A Handbook for the Home Movie

posted September 12, 2022

During those interminable family movie nights you were made to sit through, you probably never thought the media form would one day be desirable among collectors.

And yet, particularly over the last 20 years or so, that has come to pass. Archivists increasingly have viewed home movies as worthy of attention for all that they reveal about family and social life, about the “look of the past,” about history on small scales and large.

In a significant development in this new appreciation of home movies, several archivists from around the U.S. and Europe are at work creating a Home Movie Handbook, a practical guide that covers key topics and provides case studies relating to the accession, cataloging, and exhibition of the films.

For archivists and film exhibitors, growing attention to home movies has created a need to be better organized around how best to select, collect, store, catalog, restore, and exhibit the films, and how to deal with some of the trickier aspects of home-movie preservation such as copyright and ethical considerations when exhibiting them.

“We realized that so much work had been done and was being done all over the world,” said Brian Meacham, Managing Archivist at Yale Film Archive. “Those of us with home movies in our archives saw an opportunity to create something really practical for archivists to refer to in their work.”

So, after initial discussions in early 2020, just as Covid was making in-person meeting difficult, and theater exhibition of films was suffering, too, he and colleagues began to formulate plans for the handbook online. They discussed “what we were doing with home movies and how things had changed, and how we were coping, or changing methods of reaching out to audiences,” Meacham said.

An image from a film featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Private Lives Public Spaces” (2019-21). More images from the show, below.

Their goal, now well within reach, has been to take stock of best practices when taking on new collections of home movies or dealing with existing holdings. Focusing on home movies shot on film — as opposed to video and, more recently, cellphone captures — they have sought to gather their own and other archivists’ best advice on organizing collections, prioritizing the tasks of handling them, identifying what is most worth acquiring, creating finding aids that make materials in collections accessible, identifying rights holders if any, and much else.

Those are broad topics that entail sometimes slippery considerations for archivists, says Haden Guest, Curator of the Harvard Film Archive and one of Meacham’s colleagues on the project. He says one component of the Handbook will, then, be illustrative case studies of “what people might run into in those general areas.”

Among Guest and Meacham’s partners in the project are Karianne Fiorini, an independent archivist and consultant based in Bologna, Italy; Kay Foubister, Acquisitions Curator at the National Library of Scotland in Glasgow; and Katie Trainor, Film Collections Manager at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Trainor was a founding board member in 2005 of the Center for Home Movies, some of whose members unsurprisingly will contribute to the handbook. The nonprofit Center supports and organizes home movie and amateur film preservation activities such as the annual Home Movie Days which have, since 2002, played a key role in boosting archival activities as well as public interest around home movies.

Home Movie Days events have come to be held in many cities around the world. One film, shown at the 2006 Home Movie Day in New Haven, Connecticut, was named to the National Film Registry in 2008: “Disneyland Dream“, from 1956, about a family winning a trip to Disneyland in a nationwide US contest.

“It feels like this might be a good time for the handbook project,” said Meacham. “Home movies are no longer a novelty in terms of the archives world. It is established as an area of study, academically and archivally.” With that, he said, “archives don’t have to justify the collection of home movies.”

Guest agrees. Given the success of Home Movie Days, “there’s much more interest and popularity in home movies than ever before,” he said. Their historical and cultural value is not in doubt.

So this is a good time to take stock, he and Meacham agree. It’s a good time for pioneers of the field to provide whatever wise counsel they can.

Some aspects of home movie archiving are fairly straightforward, they said. For example, repairs to damage of home-movie films resembles repairs to other kinds of small-gauge films.

But home movies raise many issues particular only to them. There is, for example, a basic but tricky question: Do archives need to collect all the home movies they can? Do they all merit a home? Limited budgets and staffing would seem to provide the answer, there. So, should particular archives concentrate on, say, home movies shot in their geographical region, or that have other kinship with the archive?

Often home movies are donated to archives, but that doesn’t mean they don’t affect budgets. They must be cared for, and ideally made accessible to researchers and the public. And archivists ideally undertake to identify the films’ content, which is often difficult detective work — if, for example, donated by someone who found them in a box under a house they’ve just purchased.

Collecting and exhibiting home movies may also entail thorny copyright and ethical issues. For example, where do archivists stand if they are given collections of home movies acquired in a garage sale or even, say, the closure of a porn video shop? Those may be of interest to archivists and scholars but, asks Guest, what restrictions should those archivists and scholars observe, or impose upon themselves?

An obvious example of the need to be discerning is public display of home movies featuring children. Guest said the manual will explore that and similar issues, with case studies to tease out intricacies of them — because, as he puts it, “every case is different.” How archivists deal with footage of various kinds “depends on what the material is and how it’s being used.” When it comes to such concerns as the responsibilities of archivists to protect subjects captured on film, “I’d say there is increased sensitivity to those issues.”

The fine-tuning of thought on such subjects, he said, includes around what descriptive terms to use in cataloguing — that is the front line of public contact.

Accompanying more nuanced thinking about how to present home movies to a viewing and researching public has been a growing corpus of critical studies of the media form. That, too, will be described in the manual. Organizers will include an annotated bibliography of critical studies, with additional contributions from scholars and historians. Recent directions in scholarly studies of home movies include studies of local-level film cultures around home movies.

Also bound for inclusion in the manual is coverage of a rich vein of filmmaking that uses home movies as raw materials. The lines between home movies and other “found footage” and “art” films are blurry. Filmmakers who use home movie or their aesthetics in feature films include Pietro Marcello, in Italy, and Péter Forgacs, a Budapest archivist and filmmaker. While exploring incorporation of home movies for artistic ends, their work raises such questions as what rights filmmakers have to such material and ethically acceptable uses of it. They also bridge the worlds of archives and filmmaking in novel ways.

Among the most high-profile uses of home movies, of a kind, has been blockbuster filmmaker Peter Jackson’s adaptations of soldiers’ films from World War I. The way he colorized those, and altered footage to suit his own storytelling ends, raises questions of both historiography and filmmaking ethics. Jackson worked with an esteemed archive, the British Imperial War Museum.

When making such use of source material, each filmmaker will arrive at a particular, case-by-case stance in regards to source material. Archivists are playing a role in shaping such negotiations, even though “it’s hard to have a comprehensive rule book” covering those considerations, Guest said.

Such issues may certainly crop up at Home Movie Days, as much as in archive exhibitions or projects like Jackson’s with their high public profile. Archives and museums are finding their way, and that’s what the home movie handbook will seek to assist, its organisers said. One thing that is clear is that the use and public profile of home movies will only increase. A prominent example of that was the Private Lives Public Spaces exhibition held from October 2019 to May 2021 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Museum described it as a “100-screen presentation of virtually unseen, homemade works dating from 1907 to 1991 [that] explores the connections between artists’s cinema, amateur movies, and family filmmaking as alternatives to commercial film production.” It demonstrated that even some Hollywood film stars, doyens of moneyed filmmaking, have embraced home movie making in telling ways. Their films make clear that home movies have a democratizing capability — capturing goofy activities during summer holidays crosses all social strata.

Of course, the variety of footage that might be categorized as “home movies,” and considerations around how or whether to preserve them, will become only more dizzying as the Tik Toks and their progeny proliferate. Those may well require a handbook of their own.

For now, both prospective general readers of the Handbook and professionals who will fruitfully consult it will likely be able to access components of the whole package in both printed and online forms. In what kind of breakdown, precisely, the manual’s organizers are figuring out. Case studies may be posted online. One thing for sure is that the handbook will appear in the three official languages of FIAF — the International Federation of Film Archives: English, French, and Spanish.

By when?

Probably, ideally, in 2023 in time for the centenary of 16mm cameras and film, a format that gave members of the public far readier access to their medium than they’d hitherto had.

Said Meacham: “That would be nice synchronicity.”

Peter Monaghan

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