What does VHS mean to you? Three quite different but uniformly excellent documentaries at Edinburgh International Film Festival – Remake, Remix, Rip-off (Cem Kaya, 2014), Chuck Norris Vs Communism (Ilinca Calugareanu, 2015) and Stand by for Tape Back-Up (Ross Sutherland, 2015) – illustrate the unique appeal and value of VHS. Your answer to the question will of course be much different, depending on when and where you were born. To me, VHS means black market video nasties on sale in Ayr Indoor Market, hardware stores renting 15s to 10 year-olds because “our mum said it was OK” and racing home after school, day after day, to watch 30mins of a borrowed copy of the forbidden Pulp Fiction while the house was still empty.
Such illicit thrills were literal child’s play compared to life in Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania, as recounted in Chuck Norris Vs Communism. In 1985, the communist regime was in its 20th year, censorship and state surveillance were reaching a peak and the country was effectively shut off from western culture. With only two hours of approved television a day, there was a huge, as yet un-tapped market for western entertainment. Smuggled VHS tapes became enormously popular – facilitated by one enterprising man, Zamfir, who recruited a courageous state translator, Irina Margareta Nistor, to dub translation over the top of the films. For a generation, for an entire nation, her voice became the second most familiar, after Ceaușescu’s. Ilinca Calugareanu’s film makes a persuasive, not to say heart-warming case for the power of these films on VHS. “It’s because they were deemed trivial,” explains Zamfir, “that they had such a big impact.”
Those raised before the internet made everything so gloriously available at the click of a mouse may also recall how revolutionary VHS was in simply making films widely available and accessible to their original audience. Cem Kaya’s unexpectedly affecting documentary, Remake, Remix, Rip-off, tells the story of a vital period in Turkish cinema history, one which could have been all but wiped from history were it not for a secondary market on VHS in Germany. With very limited resources, only three writers and no copyright law, the Turkish film industry made the very best of what it had, producing countless hundreds of films that would later gain notoriety as Turkish Star Wars, Turkish Superman, Turkish Godfather, etc, etc. Kaya’s doc goes a long way to restoring dignity to the filmmakers whose talent was compromised and legacy almost obliterated by government censorship.
When I think of VHS, I also think of breaking plastic tabs to protect films recorded from TV, sellotaping over plastic tabs to record again and again over films recorded from TV. Part of the continuing charm of VHS is that it has characteristics that can only be replicated, simulated by superior technology, technology that struggles to emulate VHS’s almost accidental properties. Ross Sutherland’s film, Stand by for Tape Back-Up, deriving from a live show he performed at the Fringe in 2014, spins a wonderfully effective, autobiographical piece of art from these properties. Almost all of Sutherland’s film is derived from a videocassette he inherited from his grandfather, upon which they both would record, “slamming it in the machine” and pressing record, “no respect for the start and end of programmes.” Sutherland narrates, playing, pausing, rewinding, looping back and forth and extracting and projecting poetry on to the jittery images. Hiding on this tape, Sutherland compelling and movingly illustrates, is his whole life story. As one of Chuck Norris Vs Communism’s talking heads coincidentally explains, “There was a whole life in the video player.”
This article first appeared on Edinburgh International Film Festival’s blog.
EIFF 2015 runs from 17th-28th June. Read my picks of the documentaries here, my picks of the old films screening again at EIFF 2015 here and my picks of the features here. Check out EIFF’s 2015 brochure here.