by Kevin Flinn
Screening home movies for a room full of strangers might sound counterintuitive. After all, home movies are made to be shown at home. But since 2003, the folks behind Home Movie Day – celebrated worldwide on Oct. 15 – have made it their mission to get those homespun Super 8 and 16mm films (and anything and everything else) to the masses, providing the means to discover, celebrate, and preserve home movies as cultural heritage.
Home Movie Day got its start in 2003 when a small group of film archivists recognized the historical value of amateur films. The event “has grown organically,” says Albert Steg, a freelance archivist and member of the Center for Home Movies’ board of directors, “as more and more institutions and archivists have enjoyed attending the events.”
Raleigh’s own Home Movie Day event takes place at the State Archives of North Carolina on Jones Street. Co-sponsored by the film studies program at N.C. State and A/V Geeks (a local repository for educational films), the show provides the opportunity for individuals and families to share their own home movies with an audience, and to see their neighbors’ films as well. These films run the gamut.
“We get color and black-and-white; we get sound and silent; we get short, narrative experiments by ambitious amateurs, and home movies produced by still photographers who have not yet grasped the fact that this new (to them) medium is time-based,” says Dr. Devin Orgeron, an associate professor at N.C. State who’s helping to put the show together. Entries often feature holidays and celebrations, he says, and travel films are also prevalent. “I’ve seen hundreds of films made on the way to, near, or at the Grand Canyon, for example,” Orgeron says. “But amateur filmmakers always have some unique way of expressing the importance of this location. No one can resist shooting out of the window of their moving vehicle on the way to this or any other roadside attraction. It’s part of how we expressed, culturally, the actuality of our travels, our mobility.”
There’s no one single way to produce Home Movie Day, as the ins-and-outs and what-have-yous vary from location to location, and from country to country. The Raleigh event is unique in that it is 100-percent live and on-the-spot, giving it an improvisational spirit. No one in the room – the audience, the organizers, even the projectionists – ever knows exactly what they’re going to see until the films begin to roll. Community members bring their home movies to the State Archives on the day of the event. Inspectors (usually N.C. State film students or A/V Geeks interns) at the entrance to the theater determine what kind of format the film is and if it’s in decent enough shape to be projected. The ones that pass muster are assigned a number and given to a runner, who brings it to the projectionists inside. While Orgeron admits that not everything gets screened, every film that does gets digitized on the spot. “As far as I know,” he says, “we’re the only HMD that does this.”
It’s a vital service: Home movies shot on film will eventually warp and deteriorate, leaving them unwatchable, their memories lost forever. While the nonprofit Internet Archive hosts a home movies collection on its free-to-access site, Steg notes that home movies are often neglected. “Many families discarded their original Kodachrome 8mm and 16mm films in the ’80s after transferring them to VHS, not anticipating that there would be better media in the future,” he says.
When they’re in projectable shape, these movies are often memorable. Orgeron recalls a film shot by 9-year-olds in Raleigh featuring “a rather eerie lifelike Adolf Hitler mannequin … in a complex plot. There was quite a bit of excitement in the theater that year as we watched a bunch of 9-year-olds defeat the Nazis.”
For his part, A/V Geeks founder Skip Elsheimer has sponsored Home Movie Day screenings in Raleigh and Durham, and has been a part of Triangle-area Home Movie Days since the first event, held at Duke. He recalls everything from stop-motion animated student films to a Sunday school ocean fishing trip featuring a young Jesse Helms as chaperone. “We’ve been doing this a long time,” he says, “and each event has something of interest.”
Home Movie Day isn’t just for people who want to screen their films in a theater, Orgeron says. “It’s for everyone with eyes, and ears, and a sense of curiosity … It’s a chance to see our everyday history in action, and quite often, that history is as local as the events themselves.”