You Are Here

Home movies are becoming a documentarian’s favorite footage


Share/Save/Bookmark

Jonas Mekas used his camera to survive. When Mekas, the founder of the Film-Maker’s Co-Op, emigrated from Lithuania to New York City in 1949 after having endured the brutality of the concentration camps, he immediately began to make home movies. In Lost, Lost, Lost, Mekas’s home movie diaries from 1949 to 1963, his voice hovers over shaky, hand-held images of Central Park, Brooklyn’s Lithuanian community, and Mekas’s friends and family. His home movies swell with sadness and beauty, because he has captured impermanence. “It is my nature to record,“ he says. “To try and keep everything I am passing through, to keep at least bits of it.”

Mekas’s home movies also show us the experience of many first generation immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York City during the post-war years, through images of his tiny apartment, and the way he dresses and moves through the city streets. We watch him hold on to his Lithuanian heritage while becoming an American. No book or photograph could convey the emotion or the authenticity of this experience like the home movies of the man who actually lived it. “I was there,” he says. “I was the camera eye.”

Before Jonas Mekas, avant-guarde filmmaker Maya Deren made it her life’s mission until her death in 1961 to elevate the “amateur” filmmaker to the status of artist. The amateur trusts her instincts, Deren argued, and not the “rules,” which only distance us from our more abstract, latent truths. The untrained, amateur filmmaker, Deren contended, has the potential for art.

Years later, these ideals continue to motivate documentary filmmakers. And many, like Mekas, are still using home movies to survive. When Jonathan Caouette (see page 32 profile of Caouette) was a kid growing up gay in Texas with an emotionally unstable mother, the now thirty-one-year-old filmmaker used his camera as “a means of disassociation and escape.” Caouette, whose documentary film Tarnation was released this month, says, “By picking up a camera I found a way to survive the life I was enduring. I used the camera as a weapon, a shield and a way to illuminate how I was feeling.”

David Friedman could make the same argument. In Capturing the Friedmans (2003), which consists almost entirely of home movie footage that David shot of his family during the arrest and court hearings of his father and younger brother on charges of child molestation, David used his camera to express his deepest, most private fears, ultimately coming undone, alone, in front of his camera on the night of his brother’s verdict. He also used the camera as a weapon, pointing it at his mother (whom he accuses of deserting his father) long after she’s said that she doesn’t like to be filmed. Like Jonathan Caouette, David Friedman used his camera to distance himself from a painful, dysfunctional family situation. Which is somewhat ironic, since home movie cameras were not really meant to document the family falling apart, but rather the family evolving in a perfect forward motion—from baby’s first steps, to birthdays, the prom, college graduation, and the wedding.

When manufacturers first introduced 16mm movie cameras to the public in the 1920s, they targeted elites with the funds, leisure time, and social confidence to operate this new (and heavy) gadget. Amateur filmmaking was to be the new bourgeoisie hobby, like horseback riding or skeet shooting—something for the wealthy to master and eventually tire of. More affordable 8mm cameras arrived in 1932, but the depression delayed their heyday.

During WWII, American military intelligence developed even more affordable, lightweight movie cameras that by the post-war years inspired people like Maya Deren to imagine a heroic amateur filmmaker. If even a struggling immigrant artist like Jonas Mekas could afford one, then it seemed as if movie cameras might have the potential to bring us closer to our humanity.

But home movie cameras were not marketed as populist, poetry machines. The dramatic rise in consumer wealth during the post-war years meant that by 1952, nearly six percent of all Americans owned a home movie camera. This number doubled by the next decade, making it statistically impossible for the average American not to at least know about home movie technology. It wasn’t until the easy-to-load Super8 cameras were introduced in 1965 that the term “home movie” became popular.

Home movie cameras also entered mass culture alongside television shows such as Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver—like backyards and TVs, home movies suddenly became familiar components of suburban life. The home movie camera was to be a way for dad to create his very own idealized family. (Kodak ads from this era hint at today’s clichés: dad films the family on vacation at Niagara Falls while mom and the kids pose, smiling and happy.)

Women made home movies too, according to Dartmouth College film scholar Jeffrey Ruoff says. “Women [during the 1950s] played a pivotal role in the shooting, projection, and preservation of home movies,” Ruoff says. “In traditional American families, with a division of labor across gender lines, the mother often held the position of family cultural historian”

And today, documentary filmmakers are using home movies to show us history from the bottom up. If newsreel footage, talking heads, and still photographs give viewers a window into the past, then home movies take us there. “They’re the closest thing we have to time travel,” says film archivist Snowden Becker who is the public access coordinator for the movie archives at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. Having lived in the domestic, private spheres of our social and emotional lives for so long, older home movies are today reservoirs of social, emotional, and historical insight.

Internationally acclaimed filmmaker Peter Forgacs says that home movies create for viewers a kind of “you are here” immediacy with history. In 1983, Forgacs created the Private Film and Photo Archive in Budapest to archive his collection of amateur films and home movies shot in Europe between 1936-1945. From this collection, Forgacs directed Private Hungary, a series of twelve films that take place within various parts of European society during the Nazi era.

Home movies are special, Forgacs explains, “because the people in them didn’t know they were living history. They didn’t realize that they were recording so many other things that would be important for us today.” With Meanwhile Somewhere, a film about the complacency of the European bourgeoisie during the Nazi reign, Forgacs uses home movies of Gentile parents bathing babies, having picnics, and attending weddings, to show what the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt once explained as the banality of evil. These scenes are innocuous until we discover Nazis shaving the head of a young Jewish girl just up the street.

Home movies can also give us histories that mainstream media misrepresent. During last year’s annual Home Movie Day, (see www.homemovieday.com to locate a regional representative), Becker noted one collection in particular. An older African American man and his elderly mother projected their family’s home movies, shot in Compton during the 1950s. These movies show Compton as a nice, rural, middle-class place to grow up. Mom’s poinsettia plant, now as tall as the family house, is a focal point in the film. Becker explains that these images offer a positive, insider’s view to counter the common perception that Compton and the L.A. riots are one and the same place.

Home movies can also help to strengthen the perception and understanding of vulnerable groups like children. In many films and TV shows children are portrayed only in the way that adults perceive them, as hyperbolically cute and wise beyond their years. “But in home movies,” Becker says, “kids are just kids.”

Even Hollywood actors are human in home movies. I recently collaborated on a documentary called Hollywood’s Home Movies, where we used home movies to tell the story of life in Hollywood. Jimmy Stewart standing over a lion he’s just killed; Alfred Hitchock playing hide-and-seek with his daughter; Clark Gable blowing a paternal kiss to Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits (1961). Hollywood’s self-created mythology dissolves when held to the era’s home movies.

We found striking differences between the movie stars’ public and private selves. Watching stars like Cary Grant in the home movies of Ken Murray, a Los Angeles vaudeville star and character actor, we understood on a whole new level the degree to which the studios manufactured (then and now) movie stars’ personalities. Ken Murray filmed stars acting like themselves, because that is how he knew them.

Home movies are usually made by friends and family, for friends and family—there is an implicit trust intact. When a researcher or filmmaker encounters other people’s home movies, they discover people as they are in a casually private way. The home movie camera doesn’t pick up truth, per se. But it does show us the wizard behind the curtain.

In turn, more film archives and archivists are making room for home movies. Along with the Hollywood home movie archive, the Academy of Motion Picture and Arts and Sciences also collects and preserves home movies on Southern California history. Northeast Historic Films in Bucksport, Maine has one of the most esteemed archives of home movie and amateur films since 1986. There’s also New York City’s Anthology Film Archives (started by Jonas Mekas and others in 1970) for amateur films. The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles houses thousands of home movies on the Japanese-American experience.

The US National Film Registry at the Library of Congress also preserves amateur and home movies. The Registry includes films that provide invaluable historical documentation. Topaz (1945) David Tatsuno’s 8mm portrait of his daily life in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II, is at the Library of Congress, as is Abraham Zapruder’s footage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. In 1929, when the president of Machias Lumber Company in Washington County, Maine, shot a day in the life of his workers, he couldn’t have know that his footage would today be one of our only visual documents of the lumber industry.

There is, though, “a real difference between home movies and experimental films made at home,” says Andrew Lampert of Anthology Film Archive. The experimental filmmaker wants to do more than just document an event. “I film my life to remind myself how beautiful that afternoon was. Or [to remember] that Holland is a rainy, cloudy place,” he says. In filming these people and places, “I am consciously using my camera” for effect. This homemade experimental filmmaker could be Maya Deren’s amateur incarnate: film for art, not history.

Except that art, like history, so often happens by accident. “I call them The Blonde Family,” Lampert says of “the most boring family home movies” he’s come across in his years of collecting disregarded home movies. The Blonde home movies are for the most part painfully mundane, with scenes like dad cleaning the roof gutters. Then out of nowhere, Lampert says, something amazing can happen. The Blondes are having a typical day at the beach, when the screen goes all white and overexposed. The Blonde dad clearly doesn’t know how to film in extreme sunlight. But from his mistake comes a miracle. At this moment, says Lampert, The Blondes turn “formless,” like angels descending from heaven. “You’re not ready for it,” he says. In even the most banal home movies, just when you least expect it, “you trip over the beauty.”