one of them, Steve Mahone, was scrambling to complete a sci-fi feature film. I watched it and to be honest it was a bit obscure and hard to follow. But the film had some intriguing visuals and demonstrated the potential of its creator. Mahone was elated when Weiss offered him a screening platform in a crowded Kalita Humphreys theater, where the Video Festival was living at the time.
This is part of what has made VideoFest so reliable over the years. He embraces films that take risks even when they don’t always work. He understands art as a process and an experiment and not just as a product. As a festival, it was always messy, unpredictable, and hard to pin down – that’s precisely what made it so exciting and relevant. This relevance is also reflected in all the name changes over the years (the Dallas Video Festival became VideoFest, then split into a handful of events like this weekend’s DocuFest +). In the 35 years since the launch of the Dallas Video Festival, the term “video” itself has lost some of its meaning. Today, almost all cinema is now shot on video, even if we prefer to call it “digital” or “4K”. This development confirmed Weiss’s confidence in the potential of video as an artistic medium. In another sense, he left VideoFest without a clear mission.
Weiss isn’t shutting down the festival, however, as video reigns supreme. Over lunch last week, Weiss was candid about what it means to run a film festival for 35 years. He has had a lot of help over the years, countless staff, volunteers and contributors who have helped make VideoFest such a lasting success. Weiss met his wife Suzanne Teegardin at the first “Video as Creative Medium” exhibition, and she then ran VideoFest. But in many ways, the lineup for VideoFest was a one-man show. For more than three decades, his life has been shaped by the relentless work of curating a festival, always with his antennas out, experiencing the world as a perpetual search for new material.
He more than appreciated it, of course; the fact that he has become what he is will probably be the hardest part of letting go. But there are other projects Weiss wants to work on. He has some documentaries in the hopper. His recent collaboration with poet Greg Brownderville on Fire bones awakened a passion for the production of narrative films. Its public television program “Frame of Mind” is about to expand statewide. And he’s still a full-time film professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
My suspicion, however, is that this weekend’s lineup won’t be Weiss’s last roster, and that he won’t be able to resist the idea of hosting one-off series or mini-festivals every now and then. . This is because Weiss has proven over the years that festival programming is his own form of artistic expression, and in this way he has proven to be one of Dallas’ most essential artists. The films he shows reflect his way of seeing and thinking about the world, and they help us see how the intimacy and availability of video has a power that can reshape and reframe our experience of our own lives.
Today, we see it everywhere. Video is not just a source of entertainment, but a daily form of self-expression. We increasingly define our identity through our social media presence, and much of that is presented via video. The ubiquity of video in our lives has spawned whole new industries and new ways of thinking about what constitutes a life and a career, from YouTube stars to Instagram influencers. Weiss was also ahead, launching a program exclusively dedicated to cat videos a few years ago.
By the time its festival started, as huge VHS cameras started popping up at family parties and MTV played streaming on TVs, we weren’t sure how much video would start to change the way. we live and remember our own life. It can sometimes be confusing to understand how we got to where we are today.
But if you want to find out, you just need to follow the story of VideoFest. Because Bart Weiss was watching every step of the way.