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Found Footage Festival: Exposing The Weird World of Forgotten VHS Tapes

One of the coolest events flickering across the silver screen in San Francisco is the Found Footage Festival, a beyond hilarious extravaganza of video gems literally dug up from oblivion (aka, trash bins, "free" boxes on sidewalks, etc.) and showcased for a few days at the Red Vic. Over the years, the festival's exposed the world to some seriously bizarre finds that have since become internet legends, such as the Winnebago Man and the shenanigans of pre-gubernatorial Arnold Schwarzenegger in Rio. This year, they're kicking off the festival with a screening of the cult classic vintage vid, Heavy Metal Parking Lot. We talked to one of the festival's creators, Nick Prueher, about what it takes to make it happen:

Why'd you choose to open the festival with Heavy Metal Parking Lot?

Before the internet, the way you'd share videos was making dubs. You'd have 7th or 8th generations of videos floating around and you'd show them to friends. One of the first videos we got from that network was Heavy Metal Parking Lot, and a friend who was in a band had heard about it and made a copy for us in the 90s. These two filmmakers took a camera from a public access TV station to the parking lot of a Judas Priest concert and recorded what happened. It very much fits in with the aesthetic of what we do. It's the film's 25th anniversary this year, and we've become friends with the filmmakers and we asked them if they wanted to show it on our tour. It's the perfect opening act. Cameron Crowe said it was one of the best rock movies ever made.

What's the weirdest place you've ever found a video?

I went to an estate sale a few years ago. You know, someone's died and they're selling off all their stuff. We bought a VHS camcorder there, thinking it would be fun to shoot something on, but when we got home and plugged it in, there was a tape still inside. It turned out to be a home movie of the guy who died, and it was one of the strangest things we've seen. He was dressed up in women's clothing, and he was singing and dancing to opera music and even got into a shouting match with somebody. It was a little window into this guy's world. Also I found one while I was taking out the trash in my apartment. In the dumpster there was this dusty stack of VHS tapes, and the top one was labeled "Bunion Surgery". It's really just a matter of keeping your eyes open.

Is your apartment just wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling tapes?

Yeah, it's a house of cards basically. We have more than 5,000 tapes, and two storage lockers in Queens, New York. My apartment's full and [co-founder] Joe's apartment is full of videos.

What started this passion?

Joe Pickett and I met in 6th grade and had this shared passion for things that were so bad they were good. At first we just watched a lot of bad TV, and then in 1991 I was a freshman in high school working at McDonald's, and I found this hilariously awful training video there. It was so good that I took it home and showed it to Joe and our friends and we cracked jokes about it. When we got sick of it, we knew we needed to find more material. We frequented Salvation Armys and Goodwills anyway, and just thought, let's keep our eyes out for VHS tapes. By now we've collected thousands of tapes just to keep entertaining our friends and strangers with.

Do you ever include things you find on Youtube, or is it just videos, always and forever?

We're stubbornly old school about it. We think it's kind of cheating if you take something off Youtube. We like the physical process of discovery and getting our hands dirty. It's a lot more rewarding when you put that much work into it, like you're panning for gold. If it's online people have done that work for you. But we do some DVDs too, because as more things go on On Demand and streaming, people are getting rid of their collections. We found an instructional video on Elvis impersonators on DVD a few years ago, and that was from the early 2000s. We'll always have a soft spot for VHS because it's what we grew up with, like people who grew up in the 50s, 60s and 70s who have a nostalgia for vinyl and they've come to appreciate all its imperfections.

Who's the most unlikely individual you've ever come across in a tape?

The most notorious one we have is something I found when I was working at the David Letterman show. I found at a thrift store in Manhattan a tape from 1983 called Carnival In Rio, which was sort of an after-dark travel video set in Rio de Janeiro. It was hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, but at the time he wasn't governor or even a movie star, he was just a body builder. Basically, everyone women he comes into contact with, he sexually harasses. We played clips from it on Letterman while Arnold was running for governor, and apparently it didn't matter, you guys still elected him. When we did the festival in Sacramento someone who was an intern at the governor's office came up and said "By the way, everyone in the governor's office is trying to destroy this tape, so make sure no other copies are out there".

Found Footage Festival @ Red Vic Movie House, March 4-5, click here for showtimes. 1727 Haight St., 415-668-3994.