Rochester's rich, diverse history of noncommercial video art and activism will get an overdue spotlight in a September 19 event hosted by the Rochester Documentary Filmmakers Group at Visual Studies Workshop. The two organizations have partnered for "Projecting Our Voices: Video Activism & Documentary Filmmaking in Rochester," an evening of screenings and discussions honoring Rochester's radical documentary film advocacy, past and present.
Organizers say the idea for the event began when RocDocs expressed an interest in VSW's Community Curator Program, which allows groups to collaborate with VSW in creating an event around materials from its extensive regional archive of film and video art. But it quickly evolved into something larger. Leaders of both groups say they hope the event will help introduce their unique missions to a wider audience, in addition to highlighting the treasure trove of resources offered by VSW.
Meeting on the third Thursday of each month at the Little Theatre, RocDocs offers the opportunity for local filmmakers to screen their works-in-progress. These screenings give artists a chance to put their work in front of a trusted group of supportive people, who can offer feedback before it gets into the larger world. And many of those works seek to call attention to a cause or inspire activism in some way.
Working with Tara Nelson, VSW's curator of Moving Image Collections, members of RocDocs pored through VSW's collection of more than 9,000 film and video titles. And they say they were thrilled to discover how close the connection was between the past pioneers of video activism and the work currently being done by its members. "It's been very exciting, and I think it clarified the bridge between these two pieces of history," says RocDocs Advisory Board member Laura Chekow.
The September 19 program will feature excerpts of early video works from Rochester's Portable Channel Collective. An organization that began in the early 70's and continued through the mid-80's, Portable Channel was composed of local artists and activists working for social justice. "These were video activists using video tools to go out into communities that weren't represented in the media and helping them create their own media to represent themselves," Nelson says.
The group provided community access to equipment, provided training, and produced programs that sought to empower community activism and inspire social dialog and artistic expression through documentary filmmaking. "They were supporting some perspective or viewpoint or voice that isn't in the mainstream, even today," says Chekow.
The centerpiece of the "Projecting Our Voices" event will be an archival program curated by RocDoc Members Clara Riedlinger, ElisabettaSaninoD'amanda, Julie Gelfand, Laura Chekow, and Lorraine Woerner. The program will feature short works and excerpts from longer films made by Portable Channel's Bonnie Klein and documentarian Nancy Rosin. Continuing VSW's efforts to make its archives as open and accessible to the public as possible, the full films being excerpted will be accessible online through the VSW website.
The screening will be followed by a panel discussion with local filmmakers including Nancy Rosin, Clara Riedlinger, Fred Armstrong, and Nicholle La Vann, and will be moderated by Carol White Llewellyn. The participating artists will speak about how their use of modern filmmaking tools helps carry on the traditions of video activism in Rochester.
Chekow says she hopes that the event will serve as a model for other local groups. "I'm always marveling how for such a small place, so much is happening in Rochester. But we tend to get into these silos," she says. "We're a contemporary documentary filmmakers group, and here's this well-established, internationally respected and admired archival house. But our two worlds were staying in our own separate spots. And that doesn't have to be the way it is. It's a nice reminder for other organizations to look out there and say 'Who else in their community could we be doing things with, and how can we learn from each other?'"
"We're trying to put this media directly into the hands of this community where it came from," Nelson says. "And anyone who wants to look at what we've got in our collection and curate a program around it should contact us. That is exactly what we're wanting to do more of."
VSW's Community Curator Program includes a $350 microgrant for participating organizations as well as assistance with program printing and promotion. "We never, ever show artists' work without paying artists and curators directly," Nelson stresses. Interested groups will be able to attend an informational meeting at 12:30 p.m. September 26, at the Visual Studies Workshop. More information on VSW's collections and various programs is available at vsw.org. The Rochester Documentary Filmmakers Group can be found at rocdocfilms.org.