August 10, 2005 News & Opinion » Featured story

It came from your house 

Get discovered at International Home Movie Day

In the not-too-distant past, the mere mention of the phrase "home movies" in a few family circles would elicit a great deal of groaning and the rolling of many eyes, followed by lots and lots of fleeing. Apparently no one was exactly clamoring to get yet another look at Aunt Sophia's unsuccessful stab at waterskiing, Cousin Murray's bar mitzvah, or the Jaws ripoff your brother tried to shoot in the garage.

But what some once considered a grueling familial obligation others now believe to be an important art form and anthropological document. Recently film archivists have become worried that these personal records might be lost due to mishandling and the limited availability of projection equipment. The movement to preserve and celebrate these snapshots of 20th century American life begat International Home Movie Day, which is now held each year on the second Saturday in August in cities all over the world.

The third annual International Home Movie Day is slated for Saturday, August 13, with free events planned at the George Eastman House that include an information session regarding the care and storage of your celluloid memories, as well as an evening spent projecting your home movies on the screen at the Dryden Theatre.

That's right: your home movies.

Through Friday, August 12, anyone who wants to offer their home movies up for public consumption is invited to stop by the George Eastman House and drop off up to four reels of film in either Super 8, 8mm, 16mm, or 35mm formats. A number of people have movies socked away in their homes, and often they're not certain what those reels contain --- or even what condition the films are in --- since they lack the necessary equipment to view them.

At the George Eastman House, a film archivist will inspect your submission and decide whether it can be projected without being harmed. The Dryden Theatre provides the projection equipment, a glorious venue, and then your film gets returned to you after its big-screen debut. All you have to do is sit back and cross your fingers that the movie you handed over doesn't contain footage of you in the tub.

Kelli Hicks is the chief organizer of Rochester's Home Movie Day. A graduate of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, Hicks works at the George Eastman House as a film archivist and has been involved in HMD since its inception in 2003. She's quick to point out that the definition of "home movie" isn't limited to films of birthday parties and family vacations, but also encompasses animated or live-action narratives shot by amateurs, complete with scripts and editing, as well as chronicles of daily life in society.

"I think they're considered kitschy and funny," she says, "but there's a much bigger issue and that's a more complete view of history." She cites Abraham Zapruder's 8mm footage as probably the most famous example of the genre: "The reason we have information about John F. Kennedy being shot is because someone decided to shoot a home movie."

The Rochester-based events during HMD's first two years went down at Visual Studies Workshop with around 50 to 70 people in attendance, giving the screenings an intimate, homey feeling. But the dedicated grassroots efforts of HMD's volunteers have garnered more attention for the event, making the move to a bigger venue both logical and feasible. Jim Healy, assistant curator of motion picture film at the George Eastman House, says he had been following HMD's growth and approached Hicks about a possible journey down the street to the former residence of the man who started it all.

"This is more or less the birthplace of smaller-gauge film," Healy says. "It put moviemaking into the hands of the amateur in the way that the Brownie camera brought photography into every home."

As an archivist, Hicks is especially interested in the preservation of home movies, which can thrive in certain environments and turn to vinegar in others. She, along with fellow archivists and lab technicians, will discuss these issues and field questions about home archiving during an open information session on the afternoon of Home Movie Day. Topics to be addressed include the handling and storage of your films and the pros and cons of transferring your home movies to video or DVD. (Hint: If you decide to transfer, don't even think about jettisoning the source film.)

It's impossible to know what the community will submit as far as home movies, but GEH is dipping into its world-renowned archives to screen some of its gems, including the home movies of Joan Crawford as well as Nickolas Muray's 16mm color footage of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Home movies shot on the set of Raging Bull will also be presented, and Paula Savage, whose father, Peter, co-wrote Jake LaMotta's autobiography, will be in attendance to guide viewers through the images.

HMD organizers can't guarantee that every home movie received will be screened, but they do plan to show at least one selection from everyone who submits a film. The clips will be about three to seven minutes in length, and the film's owner is encouraged to provide the audience with an introduction to or commentary during the movie.

Or perhaps you feel your masterpiece has always needed a rousing score. Dreamland Faces --- that's Andy McCormick on saw and Karen Majewiscz on accordion --- will be on hand to provide musical accompaniment as well as entertain during breaks in the three-hour program.

There's an obvious sentimentality associated with our own home movies, and Hicks reports that one of the great rewards of the HMD events is allowing people to see loved ones who have long since passed as well as images of their younger selves. The camp factor is present, too, thanks to the now-frightening hairstyles, questionable fashion, and the furniture we vaguely remember and secretly wish our parents still possessed. But how would a bunch of strangers benefit from watching your personal stash?

Healy --- who has a couple dozen of his own home movies that he's weeding through for HMD --- says, "Home movies achieve their own kind of art and give us a very specific sense of place that films made for art's sake don't afford. And they're evidence of shared experiences, letting us all know we've all gone to the same amusement parks and played on the same playgrounds."

We've been bombarded with hype about how digital moviemaking has made self-expression ultra convenient, but that's no reason to put your Super 8 camera away... because there's always next year's Home Movie Day.

"There is an incredible variety of people making their own individual cinema," Hicks says. "Their imagination and creativity is pretty wide-reaching, and their personal, everyday lives include extraordinary events."

It may not be the film debut you had hoped for, but are you ready for your close-up?

The Third Annual International Home Movie Day is Saturday, August 13, (Submissions accepted until August 12), at the George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue. An information session about care and storage of home movies is in the Curtis Theatre from 3 to 5 p.m., followed by screening of home movies from 7 to 10 p.m. in the Dryden Theatre. Free, donations accepted., 271-3361 x352

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