Lost and found

Nick Prueher on the VHS phenomena behind the Found Footage Festival.

by Jennie Kermode

Nick Prueher with co-host Joe Pickett.
Nick Prueher with co-host Joe Pickett.

He's a writer and researcher who has worked with the likes of David Letterman, but in his spare time Nick Prueher likes nothing more than to search through old VHS tapes in the hope of discovering something amusing. So what? you might ask. A lot of people do things like that. Well, yes, but very few of those people save them and go on to share them with thousands, creating an international touring festival phenomenon in the process. As the Found Footage Festival, now in its tenth year, comes to Scotland, I asked Nick to tell me how it all began.

"Co-founder Joe Pickett and I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and there wasn't a lot to do so we had to make our own fun," says Nick. "A lot of our days were spent browsing around in charity shops looking for things to entertain ourselves: t-shirts, knickknacks, used answering machine tapes. In the early Nineties, VHS tapes started showing up and we started buying them to see what was on them. We found Mr. T educational videos, Angela Lansbury exercise videos, even a training video for McDonald's janitors. And lo, a career in VHS was born. Now our collection has over 5,000 ridiculous videos and continues to grow as we travel around North America and the UK discovering VHS gems along the way."

Found Footage Festival 2014
Found Footage Festival 2014

"How have you found that the event has changed over time?" I ask. "Have you started to encounter new kinds of footage that weren't around before?"

"When we started doing the show ten years ago the footage all came from one place: the Midwest," Nick replies. "That's because we grew up there and that's where we found our material. Now that we're on the road most of the year touring in all 50 states, Scandinavia and the UK and Ireland, we've found footage from everywhere. Whereas all of our footage for the first eight years was VHS, we now occasionally dabble in DVD. We're not proud of it but sometimes you have to make allowances for more modern formats that have only been obsolete for 10 years instead of 20."

Do they still have to spend as much time looking for footage or does most of it now come from links sent to them by fans?

"We still find most of the footage ourselves but we're lucky in that people send us their finds and bring them to shows now. I can't tell you how exciting it is when we get a box in the mail full of found videos from a fellow collector. It's like Christmas morning."

This year's show includes explicit warnings - or are they promises? - that viewers will find some of the material disturbing. I ask Nick if his shows include footage that disturbs him personally and if he's ever rejected any footage for that reason.

"Last year in Portland, Oregon, we found a dozen videos labeled "Courtroom Evidence" but they turned out to be pretty boring," he says. "Usually what we find is just painfully dull, not disturbing, but we always like to include at least one video in a show that's at the very least unsettling. In the current show, we play a medical video called "Accidents Stink: Bowel Care 202" that is certainly not for the faint of heart. But the key for us is that a video never gets so disturbing that it's not longer funny."

Found Footage Festival 2014
Found Footage Festival 2014

What are his personal favourites from this festival?

"The standout for me is a video that's actually called How To Have Cybersex On The Internet. It's an instructional tape from 1997 hosted by a woman who goes through the boring step-by-step process of creating a screen name, finding a chat room, and so on, but then all-of-the-sudden she's topless. We can't tell whether the video was trying to be sexy or informational but it ends up being neither.

Finally, as this is now the 10th Found Footage Festival, I ask if he's feeling any fatigue. Will he be doing it again?

"I'm not going to lie, while watching my sixtieth fitness video to put together this year's Exercise Video Montage, I considered throwing in the towel," he admits. "I finally reached my breaking point of perky, repetitious fitness gurus. But I took a deep breath and plowed through and I'm glad I did because this became the best exercise montage we've ever done. Think about this: if I had quit the world never would have seen the exercise video Butt Camp. More than anything, the promise of finding the next great VHS tape keeps us excited and that's why there's no end in sight for the FFF."

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