Chances are those old Laurel & Hardy prints sitting in your basement aren't nearly as valuable as your mom's home movies. The founders of Home Movie Day talk about amateur films and what they can teach us.
These days, you think of home movies as quaint and fairly uninteresting. The film technology with which they were made seems hopelessly outmoded in the age of digital video, and the idea of screening someone else's memories brings to mind the cliché of being forced to watch the neighbors' film of their trip to Niagara Falls. However, though we all have preconceptions of home movies, few of us have seen them firsthand. It turns out that the reality of home movies proves much more compelling than the clichés associated with them (think less Niagara Falls and more backyard dragqueen party). And though film may seem out-of-date, Kodak still makes Super 8mm film, and many of us have old films of summer vacation or our 8th birthday party stashed by our radiators or in our damp, moldy basements--and the world's film archivists are collectively cringing.
In 2002, a group of them, members of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) Small Gauge and Amateur Film interest group, decided to do something about it. Their solution: Home Movie Day, a day when people can bring home movies, whether they found them in the basement or at a flea market, to a local venue and have them projected in public by professional film archivists.
The first Home Movie Day was held in August 2003 and was so successful that this year's event was expanded to 40 cities around the world, including Tokyo, London, and Albuquerque. Stay Free! interviewed Andrew Lampert and Diana Little who, along with Katie Trainor, were the New York hosts of the event. --Emily Pugh
STAY FREE!: What are the preservation issues associated with home movies and how does Home Movie Day address these issues?
ANDREW LAMPERT: Well, a lot of people have videotapes of their home movies that they transferred from film way back when, and they think that, since it's on video, they don't need to keep the film anymore. In reality, film properly kept lasts longer than video, and if the video player eats the tape, you need the original film to make a new copy. Sadly, when people take their films in to get transferred onto video, they often leave the films, and the processing places throw them away. The goal of Home Movie Day is to wave a flag and say, "Hey, home movies need to be taken care of."
DIANA LITTLE: Also, as archivists, we generally hesitate to project films that are unique or fragile, which most of these home movies are. If films get broken or damaged in the projector, they are lost forever. Every time you project a film, especially if you don't know what kind of condition the projector is in, you're essentially taking tiny bits off the life of the film. You're scratching it, sometimes mangling it if it gets caught. That's why we use Home Movie Day to give people the opportunity to see their home movies projected in a setting where we can assure them to some degree that the films will not be damaged.
LAMPERT: Yes, and while we very much want people to preserve their films, we do also encourage them to make a video or DVD copy to use for viewing. So Home Movie Day is as much about education as it is about entertainment.
STAY FREE!: Do most film preservationists and archivists think home movies are worthy of preservation?
LITTLE: No. Film preservation in practice really means duplicating films, whether it's for archives or commercial interests, and no one is going to spend that kind of money and time on a film that doesn't have commercial value. Most film archives can't really afford to recognize the cultural history embedded in these captured everyday moments. There's just not enough space in archives and there's not enough money in it.
STAY FREE!: If their primary value is as a cultural document, why is it that these films can't simply be transferred to video or DVD and be as valuable?
LAMPERT: Because film will last longer than any video or digital medium. With digital media, there are new formats or software upgrades every six months, whereas film has been pretty much the same since its invention. Super 8mm projectors, for example, have been the same since 1965.
STAY FREE!: How do you see this ritual of watching home movies as part of the larger issues of preserving and archiving them?
LAMPERT: It's a huge part. I've been collecting home movies for fifteen years and one of the great kicks is to see what a "normal" family looks like or what a child's birthday party is like, because I never had birthday parties! There's definitely an element of voyeurism involved. Also, showing these films creates a sort of mini community among the people watching them together. On Home Movie Day, I always ask people to talk about their films. I want them to say, "oh, that's Grandma" or to tell us what's going on. This idea of community is actually a really important part of Home Movie Day. And in New York City, in particular, the idea of community is especially interesting. We have a hugely diverse group of people: white, black, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Asian. And people within each of these cultures make their own, often unique kinds of home movies.
STAY FREE!: So what are the differences between the home movies made by these diverse groups of people?
LITTLE: I tend to feel that there are more similarities than differences. It's interesting, for example, to see how people in these films will act in very specific ways. People who might be reserved or shy normally will suddenly get wacky and start making funny faces or waving their hands around.
LAMPERT: There are a number of reactions or behaviors that you see people do again and again in these films, such as waving at the camera. What I am interested in is atypical behavior or activities that are unique to a particular culture. For example, one home movie shot about four or five years ago by a Chinese woman shows her family conducting a traditional Chinese ceremony at her husband's grave a year after his death. I was fascinated to watch this very private, culturally specific moment in a public forum. Most of the time, home movies lie by painting an overly rosy picture of life. They don't show Dad coming home drunk, or me not having a birthday party. The typical subject matter is vacations at beaches, children's birthday parties, Christmas parties--people gathering together for some significant event.
[ NOTE: Images for this interview appear only in the print version of Stay Free!, which you can purchase right here. ]
STAY FREE!: What about the aesthetic of these films? What can you say about how they look or the filmmaking techniques used to make them?
LAMPERT: There are certain aesthetic elements common to most home movies: shooting with a hand-held camera, for example; use of available light, lack of sound. But this brings up the question of what exactly is a home movie. At the last Home Movie Day, we showed a film by an artist of his trip to Paris. He used gels and various other filmmaking techniques that made it clear he was a trained filmmaker. Some members of the audience objected to it, and a heated discussion started over what exactly constitutes a home movie. I was arguing that if the filmmaker is willing to call it a home movie, it counts as a home movie.
LITTLE: If home movies have to be spontaneous and unplanned, then the film one guy brought in of his son's birth in the early '60s would not have counted as a home movie. It had titles and he and his wife "acted" in it. Someone else brought in a home movie of her daughter's birthday party in the East Village from the '80s that was spontaneous, but also heavily manipulated. She modified the speed and shot single frames, for example, which are not techniques you see in classic home movies.
STAY FREE!: So I guess there's a rather ambiguous line between "home movies" and "homemade movies"?
LAMPERT: Well, a couple of years ago I put together a show called "Art Is Life and Life Is Art" that was made up of films by noted experimental filmmakers that blurred the line between art films and home movies. Actually, that's the most common criticism of experimental films: that they are just amateur movies or just home movies. So your question is interesting because I don't really know the answer to it.
STAY FREE!: Every year that Home Movie Day has been held, you've attracted more and more people. What kinds of people are coming? Is it all ages, all walks of life?
LITTLE: Oh yeah. This year a lot of people in their late twenties and early thirties came with footage of themselves as children. One guy brought in footage of his bris! You see a lot of people bringing in footage of themselves they've never seen before because their parents packed away the Super 8 projector when they were 7.
STAY FREE!: So ultimately what would you like to see happen with these films? Is the ultimate goal a museum or archive of home movies?
LAMPERT: Yes, some of us have been talking about founding a home-movies museum, a place where people can donate their home movies and in return receive a digital or video copy to have for their personal use. The originals would then be kept in proper archival conditions. The museum would have an open-access policy, and accept films from all over the world. After all, these are important documents of our cultural history. The films are not shot from the point of view of the media, for example. This is our own documentation of what life was like in, say 1967, not "The Cold War" or "Nixon meeting Khrushchev" but what was happening in people's everyday lives.
STAY FREE!: Are there any especially funny or unusual home movies that you've seen?
LITTLE: This year someone brought in a movie from San Francisco in the early 1970s--a sort of impromptu drag ball in his backyard.
LAMPERT: I've seen a lot of movies from the '50s of particularly wild New Year's parties.
LITTLE: One of my favorite home movies of all time is one our friend Chad found, which he calls "Penis Film." It's old footage of teenage boys hanging out somewhere in Michigan, getting drunk, playing in their band, and frequently exposing themselves to the camera.
LAMPERT: One of my favorite home movies is of a Hispanic wedding party. You see the bride and groom in the receiving line and then the camera pans to the right and there's a bunch of shirtless guys with beer cans in their hands. Here's a culture I'm not a part of, but I'd like to go to their parties!
STAY FREE!: At Home Movie Day, while I was watching the film of the Dutch couple getting married in the 1970s, I found myself making up stories about who they were and how they met.
LAMPERT: Yes, home movies are very much about interpretation. Each one has a narrative, though it may seem "plotless." Often the viewer has to supply it, but sometimes the people in the films create little stories or parodies themselves.
LITTLE: I find that watching strangers' home movies gives me a warm feeling too. You find yourself thinking, "these are just normal people." Maybe these people are forgotten to everybody but their grandchildren; maybe they are dead or far away, but they still exist in these films.
LAMPERT: People have different haircuts or different pants depending on what year it is, but you see them doing the same things in these films that you're doing right now. Home movies show us that we haven't really changed that much over the years.
See also: Five Tips for Home Movie Care