Last night, VideoFest kicked off the beginning of the end with an event suited to the outsized role the festival has played in the Dallas film community over the past 35 years.
Docufest+—the latest iteration of the festival—screened Dziga Vertov’s groundbreaking Man With a Movie Camera, a 1929 silent Soviet experimental documentary, accompanied by an original score by the late Jack Waldenmaier that was first commissioned for VideoFest’s 25th anniversary. After the screening, there was a memorial service to commemorate all the local filmmakers who have passed away during the last 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The night presented three core elements of VideoFest’s programmatic DNA: an appreciation for the history and evolution of visual media; an ambition for creating new ways of experiencing visual art; and a mission to nurture and celebrate Dallas’ artistic community. It was a bittersweet evening. After this weekend’s slate of documentaries, VideoFest’s long run as the city’s most ambitious and exciting film festival will come to an end.
It has been quite a run. VideoFest got its start when Bart Weiss was invited to help curate an exhibition called “Video as a Creative Medium” at the Dallas Museum of Art back in 1986. At that time, the idea that video could be considered a legitimate form of artistic expression was still up for debate in some circles. The following year, when Weiss pitched a four-day festival dedicated to the medium, he made it his mission to show how impactful and innovative video could be. And as video wedged its way into legitimacy—eventually coming to completely dominate visual culture—Weiss’ festival evolved along with it.
When I began writing about film and art full time for D Magazine back in 2011, VideoFest was one of my annual highlights. By that time, North Texas’ now-crowded film festival schedule was already filling up. The USA Film Festival was one of the nation’s oldest film fests. Denton’s Thin Line Film Festival began its documentary-exclusive programing in 2004. The Asian Film Festival of Dallas began in 2002, and the Dallas Film Festival had launched in 2007 as AFI Dallas.
But VideoFest stood apart.
When I received the stack of screeners from Weiss, I knew that everything I would watch would be fascinating, challenging, and unlike anything I would see at any other festival in town, let alone in theaters. There were documentaries, experimental features, animated shorts, video art, and films that didn’t quite fit into any readymade category. The selections were always ambitious, politically astute, unapologetic, and acutely aware of the ways moving images function as an artistic medium. As I popped each DVD in the player, I knew little about the films or filmmakers – or whether what I was about to watch would be funny, disturbing, enraging, or inspiring. But I always knew it would be thought-provoking and well worth my time.
That’s because VideoFest created a space for the huge collection of films made every year that don’t fit into the familiar distribution channels that tend to limit film to popular entertainment. Not that VideoFest films weren’t entertaining – they were often delightful and hilarious. But by retaining a focus on finding ambitious and engaged work, Weiss helped create a home for films and filmmakers within an American arts ecosystem that leaves so many great artists homeless.
This 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. This was way back in 2002 or 2003 and I was a recent college graduate who had fallen in with a ragtag cohort of young artists and filmmakers based out of the Continental Gin building in Deep Ellum. By the time I met those guys, one of them, Steve Mahone, was scrambling to finish a sci-fi feature film. I watched it and, to be honest, it was a bit obscure and difficult to follow. But the movie possessed some intriguing visual elements and demonstrated its creator’s potential. Mahone was thrilled when Weiss gave it a screening platform in a packed Kalita Humphreys Theater, where the Video Festival lived at the time.
That’s part of what has made VideoFest so reliably good over the years. It embraces films that take chances even when they don’t always work. It understands art as process and experimentation and not merely product. As a festival, it was always messy, unpredictable, and difficult to pin down—that’s precisely what made it so exciting and relevant. That relevance is also reflected in all the name changes over the years (The Dallas Video Festival became VideoFest, and then splintered into a handful of events like this weekend’s DocuFest+). In the 35 years since the Dallas Video Festival launched, the term “video” itself has lost some of its meaning. Today, nearly all cinema is now shot on video, even if we prefer to call it “digital” or “4K”. This evolution has vindicated Weiss’ confidence in video’s potential as an artistic medium. In another sense, it has left VideoFest without a clear mission.
Weiss is not shutting down the festival, however, because video reigns supreme. Over lunch last week, Weiss was frank about what it means to run a film festival for 35 years. He has had plenty of help over the years, countless staff, volunteers, and collaborators who have helped make VideoFest such an enduring success. Weiss met his wife Suzanne Teegardin at the first “Video as a Creative Medium” exhibition, and she went on to manage VideoFest. But in many ways, VideoFest’s programming was a one-man show. For more than three decades, his life has been shaped by the never-ending work of curating a festival, always with his antennas out, experiencing the world as a perpetual search for new material.
He’s more than enjoyed it, of course; the fact that it has become who he is will probably be the most difficult part about letting go. But there are other projects Weiss wants to work on. He has a few documentaries in the hopper. His recent collaboration with poet Greg Brownderville on Fire Bones reawakened a passion for producing narrative films. His public television program “Frame of Mind” is poised 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 programming won’t be the last slate Weiss puts together, and that he won’t be able to resist organizing one-off series or mini festivals from time to time. That’s because Weiss has proven through the years that curating festival programing is its own form of artistic expression, and in that way, he has proven himself to be one of Dallas’ most essential artists. The films he presents reflect how he sees and thinks about the world, and they help us see how the intimacy and availability of video possesses a power that can reshape and reframe our experience of our own lives.
Today, we see that everywhere. Video is not only a source of our entertainment but an everyday form of self-expression. We increasingly define our identity by our presence on social media, and much of that is presented through video. The omnipresence of video in our lives has generated entire new industries and new ways of conceiving of what constitutes a life and career—from YouTube stars to Instagram influencers. Weiss was ahead of this as well, launching a program a few years ago dedicated exclusively to cat videos.
At the time his festival began, as massive VHS cameras began popping up at family parties and MTV played continuously on televisions, we did not know the extent to which video would begin to shift the way we experience and remember our own lives. It can be confusing sometimes to understand how we got from there to where we are today.
But if you want to know, all you have to do is follow the history of VideoFest. Because Bart Weiss was watching every step of the way.