Fantasia 2021: STRAIGHT TO VHS is a Nostalgic Deep Dive into the Abyss

I love movies, so naturally I love documentaries about them and when I read the synopsis for Straight to VHS I was immediately transfixed. A doc about a rarely seen cult “shot on video” film from Uruguay, seemed like the perfect combination of my love of outsider art, dead formats and nostalgia — all wrapped into one. The film is the story of the director’s (Emilio Silva Torres) love for Act of Violence Upon a Young Journalist, a regional film from 1989, by Manuel Lamas, that was shot and released in Uruguay during the VHS boom. The beginning of the doc digs into the relationship the director and his circle of friends have with the film about a journalist who is writing a thesis on violence, and of course unaware that a psychopathic killer is on her trail. What began as a love of watching the oddity, over and over amongst his circle and quoting the film endlessly eventually sparked the deep dive into who or what was behind this film.

Emilio then falls down the rabbit hole to track down the story behind the film and those involved in it. Unlike most of these docs, where it’s seemingly all smiles and quirky anecdotes about the wacky experiences that birthed the cult film they intended to make all along, the perspective here is colored a bit darker. As they track down those involved, the filmmakers begin to notice few who wish to revisit their experiences on the project, which has our director facing the dilemma of how to tell this story? This all while he’s forced to re-examine his nostalgic relationship with the art versus the truth he uncovers, as he gets closer and closer to the director Manuel Lamas. The film then falls into a surreal bit metaphorical storytelling that I think says more than any talking head could ever.

Straight to VHS is a masterwork of the nostalgia fueled deep dive doc. The way Torres skates the line between informational doc and narrative meta commentary really engages the viewer emotionally rather than simply dumping information on them. Like Censor before it, Straight to VHS is also a fascinatingly unique perspective on the VHS boom, highlighting video culture in Uruguay, which alone will make this documentary a must watch for tape heads. We discover Lamas would get electronics stores to fund his films and then given the size of the country, sell the videos to stores directly himself. It’s this hands-on aspect that leads Emilio to the film’s narrative crux, what happens if the person who made something you love is a terrible person? The answer given is one that most can agree with as the film doesn’t conclude in the slightest how you’d expect, but instead offers on man’s take on his journey finding this all out.

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