[Interview with Denise Zaccardi about Guerrilla Television]

Interview with guerrilla television pioneer Denise Zaccardi about her career and the alternative video scene in Chicago in the 1970s. Shot for a University of Chicago BA thesis project called "Alternative Television: A Short History of Video Activism in Chicago." Interview starts at 7:30 and is preceded by unrelated silent footage of Midway Studios at the University of Chicago.

“[How did you get started?] Well, it was the sixties… And I had a masters in education, and I decided to take six months off after I graduated. And I was traveling around the country visiting my friends, who were living all over. I was in San Francisco and I turned on the TV, and there was the convention. And I saw this really quirky TV show, and it turned out it was TVTV doing the conventions. So I’m just watching TV and I went “Oh my God, that is really interesting.” Because there’s no older white guy up in booth dictating what’s happening on the floor. You really felt like you were there, you met real people. I had never studied TV or film, I never watched much TV, and I never went to the movies that much. But when I saw that, it really stuck with me that this was really exciting. That was 1972.

And then I came back to Chicago and I wanted to set up a school. I decided that public schools really don’t care about poor kids, so I really wanted to set up my own school. I didn’t want to do it by myself; I wanted to work with people who were very serious about working with poor kids. And so I found some people, and I was starting a school in a poor black neighborhood. And then after so many months I woke up one day and I thought, “I’m really a filmmaker.” Don’t ask me, it just came to me. So I got a camera and I started teaching kids during lunch hour to make their own videos. And the first tape we made was called “Time to Make That Change.” I think “Mary Ann” was the second one. But that was my idea.

I’m really interested in the idea that there’s all these issues in poor neighborhoods and from the very beginning, I was interested in “how do people look at their lives and understand them?” And then figure out how to change things. Because believe me, nobody else is going to do it for you. And it was also the attitude of the sixties: don’t agonize, organize.

So that was the first tape we made with the kids who were in my little school on the west side. They made a tape about what were the issues in their neighborhood. They just talked to people and then they got together, and these little fifth and six graders decided how they would make a better neighborhood.

And then I got together with this woman, [Ann Heintz], who had started a citywide newspaper with minority kids. And we decided we wanted to have a vdeo festival, so in 1976 we organized this youth video festival. And “Time To Make That Change” won first place. And everybody was like, “oh wow,” because really, in TV, what people had been doing with kids was imitating broadcast TV shows, like the news. So you would have an anchor–a little boy with a tie–and a girl with a helmet hairdo and they would just completely imitate what the news stations were doing. And that was seen as TV. And I was trying–I don’t know, I wasn’t exactly imitating TVTV, but the idea that you take these nice little cameras and you make these black and white videos, and you teach kids to tell their own stories. And the idea is that a lot of times, first of all, you don’t see a lot of stories about poor people or poor kids. So that was the point.

I knew from the beginning it was kind of like anthropological filmmaking, it was introducing a new way to learn things, and I quickly understood that the camera would give you entrée to anything. So as I developed my program and got hundreds and hundreds and thousands of kids involved, what I tried to do is get them in to places that will change their lives. Like when the first black person ran for mayor, I was sending crews out like night and day. We had classes in ten neighborhoods, and I would just send crews out. It didn’t even matter if they got any footage. The point was that they were present at a historical moment. And that they were documenting it and just making history. Or anything in their neighborhood that was historical. So in this neighborhood, in the ’80s, in this neighborhood it was the rise of Latino political power. Louis Gutierrez was a community worker, he’s now the first Puerto Rican U.S. congressman. And people like that were doing things in their neighborhood. And what I would do is just send kids out.

We worked directly with the West Town Concerned Citizens, which is a group of activists. And I would have the kids document all of their actions in the neighborhood. So for instance, they decided that Latinos don’t have any jobs. So they’re going to organize. So what are they going to organize? They’re going to figure out how to get jobs in government. The first action was the demonstration at the post office. So my kids are there, they’re documenting it and they’d come back and everybody’d look a the footage and kind of assess what happened and how the police acted. They were using it to create strategy about progressive social change in getting jobs. And what are my kids learning? They learn who the players are in the neighborhood, and how do you change history. And now it’s very common–before that, people didn’t have jobs, through the organizing Latinos got jobs in the government. And then they organized at City Hall, so they’re demonstrating down at the mayor’s office. My kids go along, so they’re learning how to organize, they’re learning history, they’re learning who the players are in the neighborhood, and they become part of a positive force in the neighborhood. So they can see how they fit in as kids. A lot of times really poor kids don’t understand that they can have a role in the neighborhood. They don’t understand, they’re not invited to participate in the positive things in the neighborhood. And that’s positive–looking for jobs.

So we did lots and lots and that’s always been our theme, to look for and document things that are positive in the neighborhood. And if you have a negative, to try to figure out how to solve that problem. That’s our main theme in everything we do. We let kids make tapes about their own topics. But if they want to do a tape about gangs, my thing that I always tell the teachers is I want 99% solution. So it’s not like the news, we’re not trying to imitate the news: disaster report, disaster report, if it bleeds it leads, all of that stuff. To me, that’s not good. We want our kids to have a context and to have this forward motion. And that’s what I’ve always done.

[Is the primary value of the tapes the experience of making them?] Both. Good question. Two things: we want people to see the tapes, the other thing is, and I think what we have always done is look to complete tapes and look to show them. And for many years we didn’t have an outlet, because there was no cable access, but now we have our own, for the last 18 years we’ve had our own cable access show. This is my 30th year. I haven’t figured it out yet. But we’ve had thousands, I think 5500 kids, and we have small classes. And I have to raise all the money. [How?] Begging…

In the beginning, when I had set up the school, it was called an alternative school, and at that time, a lot of people who were coming out of the civil rights and the anti-war movement, people my age who were in education, set up alternative schools. And we had an association called the Alternative Schools Network. And so when I was over on the west side at this school, I was participating also in the Alternative Schools Network. And I said to the person who was the director, that I wanted to work with alternative schools (because actually they wouldn’t let people like me into public schools). So that’s when I started the Alternative Schools Network Video Project. I had a desk in the office of the Alternative Schools Network and pretty much I would try to raise money. And I had a waiting list of schools. So every time I had a little money, I would go to the next school on the waiting list and say, “We have some money, do you want to start a class? When do you want to start?” We would buy one camera, one microphone, one cable at a time. We never had any like, “Here’s a million dollars, go do whatever you want.” This camera and deck cost $2,000. That was a lot of money.

So that was really how it worked and then after we were teaching in a number of schools, what I decided was it was really a hardship to keep carrying the equipment around, so I set up different centers. So I had one on the west side–there’s a school we work at on the west side, we’ve been there for 25 years, I think. And they have a digital camera now, but it took me a year and a half to grovel and beg to get these kids a camera and a deck. And a digital camera and the editing equipment.

We were talking about that today, actually. So nothing’s changed, poor kids have nothing, and to get something–even though we’re really well established and have a lot of credentials–it’s still really hard. Which makes me really angry. Because we won all the awards, we win more than anybody in the country. And there’s not a lot of respect for working with poor kids and there’s not a lot of respect for, I mean for some people there is. For us, we consider what we do really important. We know how it benefits kids and turns their lives around and helps them change their lives. And we try to put all these issues in there, too. So say you’re teaching a class in video production. Well, by the way, while you’re–like the way Judy does with you guys—while you’re teaching the class, well, let’s look at this tape about how to prevent AIDS. Well, what do you think about the camerawork? Did they carry the subject? So we’re always in this position of improving lives of poor kids. Ok, if you’re really poor, nobody ever talks to you about college. Well, that’s a problem. What should we do about it? So then the kids will get to put their show together, invite their guests to the studio, or do a skit or whatever, so they get to be creative, they get to pull people in, they get to go into places, call them up. We want to make a video about how to get in to college and you can call an admissions person at a school. These are just examples. Right now there is a group of girls that are doing a project about what they didn’t tell you in health class. So they’re writing and producing and researching and putting it together. There’s another project that we do called Juvenile Justice, and we try to get kids involved in producing videos around the issues of improving the juvenile justice system. Because instead of having more programs for kids, it’s like they want to build bigger jails. Instead of saying, well, the reason why kids might get in trouble is their schools are bad, they don’t have food, their parents don’t have jobs, instead of working on those things, they build bigger jails. Should you really torture somebody who’s 12, what are other things that we could do to improve the juvenile justice system? So what we try to do is have that as a segment on our show, have it as a way to get funding, have it as a vehicle to get kids trained to be organizers and advocates and so that’s kind of a regular theme of what we do. Well, the Sisters Against Violence project, which is anti-violence for girls, and the juvenile justice are two of the themes, but then we also have classes where kids can pick whatever topic they want, and any kids can come here after school and work on our cable show.

We work in alternative schools. And now people can hire us to come and teach a class, and some public schools, sometimes they have money and they’ll hire us, but really nobody has money. So we try to get hired by schools, we try to raise money for special projects, and our cable show. It’s a way to expand the number of kids who you work with. So public schools will pay if they have money. We have a contract with DCFS, which is kids who are wards of the state, so any kids who are wards, foster children, can come here and the state pays for that class. So we try to find people who will pay for the teachers to teach the classes. We go out to schools to teach and also kids come here after school.

In the ’70s there was what they called public service employment, and they gave kids money to work in nonprofits. So I had, at the end of the ’70s, I remember when the Reagan budget went in, I had 70 kids working around the city. I had set up these, let’s say at that time I had three centers. One was in Uptown in my office, one was in this Mexican neighborhood, and one was in a black neighborhood. And they all had their own cameras and editing equipment and their own community library. And at each center I had 15 kids that were paid to work after school every day with two instructors. That was the after school program. And then I had a bunch of adult staff paid through public service employment. And then Reagan’s budget came in and it was just nothing, zero. So that made me cry. ‘Cause those kids did really well.

It was funny, because I just got an email from one of the kids that worked in the Uptown neighborhood. My office in Uptown was across the street from the Aragon. I was there for 15 years, on the second floor. And I just got an email from a girl who is going to law school, she was was one of my little after school girls. And I remember somebody, the priest, called me from the church that was a couple of blocks away. He said, “Denise, you have to get this girl a job.” Because a lot of times with these poor kids, there was not money for the phone bill or the light bill or food or something, so he was calling me because their family didn’t have enough money. So these kids working at the school would help pay for food for the family or something. So I called downtown, and I said, “Can’t you give me an extra slot for this kid?”–they called them slots–you know, paid job. And they said, “Yeah, but she has to come down right now.” And I remember it was pouring rain and I grabbed Angela [Cannela], and we jumped on the El, and we ran downtown and signed her up, and she got the job.

The kids worked every day and their job was to work with a group in the neighborhood that could use a video, like I said, documenting positive things. So affordable housing, crime prevention, whatever. And then of course, we make them work like little dogs. Re-write, re-write, re-write, do that over, and you know, that was pretty good.

[Did you have your own editing facilities or did you edit at the Center for New Television?] We did both. Then, when we set up our business, at the end of ’85–which was also a response to no public service employment for kids–I decided to set up a business so we could hire our own kids on our own jobs. And our business office was at the Center for New TV. And we used to use their editing facilities for all of our jobs. I mean, we’d pay, like a member would, but we also paid some money to have a little tiny office there. And we used their space for meetings and we were very bonded to the Center for New TV.

[Did you collaborate in any way with Communications for Change, who also had their office at the Center for New TV?] No, they didn’t train kids. But I hired Mirko to do some work with us. And Judy worked with us. And who didn’t work with us? Mirko was always, he always volunteered and was always a good friend of Community TV Network. And Cindy, did you meet Cindy? Cindy Moran. She teaches at Columbia College.

[Before cable access, how did you show your work?] Oh, I always said I was in every church basement in Chicago. So the idea was–and again, you’ll see a lot of what I do is both looking at the kids and trying to build their skills and build their confidence, so from the very beginning we would plan to have a screening. Or a number of them. So if the girls or a class did a video about teen pregnancy, we’d invite other girls groups to see the tape. Or we would go, we’d call different groups, and say, “We’ve got this tape, do you want to come over and see it, or do you want us to come over and show you?” And we’d always be lugging our little video player because nobody had a VCR. So you have to bring the TV, and the player, because TV’s didn’t even have things to hook up so we would [Judy showed us how you could broadcast the signal from the camera to an unused channel on a monitor…] Oh right. Channel 3 or 4. But so whenever we had a screening we had to carry the player and your little TV around into the screening. We’re like the little pioneers, right? I remember one time I was going down to Quaker Oats, for to ask for a donation, and I had to carry the player and the TV. I remember it was icy and I fell. It was really fun. Yeah, it’s really interesting. Very pioneering things, aren’t they?

[Do you think any youth groups today are doing similar work to CTVN?] Mmhmm. I think a lot of people do, but they don’t have the philosophy that we have. They don’t have this, I would say youth empowerment and educational, that is just who I am. It’s like, “You guys can do this, you can make a TV show, you can win national awards, no problem!” And they’re like, desperately poor living in a homeless shelter. I’m like, “No, you can do it!” Get kicked out of school, nobody likes them, “Eh, no problem!” But the focus of, “You can do it, you can accomplish these great things,” and then the idea that then you take those skills and add attitude into the next thing that you do, and also be a promoter for yourself. You can either say, “I’m poor, I’m black, I don’t have a place to live. I think I’ll do drugs and you know, get violent, join a gang,” or you can say, “What am I going to do and who’s around to help me? And what can we do and how can we hook people up?” Even Mirko, Mirko mentored somebody for a long time, and what I would try to do is get my friends to take on different kids, to mentor them, to take them on the jobs that they have.

So I’m always interested in the development of young people and getting them involved in the positive things that people do to create positive change. There are lots of groups that teach kids how to use the camera, but I don’t think that they have the same value placed that we do on these other things. And that incorporate it into their work. I haven’t heard of anybody except EVC. It’s in New York City, and it was started by Steve Goodman. He wrote a book recently. I should get it, I had a dream the other night I should get it and I should call him because I want him to autograph it for me. But he’s similar to us. [Dee Dee Halleck?] Mmhmm. Did she write a book? [Yes.] About working with kids. Oh yeah.

[Do you feel video today is different?] It’s completely different. There was no independent. We were, I would say as a group, the Center for New TV, we were making it up. There wasn’t an acceptance of the independent film movement that there is now. People didn’t know what it was if you say “alternative TV,” there was no common understanding of independent. So now you have Robert Redford and Sundance, and now with kids, there were no festivals, and now there’s a zillion.

So I think that youth media is a different thing–it’s a little portion of alternative media. And I always would hang around the Center for New TV, but a lot of people didn’t really, I don’t know, they would just say, “well, there she is again.” It wasn’t like you were considered exactly an independent film producer because you were with kids, it’s kind of like a lower form. I don’t care really. But yeah, it’s a different world, and we were experimental. It’s like one minute you’re experimental, the next minute you’re an institution.

[A lot of the early video from the coasts didn’t have as much activism or local politics. Do you think there was anything about Chicago that led it to that focus on activist video?] Saul Alinsky worked here. And he was a father of radical organizing. And so it’s just, I guess the Chicago history of being organizers and activists–wasn’t it the Haymarket riot that came up with the 8 hour day? So it has a local history, we have a local history of organizing.

Now, it’s interesting, because I would also–besides the media community, the Center for New TV–I also hung out with the community development people and they never knew what I was doing. And right now, people are starting to talk about kids getting involved in community development. So I’ve been thinking about it for 30 years. That of course kids, who do you think is going to be the next Luis Gutierrez? What better thing for kids to do?

It was funny because the last Democratic convention they had in Chicago, I remember it was January and I’m thinking, how are we going to get our kids into the convention? Because I wanted them to be there. And just see what it was all like. And it took us letters and phone calls and everything and we got 15 tickets to get kids into the convention. And then they got in there and they met leaders of the civil rights movement like Reverend John Porter, they met lots of political people who were Latino and black, and of course new people. It was the perfect vehicle to learn all this stuff about how that works, how the convention works. But they made a video about how to get young people involved in voting and in politics. And then it had segments about the convention. And it won all these national awards, but before the kids went, they went, “I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go,” and I said, “wait ’till you go back to school and you tell your teacher you were at the convention, it’s awesome.” Of course, they gave us the really yucky tickets, we were like touching the ceiling at the United Center. But that’s what we’re trying to do is change kids’ lives, and make what we think is really important video. And after Harold Washington ran for mayor it turns out we had more footage of Harold Washington than anybody, because we sent all those crews out, So we donated two big boxes of tapes to the Chicago Historical Society.

[Tell me about the Chicago Videomakers Coalition.] Well, first there were a bunch of us, we didn’t have a place to edit, right? And so my friends Lilly and Judy decided to make phone calls and get everybody together, so everybody got together. See, you’re going to hear this history different from different people. So everybody got together at Kartemquin. I remember the first meeting–I was the secretary. And if I could find the minutes from the first meetings, do you want them? I think I have them. And so everybody came and we decided we were going to meet every month. And kind of see what we could do together. And every month we would have like a workshop, usually somebody like Morrissette, more likely than not, Morrissette would teach us different technical things. Because like me, never having been to film school–well, I took one summer class in filmmaking after my first summer teaching on the west side. But not a lot of knowledge of video, and plus Morrissette knows a lot. People like that would come and do workshops every month, so we’d have these get-togethers and then right away we decided it’d be cool if we all had this one place to edit. It would be a membership organization, and so the Center for New TV came out of the Videomakers Coalition. (It was first called the Chicago Editing Center.) And so when it became an entity, we had this pay-by-the-hour rental of editing equipment and membership fees, which were pretty low. And also we’d have visiting artists, so people like Dee Dee Halleck, or the Vasulkas, or anybody doing experimental or documentary or anything. We also had these regular visiting artists, which was really nice, I mean we had our own little club with visiting artists and it was amazing. Everybody was kind of friends; people worked on each other’s projects. And I remember somehow knocking on Tom Weinberg’s door in the middle of the night asking to borrow batteries for things, but that’s the kind of relationship we had with people: “Can I borrow your mic, can I borrow your camera?”

[What was your connection to Videopolis?] Well, actually, when I was teaching on the west side, and I wanted to do video, it was very coincidental that Videopolis needed an education project. So they lent me the first camera. And they sent Lilly over. Who then became a really good friend of mine. She was working for, what’s her name, Anda Korsts? Well, Lilly and Judy both worked there, so Lilly was supposed to be my teacher. She taught me how to do video, how to edit. And worked with me in the classroom. But it was a project of Videopolis, that’s how I got the camera initially. We edited “Mary Ann” at Videopolis. And I remember we were editing and then Scott Jacobs came and he had to edit his thing so he bumped us. I was like, “Wait a minute! We need to do Mary Ann!” What I remember editing “Mary Ann” was like, “Well, what do you want to put next? Oh! Now what do you want to put next?” That painful thing. [the editing machine]

I think that Judy talks about this, but it’s [the camera’s] like an important tool. If you go to an event, and you have a camera, it makes it a public event. So probably the police are less likely to beat you up.

After I had raised some money to start up our business, it was the first time we had a professional camera of our own. I’m looking at it, and I’m like, “Hm, we can make our own high end videos.” And that’s when the project to ask people from all over the city if they had something they were doing, something to improve their neighborhood, they could apply to us. And they wouldn’t get money, but they would get a video. And we had our high end equipment and I hired Mirko. There was a series called the grass roots video series, and one of the tapes that we did was called The End of the Nightstick. Groups applied to us and I had a panel of people, not video people but community activists, read the proposals. And they picked this one, Coalition to End Police Violence, and so we started documenting this group organizing around police brutality. And then Rodney King happened. And we submitted it to POV and it was on national television. And now it’s in the catalog–End of the Nightstick–it’s in the Icarus catalog, or you can call us. That’s really exciting for us. Because it’s a local issue, but people use that video all around the country to study how to organize against police brutality.

Another thing that I did–and this is the last thing I’ll talk about, because obviously I could talk forever–in the early ’80s when people were just finding out what AIDS was, we got hired by the jail to make a video, professional video. To tell the high risk drug abuse population how to avoid getting AIDS, because people really didn’t know. And there were some activists at the jail. A doctor activist, Ron Sable. And he hired us and we made the tape and it turned out pretty nice. So I’m looking at the tape, and I’m thinking oh, we gotta get this out to people, so I asked the jail to release it to me to sell. And then we made a brochure and we sent it out to all the drug abuse centers in the country and we sold them, we sold like 300 copies. But my idea was really to get the word out to people. And then we called the alderman in the Spanish neighborhood and we said, “We think it’s important to be in Spanish,” so then the department of health hired us to reshoot the whole thing in Spanish. And so this just came out of those individual efforts where we think, well, how can we benefit the poor neighborhoods and poor people. But then I went to a conference, and it turns out that in the independent world, that was like a big deal. Nobody had ever done that before–made a video like that and sold it ourselves. I mean, it’s not like we’re MGM or Disney studios. But that I guess that was history. And the way I did it, I mean, I had to raise the money for the flyer, I had to buy the mailing lists–that was before the internet–I had to buy the mailing lists, I had to design and print the flyer, pay for the postage, put it in the mail. Mail out the copies, collect the money, mail them out. It’s called “AIDS: Questions and Answers.” But that’s interesting in terms of the only other community made video like that that had such a wide distribution was the tape called “The Wrath of Grapes,” made by the Farm Workers Union. And they didn’t sell them, they just mailed them to every Latino organization. It’s about–I think we have a copy here–it’s about how pesticides hurt farm workers.

We were the only ones that did that local effort to get the word out about AIDS. It’s a very groundbreaking historical… but nobody knows and nobody cares, except I care. But I’m telling you. It’s interesting because nobody does the history of this, and nobody like besides Tom and Judy–is anybody really interested? And our field is so particular, I mean, my interest in advancing and improving the lives of people is so particular and narrow and using video, and also teaching people, it’s a very specific thing. So, I mean, see how long it takes to explain it? Oh, I see a book in your future. You can do it!”

 

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