Arts & Events

Here Come the Videofreex

Gar Smith
Friday March 18, 2016 - 12:14:00 PM

Opens March 18 at the Roxie Theatre in SF

The odds against this film ever existing were pretty long. It started with a chance conversation when the directors Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin shared a beer with a guy named Bart Friedman. Friedman's tales of a radical group of underground newshounds called the "Videofreex" led to a hunt for more than a hundred ancient videotapes stuffed away in various basements and attics across the land.

Many of the old tapes were in such poor shape they had to be slowly "baked" over low heat for hours to assure they wouldn't self-destruct when played on the old reel-to-reel tape decks.

The doc's initial footage is not too promising: It's nothing more than two of the founding Videofreex sharing a doobie in front of the camera and having a sublime giggle-fest. But this is turns out to be a historic moment because what the two bearded kids are using to record their marijuana-marinated merriment is a revolutionary tool—a Sony Portapak video camera, the first camera that made it possible to record live video outside a TV studio.



In 1969, the Videofreex grabbed their novel gear and set off to Woodstock, where they made a point of not recording the musicians. Instead, they chatted up the folks in the audience—including a bearded vegetarian who showed up with his date, a wooly sheep, cradled in his lap as he instructed people to stop eating meat and cease "turning your stomach into a grave." 

Some CBS employees dispatched to cover Woodstock chanced upon the Videofreex and brought them to the attention of Don West, an assistant to CBS President Frank Stanton. West fell in love with the Freex footage. It was raw, alternative, and authentic, like nothing else on TV. (At the time, most TV fare was sit-coms, Westerns, and game shows.) 

West knew there was a social revolution underway in America but network TV had nothing about what was really happening out in the streets and cities of the Sixties. "I wanted to capture the real world," West recalls in the film. (This decision would ultimately cost him his job.) 

West hired the three original Videofreex, outfitted them with the latest electronic recording tools and sent them off in a rented RV—following in the tire treads of CBS' Charles Kuralt, who first went On the Road in 1967. But the Videofreeks weren't interested in recording amusing vignettes from Middle America. Instead, they set about recording images of the "unseen Sixties," like their visit to a nature school for misfit teens that provided an alternative to military schools. They covered the Chicago 7 conspiracy trial. They filmed interviews with leaders of the Yippie movement. 

In one early clip, we hear the voice of Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman grating in the darkness: "I don't think the Yippie buttons should be sold," Abbie kvetches, "but then there's the point that nobody ever brings in money!" Speaking of the chances for an acquittal at the Chicago 7's "show trial," Abbie quips: "If it wasn't for the law, we'd win easy." 

Thanks to the Yippie connection, the Videofreeks received an invitation to film a covert interview with 22-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. (Two weeks later, Hampton was murdered in his bed during a joint FBI-police assassination raid). In his video appearance, Hampton gave a riveting performance but it's a pretty easy guess that the Black Power activist's intense, expletive-powered interview would never make it onto a CBS broadcast. 

When the Videofreex aired their "pilot" for CBS execs, they were promptly fired—along with Don West. 

As their final act, the three Freex managed to slip back into the CBS headquarters building and "steal" their videos, sneaking them out hidden inside a guitar case. It goes without saying that they videotaped the robbery. 

In 1970, the team began to grow, benefitting from the addition of some talented new recruits—a technician, an accountant, and some volunteers who actually had a gift for using a camera. The founding trio had become a collective. 

As one Freek put it, those were days when "all you had to do was walk out on the street and life would leap on your back." They covered anti-war protests, women's liberation rallies, student strikes, and rock concerts. They even managed to cover the Republican National Convention (and recorded a classic live "non-interview" with CBS's Roger Mudd). 

The collective had become something like a family. But then it had to face the question: how to make this pay? "Meaningful work is more satisfying than money," one member of the collective recounts in the film. But the truth is, being able to afford hot bowl of soup at dinnertime also has its merits. 

"We had to go to those places where history was being made because it was important to have that alternative record," another veteran recalls. And so they were on hand to cover the 1971 May Day protests against the Vietnam War. They filmed the street occupations intended to push Washington DC into gridlock. They trained their lenses on the center of the action, capturing footage of protesters being run down by angry motorists. At least one Videofreek got arrested and kept a camera rolling from inside a police bus filled with May Day protestors heading for jail. And the camera recorded a raucous, nonviolent "jail riot" that rocked the walls with anti-war chants. 

This was important footage that profiled the growing divisions in US society. But the kicker was, there was no place to show it. The best they could manage was hosting small weekly screenings in shared neighborhood spaces—a far cry from the millions of eyes watching CBS. 

They were working hard, recording important facets of Sixties culture, but without mass distribution, their video work was rendered irrelevant. They were like a team of talented chefs with a great kitchen—but no dining room. 

With limited public access and dwindling financial support, the Freex were compelled to abandon Manhattan. 

In 1974, the collective had relocated to a farmhouse in the Catskills—in a rural valley that was so remote, it was out of range of all TV broadcast signals. 

As it turns out, the nearby small town of Lanesville proved to be the perfect spot for a bunch of "dirty hippies." Turns out, they'd brought along a dusty, unused TV transmitter left behind from one of Abbie Hoffman's failed rebel communication schemes and—Voila!—America's first "pirate TV" station was born. 

The Freex prepared to make headlines: They fully expected to become the first illegal TV operation to be crushed by The Law. Instead, Lanesville's Channel 3 TV stayed on the air unmolested. And it gets better. For, as the Freex reached out to the locals, the long-time, small-town residents warmed to the newcomers and reciprocated by watching, then advising, and finally participating in the broadcasts. The documentary reveals how the community eventually went onscreen full-hog, doing their own stand-ups, reporting their own news, and creating their own satirical "shows." (The premise might have made for a boffo sit-com on CBS.) 

In retrospect, it slowly dawns that what we are watching (and what the Freex could not see at the time) was the dawn of a new era in communication—one that would overcome the historical "wealth barrier" that allowed corporations and their lawyers to completely control the domain of broadcast content. Lanesville Channel 3 was the rag-tag apotheosis of public television gone rad. 

Eventually, the advent of the Internet, the Smartphone, and YouTube would make the Videofreex' dream manifest. Now, anyone can be a "star." Everyone can be a director. Any teen or geezer can point a camera, click a keyboard and tell a story that can reach a potential global audience of millions. 

After 50 years in the Media Wilderness, the legacy of the Videofreex serves up a conclusion to cheer for. The last spoken line in the film sums it up perfectly: "Today, we're all Videofreex!" 

A local angle: Mary Curtis Ratcliff, one of the ten Freex interviewed in the film, is a Berkeley resident. She moved to the Bay Area in 1973 and gained fame for her wind sculptures. Her art is included in the collections of the SF Fine Arts Museum and the Oakland Museum. Today, Ratcliff continues to work as a member of Oakland's Mercury 20 Gallery and the SFMOMA Artists Gallery. 

A musical bonus: The documentary features several great soundtrack songs, courtesy of Buzzy Linhart.