Home Movie Buffs
A new generation of film archivists is salvaging history from the
attics and ash heaps of everyday life
By Thom Powers | December 12, 2004
"THIS IS THE CLOSEST thing we have to time travel," says
Snowden Becker, a blonde 29-year-old whose fashion sense runs to
black lace stockings and granny glasses. She means decade-hopping
as a film archivist, not a mad scientist. In fall 2002, Becker and
four fellow archivists met for lunch during a Boston conference
and dreamt up Home Movie Day, an annual event that today coordinates
community screenings of home movies in over 40 cities around the
world. At the two Boston sessions, viewers have vicariously experienced
first-class travel on a European cruise ship in the 1920s, attended
a Jewish family seder in 1940s New York, and glimpsed a baseball
game at Fenway Park in the 1960s.
Becker and the rest of the Home Movie Day crew represent a new wave
of film archivists who are changing the way we interpret the past.
Indeed, behind every old film rescued from obscurity or decay lies
the work of an archivist. Take the story of Karen Ishizuka, a former
curator at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles,
who established the collection that inspired Becker when she worked
there six years ago. While doing research in 1989, Ishizuka uncovered
old collections of home movies by Japanese Americans. One of her
most startling discoveries was the work of David Tatsuno, whose
"home" during World War II was an internment camp in Topaz,
Utah. Tatsuno shot nine rolls of film with a forbidden camera, capturing
Japanese American inmates striving for normalcy: women pounding
rice, a girl ice skating, boy scouts raising the American flag.
No other media represented "their strength and determination,"
says Ishizuka of the internees. "If you rely on newsreels,
communities of color don't show up." In 1996 Tatsuno's footage
was one of 25 films hand-picked by the US Librarian of Congress
for the National Film Registry, where it is listed alongside "The
Graduate," "E.T.," and "Citizen Kane."
While few home movies have made the registry (Abraham Zapruder's
footage of the Kennedy assassination was named to the list in 1994),
the citation of the Tatsuno footage reflects the growing awareness
of the value of unconventional films known as "orphans."
"Orphan films used to be the weirdos and outsiders of film
preservation," says Dwight Swanson, a Home Movie Day cofounder
who currently works as a project archivist at the Smithsonian Institution.
"Now they're right at the center."
Swanson, 38, points to trailblazing archivists whose work on nontraditional
film genres inspired him and his peers. During the 1980s, for example,
Rick Prelinger helped pioneer the collecting of old commercials
and educational, industrial, and government films, as seen in his
2004 compilation film, "Panorama Ephemera," which streams
online for free (www.prelinger.org). In 1986, Karan Sheldon and
David Weiss founded Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport, Maine,
which has championed the preservation of regional moving-image work
that lacked other institutional support. In 1999, film historian
Dan Streible founded the Orphan Film Symposium, a recurring academic
conference at the University of South Carolina, devoted to hard-to-categorize
films, from amateur footage of Baghdad in 1924 to restored 1940
sound footage recorded by Zora Neale Hurston in churches in the
Gullah communities of the Carolina coast.
"When we started in 1986, it was an uphill battle," says
Northeast Historic Film's Sheldon. "People thought Hollywood
movies were important and `people's movies' were worthless."
These mavericks opened the doors for a new generation of archivists,
like the ones behind Home Movie Day. Besides Becker and Swanson,
the other cofounders -- all in their 30s -- include Katie Trainor,
a preservationist at the Museum of Modern Art; Chad Hunter, a preservation
officer at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.; and Brian
Graney from the New Mexico State Archives. And Becker's day job
as public access coordinator for the prestigious Academy Film Archive
in Los Angeles isn't as incompatible with the scrappy Home Movie
Day as it may seem. After all, the Academy collection contains home
movies by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Esther Williams, and Steve
"A hundred years ago people wrote diaries and letters,"
says Becker. "Now people make video diaries and blogs. We're
not recording less. Those records are in different forms. We need
to develop competency at preserving them."
In early November, these disparate worlds came together for the
annual conference of the Association of Moving Image Archivists
(AMIA), held in Minneapolis. The event drew over 450 old-timers
and newcomers from Hollywood studios, government agencies, stock
footage houses, and other archives large and small, from the Library
of Congress to the Kinsey Institute. AMIA was founded 13 years ago
to promote standards and encourage communication in the field. Since
then, the group has developed protocols for local television stations
to save their libraries; sponsored Third World archivists for education
programs; and fostered the growth of film preservation classes at
For a documentary maker like me, AMIA's members are the gatekeepers
to all the riches of the world. Their credits may flash past in
the blink of an eye. But without them, shows on the History Channel
or PBS's "American Experience" couldn't exist. "No
amount of narration could have captured the magnificent drama,"
wrote Henry Hampton, referring to his civil rights series "Eyes
on the Prize," in an essay on archival footage. "It is
impossible to tell which experience was more powerful for me: the
reality of that day on the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, or finding
the footage of civil rights marchers being beaten back."
These days, documentary makers are increasingly finding compelling
stories in places television news crews never reach. In last year's
hit "Capturing the Friedmans," Andrew Jarecki's chronicle
of a family's break-up over the father's prosecution as a pedophile,
some of the most emotional footage was recorded by the Friedmans
themselves. In the current release "Tarnation," Jonathan
Caouette draws upon camcorder footage that he's been shooting since
he was 11 to document his tumultuous life with a mentally ill mother.
The generation who pioneered film archiving after World War II was
mobilized by the overwhelming loss of nitrate films. According to
the 1999 documentary "Keepers of the Frame," 90 percent
of all films from the silent era were either tossed away by people
who didn't know better or left to rot in inadequate storage. Under
the rallying cry "Nitrate won't wait" the preservationists
galvanized archives to transfer collections from dangerously combustible
nitrate to safety film.
A stroll through the AMIA presentations last month suggest the fertile
ground today's archivists are tilling. On a panel addressing censorship,
Stephen Parr, founder of the San Francisco Media Archive, played
clips from his new history of dirty pictures called "The Subject
Is Sex," distributed on DVD by Other Cinema. The images ranged
from dancer Lili St. Cyr doing a burlesque routine to bikini-clad
singers in musical numbers produced for the Scopitone film jukeboxes
in the 1960s. (Elvis Costello pays tribute to the Scopitone's tawdry
visuals in his new music video "Monkey to Man.") Due to
copyright restrictions, Parr lamented, his commercially released
DVD couldn't include a vintage cartoon featuring Woody Woodpecker
One of the treats at AMIA is the chance to see footage that would
never make the legal hurdles of commercial release. During a nighttime
screening, filmmaker Carolyn Faber presented her found-footage film
titled "For the Record." The film compiles frames taken
by a Regiscope camera at a Wisconsin Piggly Wiggly supermarket in
the early 1980s. The Regiscope was designed to prevent fraud by
photographing the faces of customers along with images of their
checks at the cash register. In Faber's film, faces and checks whiz
by at a rate of six images per second, compressing a frenzy of consumerism
into seven and a half minutes.
Faber, the 35-year-old cofounder of the Midwest Media Alliance,
had discovered the Regiscope reels at a Chicago film school in a
pile headed for the dumpster. "If footage is on its way to
the trash, I have the last chance to find value in it," says
Faber. "That challenge appeals to me."
Today, when the rapid spread of cheap technology has made everyone
a documentarian, preservationists are faced with a dizzying variety
of potential footage, in a dizzying variety of formats that make
the problems of nitrate look simple. When everyone has a digital
camcorder -- not to mention the capacity to shoot footage on their
cellphone -- how do you sort through it all? Librarians don't need
to read books to catalogue them. But film archivists need to watch
footage to know what's on it.
"Archivists can't do this all on our own," says Becker.
"Every family should have an archivist. This stuff doesn't
last forever if you don't take care of it." Spreading that
gospel was a driving force behind Home Movie Day. The founding quintet
launched the event on Aug. 16, 2003, or 8/16, in honor of the two
most common amateur film formats, 8mm and 16mm. In each city, people
could bring in their old reels to be evaluated and screened by a
The most recent Home Movie Day turned up some interesting material.
At the Boston event, held at the Boston Public Library and organized
by Liz Coffey, a 30-year-old projectionist for the Coolidge and
Brattle theaters, one patron arrived with 10 reels of 16mm that
he'd found at a garbage dump. Coffey studied the film's edge code
marking and determined that the film was manufactured in the 1920s.
The images revealed a wealthy family from that period traveling
through Europe: riding a funicular train in the Alps, men boxing
with their heads covered in bags, a line of fancy Art Deco cars
pulling up to a hotel.
Becker recalls that at the Los Angeles event, which she organized,
one patron brought 83 reels shot on the European format of 9.5mm
containing footage a relative had taken in Thailand and India in
the 1920s. The Thai locations ranged from a chemist's lab to a dentist's
office to an expat Christmas. Trainor, who presided over the New
York venue, remembers a man who showed up with a reel he had never
seen before depicting his own bris, the Jewish circumcision ceremony.
(At least the film was uncut.)
On the closing night of the AMIA conference, the archivists held
their own Home Movie Day of sorts at the historic Heights Theater
in Minneapolis's northeast suburbs, showcasing the most interesting
footage rescued by its members in the past year. The assembled footage
wowed even an audience worthy of the expression "seen it all."
A home movie taken by a British tourist in 1937 captured the sights
of Nazi Germany -- in color. (Before the 1950s, color film was much
more common in home movies than in commercial films.) An amateur
film from 1964 showed Vaudeville entertainer Sid Laverents recreate
his one-man band performance. Video footage, shot by the 1970s independent
media collective Videofreex, documented Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic
shouting "Stop the bombing" at the 1972 Republican convention.
A 1920s Koko the Clown cartoon, accompanied by a live organ, prompted
the crowd to follow the bouncing ball in a sing-a-long to the Civil
War-era song "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp."
Now the Home Movie Day founders are drawing up plans and a budget
for a Center for Home Movies that would serve as both an archive
and a museum. The center will fulfill a goal of Swanson's by expanding
the mission to video as well as film.
On an AMIA panel devoted to amateur video, Swanson said that whenever
he sees a TV show compiling people's pet tricks, he wonders, "What
else was on that two-hour tape?"' While film can last for decades
if stored properly, videotape is susceptible to turning snowy within
10 years. "It is troublesome," said Swanson. "But
as archivists we don't get to choose what people use to document
their lives. We just have to deal with the results."
Thom Powers is the co-owner of Sugar Pictures. His most recent documentary,
"Loving & Cheating," will air on Cinemax on Feb. 14.
He is currently working on a book about American documentary titled
"Stranger Than Fiction."
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