|Boston's Premiere Media Arts Organizations Closes
Where many of us started our careers
By Tim Wright
I first encountered BF/VF in 1981. I had just been laid off from my job teaching social studies to 7th graders at the Bancroft (Boston Public) School. Nothing personal: 800 others were laid off with me.
A couple of years before, a girlfriend had lent me some unused super 8mm cameras she found in her high school supply closet, and I used them to start an after-school film club at the Bancroft, though I knew next to nothing about filmmaking myself.
Now idled, and with the prospect of 58 weeks of unemployment insurance, I decided to learn filmmaking proper. Film school was out of the question financially; and with the exception of distant Somerville (I lived in JP), there was then no public access video in the Boston area. I heard talk of a mysteriously named 'BF/VF', and when the weight of mention grew heavy enough, found my way to it in a former repair garage on Brighton Avenue.
As I recall, office desks, a primitive soundstage, editing and classes all shared the same large space, sometimes lightly differentiated by hung drop cloths. The 'soundstage' and editing room tended to be occupied by bearded bohos collectively known as 'SVID' (Subterranean Video), who labored under very difficult conditions at esoteric works-in-progress, most destined never to be either finished or screened. No matter. They were a romantic lot who were central to the mystique that surrounded independent filmmaking in those days and helped create the BF/VF buzz, which was considerable. (Later on, as BF/VF became more established, SVID was attacked as an equipment hogging clique of unproductive drug burnouts who were sabotaging the BF/VF mission of bringing media arts to regular folks.)
Strangely, though I was never to make anything but documentary films/videos, my only two production classes were animation workshops. My BF/VF instructor was Karen Acqua (ably assisted by Paul Sarapas), who taught a loose and lovely flip-book style of animation. (My other animation class was taught at Mass Art by an anal cel animator whose name - and class - I have forgotten.)
Soon (maybe 1982?) BF/VF moved to a larger space in the heart of much-more-accessible and tony Back Bay, where is commenced what in retrospect was its brief golden age, lasting perhaps seven years until 1989, when the Massachusetts Cultural Council was radically de-funded. The MCC was a principal funder of BF/VF and it, along with several other struggling arts organizations, never fully recovered from that traumatic event.
The Golden Age
I can't remember the first two or three Executive Directors after the big move, just that they seemed to change frequently until the board hired Anne-Marie Stein in maybe 1985. Anne-Marie, whom a teacher friend wittily, if meanly, called 'Chuckleteeth', because she kept a grin plastered to her face no matter how dire the situation, was a good hire. She was a tireless fundraiser, and as a result, BF/VF's education program, equipment rental and volunteer programs all expanded; a screening program was added as well. A couple of years before this, I had changed from a consumer to a producer of BF/VF classes, although strangely, I cannot remember anything about the precipitating invitation. But whoever hired me was going out on a limb. In my 'Basic Filmmaking' class I worked frantically to keep one jump ahead of the students, some of whom knew more about filmmaking than I. Strangely, the class was a success, perhaps because I did know how to teach, having been trained painfully and expertly by some of the poorest, most bored junior high school students in New England. Also, I was genuinely passionate about media making and watching.
Ann-Marie also hired the most talented of all BF/VF's Education Directors, Eliott Kaplan. If Anne-Marie was falsely cheerful, Eliott was genuinely grumpy. He had come to Boston from Vermont, where he had been amazingly a kindergarten teacher. Perhaps that was why he was grumpy. In any case, he was a gifted administrator, impeccably organized, and fiercely protective of his corps of teachers, whom he actually got paid on time, which was a first. He did not get along well with Anne-Marie, whose artsyness got on his last nerve, and after thee years, he was hired away by the burgeoning Avid, Inc. to run their training program. Eliot, darkly handsome, was a wonderfully stylish dresser and a fitness fanatic who ran several miles several times a week. After a year or two of great success at Avid, he developed a slight cough, which he ignored for several months. Fatally, as it turned out. When he finally did go to a doctor, he was immediately diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease, which killed him in a year despite massive chemo and a bone marrow transplant. There is no justice. Peace, Eliott.
It's hard to overestimate what the connection to BF/VF meant to me as a mid-life career changer. BF/VF acted as fiscal agent for my first serious documentary project; it organized the New England Film/Video Festival that documentary won when it was finally finished; it even introduced me to the woman who was to become my life partner, Karen Ellzey, who was coordinating the BF/VF volunteer program when we met, and who subsequently worked as a co-teacher with me in an ambitious three year media literacy partnership created by BF/VF in collaboration with the MCC and the Boston public schools.
That program, despite being a big success in the eyes of both the Taft Middle School administrators and teachers, was abruptly de-funded on the eve of its third year as a by-product of an event that initiated the long range decline in funding which would ultimately do BF/VF in. The event was a catastrophic cut in the budget of one of its principal funders, the Massachusetts Cultural Council. During the years of BF/VF's ascendance, the MCC budget had risen steadily to $27 million a year by 1989; but in the 1990 budget, the MCC was cut to an astonishing $3 million. The occasion was the national recession of that year, but as was customary, the arts took by far the biggest hit, nationally as well as locally. BF/VF was really never again able to replace that funding. Anne-Marie, who was a talented fund-raiser when the sources were non-profit arts agencies, but had no experience with fund-raising in the commercial media world. Nonetheless, she was politically astute, kept the loyalty of the board, and clung tenaciously to the directorship despite fitful attempts by staff and rebel board members to oust her. Her last competent Education Director, Laura Wilson, left in 1999 to start a for-profit film school, Cityscape Motion Picture Education, which Anne-Marie saw as unwelcome competition. When I and other BB/VF free-lance teachers agreed to teach at the new school as well as at BF/VF, we found ourselves no longer welcome at BF/VF.
Cityscape itself foundered within two years, but I never again taught at BF/VF, even after Anne-Marie abruptly left in 2000 to do publicity for a local film production company. From time to time I would call or write BF/VF, but I was not interested in filling the teaching slots they needed, and they did not seem interested in me teaching workshops I had developed for them previously.
The gossip about BV/VF's financing from 2001 on grew increasingly dire; it lost its Back Bay offices and moved into deepest Allston. But it was always on the verge of bankruptcy, and somehow it always rebounded, so I was genuinely shocked to get the news of its folding this year.
And saddened. I have always felt that it filled a necessary niche between Community Video Centers like BNN and CCTV, on the one hand, and film schools, on the other. And over the years, I got to know many wonderful students, some of whom I still work with in Blinktank (www.blinktank.net.) One student in particular sums up for me the essence of the BF/VF dream. She was in her late twenties, and breathless. Like most students in my Basic Filmmaking class, she had never shot a foot of film. She introduced herself by saying: "I've just quit my job and I'm never going back. Film is my life." "But no pressure," I thought to myself. She went on to make a quirky and interesting five-minute film. A couple of years later, I got an ecstatic postcard from her. She was cutting 35mm commercials in Hong Kong.
Tim Wright taught BFVF's flagship filmmaking classes He works as an editor/filmmaker and continues to teach at various Boston Media Arts centers.