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At 25, VideoFest Shows No Signs of Settling Down

From a documentary about former Gov. Ann Richards to a program of experimental video art, Dallas VideoFest casts its net wide tonight at the Dallas Museum of Art. It’s that kind of range that’s made the 25-year-old festival a cornerstone of the North Texas film scene:

KERA Radio story:

VideoFest threw a party recently to celebrate its 25th anniversary. But founder and artistic director Bart Weiss is surprised it made it past year one.

“When we did the first intro to the festival, I only thought we were doing it once,” he said at the event. “And it comes to the end and he says, ‘The First Annual Dallas Video Festival.’ And it really hadn’t dawned on me we were doing a second one, and a third one and a fourth one …”

In the past 25 years, VideoFest has become an institution. It’s a place for emerging artists to show their work for the first time. For established directors to debut new work. And for the people watching in the dark to redefine what we call “the movies.”

All this from a festival that debuted by showing old clips from comedian Ernie Kovac’s 1950s television variety show. You might remember his frequent performances with his Nairobi Trio.

Though it started with a classic, VideoFest has always been about embracing the new. That’s part of why Weiss chose to call it a “video” festival instead of a “film” festival.

WEISS: “Video, at the time, there was some really wonderful things going on with portapacks, ¾ inch, VHS, SVH, Hi-8 and all these other new technologies that I just thought were really kinda fascinating and I thought somebody ought to really look into this material well. So that’s why we went with video. … But video has really won out. So, you know, those film festivals – everything’s video now.”
Technology has brought enormous changes to the world of video in the last 25 years, and the festival has been right on top of it – from music videos to CD Rom to  iTunes and apps. If a moving image can be captured, VideoFest has shown it.

“There is [always] some experimental aspect,” says Mona Kasra, a video artist who is on the jury of this year’s Texas Show. “Bart is always interested in doing something new or talking about something new.”

Weiss has also put a premium on showing off new work by local filmmakers.

“VideoFest for many years was my deadline,” says Mark Birnbaum, a Dallas documentary maker. “It was what was necessary to get me to stop editing and finish the show.”

This year, his film Swingman will premiere at the festival. It’s about a paralyzed Fort Worth firefighter. Birnbaum says he’s had six or seven films play VideoFest in the past 25 years. He’s one of more than a dozen local filmmakers who are represented in this year’s event.

Many locals who have played their movies at VideoFest have gone on to national recognition. Brandon Oldenburg showed his short film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, at last year’s festival. It went on to win an Oscar for best animated short.

Since VideoFest debuted, easy access to video cameras and editing software has democratized the medium. 48 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. That explosion of material means Weiss is never at a loss for stuff to show. But he says his true mission is in helping us cut straight to the highlights.

“We spend way too much of our time looking at screens, and most of the times, as humans, we’re not very satisfied with what we look at because we’re not very picky because we’re filling up the emptiness of our time,” Weiss says. “So we hope that by coming to the festival you will see that there are great opportunities to expand your life, to enrich your life … and that we don’t settle when we look at screens.”

Still, all that video watching takes a lot of time, and Weiss also teaches film at UT-Arlington. So how long can he continue doing both?

Birnbaum says he’s stopped predicting the festival’s end.

“I tried to talk Bart after 20 into stopping it. Because it takes a toll on you. A lot of people work on it, a lot of people pull it together, but, boy, he takes it very seriously. I thought, ‘20’s a great number!’ Twenty five’s better, and I’m going to shut up about stopping.”