'Here Come the Videofreex': Film Review

Courtesy of BAM Cinemafest
This fascinating doc brings this largely unknown story to much needed light.

Jenny Raskin and Jon Nealon's documentary recounts the story of a pioneering collective of video journalists who were the forerunners of public access television and the modern internet news era.

Thanks to the ubiquitous presence of cell phones, the ability to shoot video footage anywhere and anytime is now taken for granted. But it wasn't always the case, as Jenny Raskin and Jon Nealon's fascinating documentary about a group of early video pioneers illustrates. Recently screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAMcinemaFest, Here Come the Videofreex should become mandatory viewing in journalism schools.

Largely composed of video footage shot more than four decades ago as well as contemporary interviews with such former members as David Cort, Nancy CainSkip Blumberg and others, the film relates how in 1969 several young people banded together to take advantage of Sony's recent invention of portable video cameras. Dubbing themselves the "Videofreex," they began shooting impromptu news footage. They eventually attracted the attention of Don West, a young CBS news executive, who hired them to cover the counterculture that was largely being ignored by broadcast news organizations. Armed with cameras, the group traveled across the country in a CBS-provided RV.

"They treated us like rock stars," one of the members comments.

They snared the first-ever television interview with Abbie Hoffman during the trial of the Chicago 8, as well as one with Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton who was killed during a raid by the Chicago police just a few weeks later. They also covered the Woodstock music festival, interviewing attendees about such topics as the "bad acid" which was warned against from the stage.

But their pilot episode was rejected by CBS and West left the network shortly thereafter, either as a result of being fired or resigning — even he's not exactly sure which. The collective managed to smuggle out their tapes and soon resumed their mission, covering such topics as the burgeoning women's movement, anti-war demonstrations and the 1972 Republican convention. They hosted well-attended weekly screenings in their Soho loft.

Money woes eventually led them to decamp to a farm in upstate New York where, using a transmitter donated to them by Hoffman, they started a pirate television station in the small town of Lanesville. Dubbed "Lanesville TV," its first broadcast included an interview with the proprietor of a local tavern. The show later featured original comedy sketches whose casts included enthusiastic local residents. Despite the illegality of the operation, the community station remained on the air for five years.

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Featuring generous excerpts from the recently restored vintage black-and-white video footage, the film delivers an illuminating and moving portrait of these largely unknown, intrepid renegade journalists who were the forerunners of both public access television and the contemporary freelance reporting that has become the bedrock of countless news outlets.     

Production: Moldy Tapes
Directors/producers: Jenny Raskin, Jon Nealon
Executive producer: Barbara Dobkin
Director of photography: John Foster
Editor: Jon Nealon
Composer: T. Griffin

Not rated, 79 min.