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Will Someone Get the Lights? Preserving Home Movies

While watching home movies may be one definition of tedium, all those birthday parties and graduations are the history the books left out.

Earlier story: Preserving 'Everyday People's History

On August 11, 2007, across the U.S. and in nine other countries, the lights were switched off and the whirring and clicking of film through sprockets, accompanied by the brightly projected image on a small silver screen, began. This was Home Movie Day, an annual celebration of the amateur film recordings of daily events — some significant, most obscure, but all important.

Dwight Swanson, a film archivist and one of the five founding members of the not-for-profit Center for Home Movies, and his colleagues felt that spreading awareness of home movie preservation was an important outreach. It was also a tremendous challenge for a handful of enthusiasts.

“Instead of waiting for the public to find us and bring their collections forward, we created Home Movie Day as a means of public outreach to advance the awareness and appreciation of these films.

“As film archivists, we are very concerned with film preservation generally, but keeping the home movie films in 8mm, Super 8 and 16mm film formats alive is essential as an important documentation of our everyday culture.”

Although motion picture film cameras appeared as early as the 1890s, not until 1923 and the development of the 16mm format did an appreciable number of amateur cameras appear. By 1932, the smaller 8mm camera and film hit the market and, for the next five decades until the advent of video, was the standard format for amateur filmmakers to document everyday life. But their documentation did not stop.

“The same people who put their film camera in the closet went out and bought video cameras,” Swanson said. “It’s not so much the medium, although video does not require the chemical processing, as it is the desire to capture moving images of everyday life.”

Swanson says that the term home movie covers a huge variety of subjects and locations, but his and others’ experience with Home Movie Day quickly dispels the notion that the words home movie and tiresome are synonymous.

“While it’s true that there are some badly shot birthday parties, what we found is that most people are only familiar with their own films, and this is what most likely accounts for the ‘tiresome home movie’ cliché. However, when you share those images in an audience setting, we see that each film is unique and that there are lots of connections with other people.”

Home Movies as Unique Documentaries

The unique quality of the home movie, Swanson explains, is that throughout a film collection, the filmmaker is usually the same person in the family. And with the exception of a vacation, the film images are nearly always shot at home or in the community. While an amateur film of a backyard picnic sounds like fairly uneventful footage, Swanson and his colleagues in film preservation point out that exactly this type of documentation is very revealing.

“This is looking at history from a different angle — there’s not a lot of newsreel footage of people going on a picnic, living their everyday lives. This is the perspective we are pushing most — the realization that each of these films is unique. There’s not a copy anywhere else that is the identical set of images — similar, perhaps, but not the same.”

This untapped repository of cultural history drives the Center for Home Movies and has contributed to the success of Home Movie Day.

“In one instance, a person at a Home Movie Day event saw, for the first time, moving images of a then-deceased relative that they had never met. Imagine the experience and the effect of that reality, seeing someone alive on-screen as you had never known them.”

There is also a huge amount of personal investment in creating home movies. Swanson cites a film in which a father documented the life of his son who had Down syndrome from birth to age 15. The challenges that both father and son experienced are seen in these images as he recorded his child having to eventually leave home and live away from the family to attend a special school.

“This father as a filmmaker wasn’t interested in making a film intended as a message about Down syndrome for others to watch; he did it as a labor of love. But today, 30 years later, we look at it and learn something valuable that perhaps no words can describe, from his narration and his poignant images.”

There is “potential in every piece of film,” Swanson said, “to be considered historically important.”

Desktop Delivery

Preserving the vast number of film images is the lifeblood of the Moving Image Collections initiative, described as “A Window to the World’s Moving Images.” Designed for archivists, researchers, science educators and the general public, MIC is sponsored by the Library of Congress and the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Jane Johnson Otto, the MIC project manager, says the MIC effort grew out of the film preservation initiatives from the 1990s when testimony before Congress identified a film preservation crisis and the need for immediate action.

Working with others in the field, the Library of Congress and the AMIA identified the first and most crucial step in any preservation solution as a standardized way to identify holdings, she says, particularly unique titles.

The idea, Otto says, was to develop a global database that would allow organizations to enter and catalog their materials using standard formats or their own formats mapped to a standard.

The goal was to allow students, documentary filmmakers and everyone else unprecedented access to moving images.

“After searching the collections, you will be able to literally have it ‘delivered to your door’ as a watchable medium, right on your desktop.”

Otto says the architecture of MIC was the brainchild of Grace Agnew, who, with the funding of a National Science Foundation grant, arranged technical assistance with Georgia Tech, the University of Washington and Rutgers University.

There are currently 15 archives in the MIC consortial database, including over a half-million records, and about 250 organizations in the MIC Archive Directory. Since its launch, MIC has been visited more than 8.4 million times by nearly 400,000 unique users (currently over 5,000 hits per day) hailing from more than 50 countries.

Global Interest, Community Enthusiasm

Swanson says the global interest in film preservation is also reflected in the international participation of Home Movie Day. Nine other countries held an event in 2007, and he believes this number will grow. The Center for Home Movies acts as the umbrella organization and provides a set of guidelines for potential Home Movie Day organizers to follow.

“Basically, we ask that there be a suitable space; projectors available for 8mm, Super 8 and 16mm film formats; and that people talk a little bit about how they came by the films or tell something about the filmmaker if they know who it was. Other than that, it’s pretty much up to them.”

Video is also welcome. “Culturally, it is the same kind of activity,” he said, “just a different technology.”

He says more than 40 U.S. cities participated last year, and the movement is gathering steam, largely by word of mouth of participants and the enthusiasm of other film archivists. But Home Movie Day is just the first of several projects in the planning stages, Swanson says, looking to the future of Center for Home Movies-sponsored academic conferences, preservation activities and more.

This year’s HMD will be October 18, and for people having no locally planned event, Swanson says it’s not too early to start thinking about hosting one.

Watching home movies is entertaining and a revealing trip down memory lane, but it can be much more. Swanson described one set of compelling home movies shot by a Japanese family placed in an internment camp during World War II: “I was never able to adequately understand or picture what life was like for these Japanese families. You read a lot about it, but not until you see these images do you really have an understanding.In some ways, it reinforced what I had thought, and in others, it changed my ideas entirely.”

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