‘The Vasulka Effect’ is a heartwarming documentary about the lives of the legendary video artists Steina and Woody Vasulka, who are often referred to as the grandparents of the “YouTube generation.” The film, mainly narrated by Steina, begins in the late 50s in Prague, where the Icelandic violinist met film student Woody Vasulka, who promptly asked her to marry him.
The documentary alternates between their retirement home in Santa Fe, revisiting the places that shaped their lives, and snippets from their private collection of over 1,000 hours of video footage. From their time of founding ‘The Kitchen’ in New York, they even provided previously unseen footage of Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Jethro Tull, Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, Patti Smith among others for the film.
The forgotten artists
The creation of ‘The Vasulka Effect’ was very dear to director Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir. “I got to know the Vasulkas in the 80s when I was living in the United States and we kept in touch ever since,” she explains.
When she visited them in Santa Fe in 2013, she realised that the couple was in deep financial trouble. “Steina said the phone had stopped ringing and they were facing old age on social security in the United States. I thought it was so interesting because I know that they are very important artists.”
Making heroes relatable
With the film, Hrafnhildur wanted to reintroduce the almost forgotten pioneers of video art to the general public. “I thought ‘The Vasulka Effect’ would end up being much more artistic but it became a combination of their life story and the video art that they created. It was important for us to try and explain them to the world. We just wanted to deliver a sense of what their legacy is, in a way that everyone could relate to.” The outcome is a powerful portrait of the Vasulkas’ genius that simultaneously doesn’t fail to reveal their genuine humour.
“Steina later said: ‘I don’t know how you managed to make this into a soap.’ I think she meant it as a compliment,” Hrafnhildur says, smiling at the memory.
A matter of trust
“As they were ageing, we kind of became emotionally involved. We just got the tail end of Woody being able to express himself fully. Yet, hanging with the Vasulkas emphasized how important it is to have fun,” Hrafnhildur explains. This trusting bond between director and subjects helped to deliver an intimate account of the couple’s wild time in New York in the 60s and 70s.
“I can relate to Steina quite a bit. First, when I was trying to ask her questions she laughed and just said: “You know all this already.” She was very open and trusting and didn’t feel any shame—she’s just who she is. That was very refreshing.”
Steina also trusted Hrafnhildur with over 1,000 hours of their private video footage. “It was a huge amount of material. I called it ‘The Pandora’s Box.’ Steina had told us about Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali and I didn’t know if we would find the footage, but we did. Steina is now going to put all these drives into the film archives of Kvikmyndasafn Íslands, because she wants the footage to live in her home country,” Hrafnhildur explains.
After four years of filming, ‘The Vasulka Effect’ entered the screens and received an overwhelming amount of support. Whether it is Steina playing the violin in the bathroom or Woody pointing at a screen trying to recall what orgy that was, “the audience always laughs in the right places,” Hrafnhildur concludes.
The humorous and touching documentary by producer Margrét Jónasdóttir and director Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir is currently playing at Bíó Paradís.
You can also listen to the soundtrack to ‘The Vasulka Effect’ here.
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