By Courtney Fathom Sell
There was one specific section of the video store that I seemed to gravitate to more than any others as a child. It was that of horror. A safe haven where the sun-faded covers of yesteryears’ video nasties and forgotten cheap-o exploitation flicks glistened in the stream of the dust particle afternoons. Illuminated by the yellow glare of sun which blasted through the smog of films never rented, not to mention ever touched, that were now decaying on the shelves in a section no one else but me in my small hometown visited. The smell of moldy carpet, perhaps it was the mold behind the wood paneled wall or maybe even the disintegration of the actual film within the VHS cassette basking in the noon day sun is beautiful to me. I wish someday that an air freshener could be made of this haunting scent. When in that aisle, It made no difference in the world whether I forgot my homework assignment, was bullied by yet another moronic dirtbag in the hallway for being effeminate in my nature, knew of a big test the next day or that I was in trouble for some adolescent activity that usually involved booze and debauchery, I was safe there. In that very section, Horror was my queen.
My imagination soared with ideas that took place in films that featured half-naked women in distress on their covers. There were bloody knives, chainsaws covered in grime, meathooks skewering humans clad in skimpy bathing suits and every other appliance of choice that any self respecting psychopath could think of. Unfortunately, being a child, I was unable to rent these films to know if my imagination was right. Hearing “sorry but it’s rated R” was like fingers down the chalkboard to me. In my Leonard Maltin book, I specifically sought films classified as “Unrated”, as they seemed “dangerous” to me. Therefore, the beauty of my imagination became king and soon, it grew to the size of that of author H.P Lovecraft whilst penning “Cthulhu”. I suppose. Big comparison there.
Were the films as insane, as monstrous, as notorious as I could imagine them to be? At “Show Video”, my soul flourished with aspirations of horror filmmaking. Even at nine, I knew my destiny in life or whatever minor legacy I’d develop was to hopefully be placed upon those dusty rotten shelves. Dream upon dream, I fantasized about making a horror movie. The procedure however was far beyond my comprehension at the time, obviously. Formal education took a back seat. I no longer payed attention in class, instead was whisked away daydreaming of filmmaking. Each night, my childhood imagination helped gravitate my dreams into fantastic nightmares, directing them as if I was behind a camera once and for all.
So on that cold Sunday afternoon when I snuck a few tapes home, a lonely fourth grader, my imagination finally was extended into reality. From there on, my nightmares became something I looked forward to every night even more so than holidays or birthdays. I could dream my horrific dreams with the comfort of knowing I wasn’t alone. Others had already created some of the images I once thought only I had imagined.
Twenty two years had passed since I snuck those movies home. I was on a train back to my small hometown from New York City, feeling lost, uninspired and homesick. I’d officially been making DIY style films for fourteen years to very little success and felt defeated and devastated. The city was becoming a landscape filled with depression, aggravation and providing little to no inspiration for me anymore. I was burnt out to put it simply.
On the train, I drank heavily, staring at the boring Connecticut landscape and wondering where all that drive, inspiration, creativity and all of those dreams went. I remembered how much fun it was to make horror films in my backyard with friends as a child and how we spoke with much delusion about how we could get them into Sundance or even Cannes. My basement became our “studio” and my Father’s tools became our weapons. The excitement of coming home from school on a Friday afternoon with a group of close friends to make short films all weekend was such a wonderful memory. I recalled leaving for Film School with as many hopes and dreams as an aspiring filmmaker could have, only to feel let down once there, dropping out to come back home to continue making “movies” with friends. I remembered the smell inside “Show Video” with most fondness. Even with my modest amount of success in the past fourteen years of making “real” films, nothing compared to the joy of those days.
Somewhere around Rhode Island, where the train took a sharp turn on a steep bank feeling as if it was going to tip, my beer spilling into the aisle splashing onto the sleeping lady next to me, I realized, in a drunk stupor, that I would uncover the vast archive of VHS tapes from my youth. There were hours of footage. I needed to attempt to make sense of it all. Not only that, but I would reconnect with those friends, begin rolling my disposable handheld camera which I always have on me, and piece together something as a dedication to our youth and filmmaking dreams. My background in documentary filmmaking was vast. The idea however was most interesting to me because of the intimate proximity in which the subject matter dealt with. Little did I realize that the project would unearth more than silly backyard horror films on VHS, but also expose my entire life. The train came to a halt. My stop. I stumbled onto the platform, drunk and stinking. Yet, I was filled with a small fragment of hope and inspiration. The spark had been ignited finally.
As a teenager, my Father was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer. It was an aggressive form. It had already wrapped itself around his hips, pelvis and spine right as they detected it. The Doctors granted him six months to live. He commonly referred to the diagnosis as being a “death sentence diagnosis”. Months went by but nothing seemed to change. He seemed as healthy as ever. Soon, he surpassed a year. And soon, people began to even think he may have been lying. He wasn’t. He was just strong. Years passed. Life went on.
Cut to years later. A restless young man living in New Orleans. I’d just wrapped my first feature length documentary regarding the aftermath of Katrina. Now living out his seventh year since his “death sentence diagnosis”, My Father’s health was beginning to decline. I was asked by my Family to come home. During that time, he asked me to document his final months. His story was extraordinary. I declined at first. Too personal. Yet after finally realizing his fight and his strength, I gave in. I was fucking terrified to put it lightly. The film “My Dying Day” is a portrait of his optimistic attitude, love for life and extraordinary strength. He passed away in June of that year but the film, like his spirit exists forever. This was the footage that was so difficult to uncover.
The crossover between making a documentary regarding light hearted subject matter and the blunt reality of life was interesting as it was terrifying. If I was going to document my youth and that of my closest friends, why not incorporate the fact that I’ve always just kept the camera rolling – documenting both light and heavy events. Nothing was private.
The documentary, now titled “Tracking issues” explores the lives of my dearest childhood friends, pieces together moments of our lives through our home videos and dives deep into why I felt it so necessary to document my entire life. It was an arduous and at times, extremely humiliating process. However, with nostalgia comes magic. It was time to revisit the aisles of “Show Video” in stories, laugh at the completely absurd videos which we believed could be accepted at Sundance, share memories of our youth and our aspirations of making films for a living, and of course, explore the vast idea of this life. By noticing the innocence which we shared in making these videos as well as the blunt truth of reality, I felt awakened. I had forever lived in a haze simply dreaming of films, making them and what one I should make or see next. The film was finished in six months.
Filmed entirely on Flip Cams, disposable cameras and cell phones the film is most likely as lo-fi as one could come across. With very little resources, all videos unearthed were filmed off of a television on said cameras. Feeling depressed by the quality of the footage whilst in post production, my friend Andrew, whose featured prominently within the film shared some words of knowledge to kick me out of the gutter of self-doubt. “We grew up loving VHS. The tracking issues, the tape-overs, the bad quality. Just go with it! It’s the spirit of what we love!”
And with that, the film was wrapped. “Tracking Issues” is my most personal documentary. It reveals heart without being over analytical. It reveals soul without being preachy. It’s simply a document of dreams and aspiration. Life.
I am beyond ecstatic to announce that it is now being exclusively released, fittingly enough, on VHS through Weird Life Films, who painstakingly took the time to not only render the film into the quality we so enjoyed as children, but even design a cover at reminiscent to that in which I was so intrigued as a child. I sincerely hope that one day, in some small town, some child could walk into a store, notice the VHS and, even without renting or buying, could be filled with such dreams and allow their imagination to run free such as mine did. If only there was a way to package the smell of “Show Video” as air fresheners to give out with each copy…
(The Author would sincerely like to thank Ryan Ohm & Jackson James at Weird Life Films)
Watch the Official Trailer to “Tracking Issues”
Tracking Issues is available at Weird Life Films