Ross Sutherland’s Stand By for Tape Back-up could semi-loosely be called a “documentary” (hence its inclusion in the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival), but it’s hardly what most think of when you hear the term.
Sutherland splices together footage from an old VHS tape that he compiled with his grandfather as a child. Anyone who ever recorded from television to VHS knows what this would entail: taped-over fragments of Ghostbusters , snippets of sports games, and laughably dated TV advertisements, mostly. However, Sutherland edits this seemingly random footage into something with a distinctive, evocative rhythm. He also shares his own memories (which often swell into spoken-word-style poetry) over top of the footage.
An experiment like this could have gone very wrong, but while Sutherland’s film occasionally wanders into the self-indulgent, he largely keeps things fresh. His “remixing” of the footage (which frequently involves rewinding and replaying certain segments) combined with his own words reveals new context to the seemingly benign relics he and his grandfather captured on tape. One portion of the film where Sutherland repeats the opening credits of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air until they take on multiple, entirely new meanings is especially effective.
I’m a fan of writers like Chuck Klosterman who combine universal pop culture touchstones with their own intensely personal experiences. Sutherland now joins those ranks. Stand By for Tape Back-up is partially a loving ode to the analog age, but mostly, it’s an effective meditation on loss and change. Its impact sneaks up on you.