Alumni Spotlight: Preserving Chicago's History on Videotapes

By Christine Schmidt, UCSC Communications Intern

As a third-year in the College during Spring Quarter, Sara Chapman was all set to be an astronomy and physics major. That is, until she took a class on nonfiction film and video with a focus on Chicago that changed her life.

“After two weeks, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is what I love. This is so wonderful.’ My whole life, I had always been interested in math and physics, but I took this class and was just fascinated,” said Chapman, who graduated in 2004.

This course, taught by Judy Hoffman of the Department of Cinema and Media Studies, introduced her to the opportunities in film and Tom Weinberg, a guest filmmaker whom Hoffman brought in to talk about his four decades of experience as a Chicago producer. Now, ten years later, as the executive director of the non-profit independent video archive Media Burn, Chapman doesn’t look back.

Her days consist of watching old film, cataloging videotapes and filling out grant applications—though she speaks of it with such passion, it’s easy to believe this is what she dreamed of doing (except perhaps the constant grant applications, a staple of small non-profits’ activities).

Media Burn, one of only three video archives of its kind in Chicago, began when Tom Weinberg asked one of Hoffman’s classes for help archiving the videos he’d gathered throughout his career. Chapman volunteered and quickly became swept up in it, watching hours of videos a day and cataloging the minute-by-minute information on the tapes, spending about five to six hours per tape.

“Gradually, a room full of tapes turned into an archive,” she said.

Now, Media Burn has 2500 videos ready to watch at any moment on the website and 6300 tapes stacked in the floor-to-ceiling shelves crowded in the organization’s cozy storefront in Irving Park on the northwest side of Chicago. The website gets about 30,000 views a month. Because of Weinberg’s history as a producer in Chicago, a large portion of the collection revolves around Chicago. They have the largest known collection of Studs Terkel film and focus on preserving independently made videotapes.

“Topic-wise, we leave it open to our own curatorial preferences,” Chapman said. “It skews toward nonfiction…things we feel that sort of examine the world around us, anything that people can learn from.”

Chapman said her time at UChicago particularly helped her prepare for the critical writing that is an asset in grant writing. “When you are the head of a small non-profit, you kind of do everything,” she said. “The thing that distinguishes U of C graduates from other people is the way [professors] break down your analytical skills and your writing skills…. When I’m doing this, I frequently write 100-page grants. The way my writing changed so dramatically at U of C, that was the biggest thing that was helpful to me.”

She has noticed that quality in the student work-study interns she hires at Media Burn, as well: “I prefer getting U of C students when I can because…the technical stuff of transferring the tapes can be taught to anybody, but being able to watch a tape and describe it very well, that’s something that I can’t teach someone to do.”

The life of the mind continues for Chapman and her interns with every video that is played. Watching and documenting the tapes “is very valuable for them because they get to witness firsthand history,” she said. “One student watched 50 hours of inside [Chicago] Alderman Vito Marzullo’s office. She got to watch what happens in an alderman’s office—who comes in and asks for a favor, what deals are made, what does he say. When you watch hours and hours of that, sometimes it can be tedious, but it’s also an incredible education.” She said the majority of her knowledge of Chicago history and politics came from watching the archive’s films.

Although Chapman admitted the most challenging part of her job is the constant need to raise funds, she relishes the discovery of the content of a tape that hasn’t been viewed in years. For some formats of tape, “the equipment’s been gone forever. To bring them back to life and to share them with the people who made them and to see them myself is really exciting.”