Hand-held: Home Movie Day at the PFA October 17 showcases work by amateurs and offers advice for preservation.

Pamela Jean Smith Brings Home Movies to Big Screen

Max Goldberg October 12, 2009

Home movies have been around since the Lumiéres, and there’s no doubt their fascination goes beyond the den. Though often made for private reasons, they are treasure troves of culture ephemera and social history. Most of all, they speak loss (the French refer to them as "films-souvenirs"). The home movie represents a distinct ecology of moving images, incorporating domestic life, travelogue, ritual and relaxation. When every family has its own private archive, what is the role of the public one? Pamela Jean Smith, a film preservationist at the Pacific Film Archive, has spearheaded the Berkeley chapter of Home Movie Day, an event used to raise awareness of the endangered legacy of amateur celluloid. After many months of fielding submissions, she’s prepared a public program for October 17. Among its other pre-YouTube mementos, the show will pay special tribute to home movies shot in Kodachrome, the rich-hued film stock recently discontinued by Kodak. Increasingly, celluloid itself is part of the home movie’s fable of days gone by. Smith agreed to talk about the selection process for Home Movie Day and how it broadens her mission as a film preservationist.

SF360: How did you first become involved with the Home Movie Day project? Does organizing this event give you a different perspective on film preservation than your normal year-round work for the PFA?

Pamela Jean Smith: I first volunteered for Home Movie Day in New York City at Anthology Film Archives about four years ago. At the time I was interning at Anthology as a student in the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program at New York University. I inspected and prepped films for the screening, and of course watched movies! It was such a wonderful experience to open the archive to the people and to show whatever walked through the door. I felt a great sense of privilege to be able to unroll these tiny movies and open up views of lives hidden within.

When I came to Pacific Film Archive to fill the Collection Assistant position three years ago, it seemed like a perfect place for Home Movie Day, considering there was no East Bay venue for Home Movie Day at the time. We have the screening space, the equipment, the archivists, plenty of volunteers, a sense of community and there are lots of home movies out there! It’s an opportunity to meet neighbors and for neighbors to meet their archive. Since Home Movie Day is an international event that happens in over 50 venues in nine countries at the same time every year, it’s a day when I feel connected to a larger group of archivists with similar goals: to bring home ideas of conservation and preservation, to empower people to take care of their personal, visual histories, and to ensure their memories last as long as possible. It’s an opportunity to teach people how to care for their films and videos—basic guidelines like keep your collection cool and dry and never throw out the original objects even after transferring to video because film will outlast any new video format—and basic tips like tape down the ends of your films with acid-free paper tape rather than rubber bands or masking tape, and ideally store them in breathable containers made of polypropylene. The littlest steps can go a long way. It’s rewarding for me to come out of the dark depths of the archive and shed light on what I do every day for the PFA Collection.

SF360: What is the submission process like for Home Movie Day? Are you mostly hearing from folks who live in the immediate area? Are people generally bringing you movies from their own families, or is there also material that’s been retrieved from estate sales and thrift shops?

Smith: Most submissions come directly from East Bay families—Berkeley, Oakland, El Cerrito, Richmond, Benecia, Tracy, Fresno—though some films wander over the Bay Bridge too. There are always tourist views of San Francisco—the Cliff House, Golden Gate Bridge, trolley cars, the Pacific Ocean. Since the Bay Area has many transplants, we see films representing all parts of the world, from southern California to Mexico to Alaska to Illinois to Lebanon to Japan. We also get random reels found at flea markets, estate sales, and on eBay. There are always surprising moments—sometimes people have no idea what they have, or it has been a long time since they’ve seen the images.

SF360: What were some of your priorities and strategies for fielding submissions? It seems like it would be difficult spreading the word since so many people aren’t necessarily even conscious of the home movies moldering in the closet.

Smith: The best way to spread the word about Home Movie Day is by word of mouth, through family and friends. You never know if your own family has movies unless you ask that great uncle or second cousin once removed…sometimes it’s a matter of pursuing a trail of a rumor or a relative’s distant memory. So how does the word of mouth begin? That’s a trick. The older generations who are more likely to have home movies aren’t necessarily online. Local papers and neighborhood newsletters and listservs are a good start, and this year we left fliers at senior community seniors and historical societies. And of course we publicized in the weeklies and in art and community calendars, and this year the well-connected Karen Larsen sent out a press release for PFA as well.

SF360: Do people generally include stories or explanations with their submissions? Were there any cases where this kind of context shaped your impression of a film?

Smith: During the screening, I encourage people who bring something in to talk about his or her connection with their movie. We encourage the audience to ask questions and make comments. The underlying text is as important as the visual story. It’s a time to share! There have been many poignant moments of folks reminiscing and rediscovering family through film. Last year, a gentleman from Cupertino brought in vibrant Kodachrome of his elderly mother and his daughters playing around her. His daughter, now grown and who had just completed her PhD at UC Berkeley (he proudly announced), sat next to him. He told us how his mother died soon after the film was shot, and he talked about how important it is to be sure to tell your parents how much you appreciate them before it is too late. He had that chance, but he recognized that everyone is not that lucky. It was a special moment for this man and his daughter, but we were all connected emotionally through this added sentiment.

There are also missing contexts for reels discovered at sales and flea markets. Friend and colleague Steve Polta has a large collection of home movies that he has generously let me pull from for Home Movie Day, and he has a handful of 400’ regular 8mm footage of an unknown African American family. You see them dressed up for an outing to the Cliff House, walking down the streets of Richmond in 1966, and then there’s amazing footage of people picking grapes and processing them, presumably for wine. Without a personal story, I wonder about the family and who they are. I wonder if the farm and business still exist. I wonder if relatives are still in Richmond and if they knew these films exist, would they recognize the places, the faces, the gestures? Without a personal story, the films become historical documents, sociological studies, rare representations of life and work in the Northern California region. The images become part of public memory, one history within a greater historiography of amateur film. I am thankful we have that much to keep safe for future generations. But it’s a shame that an important part of the story, the personal narrative, is lost and unrecoverable.

SF360: Part of the impulse of creating these films in the first place is one of preservation—that is, making movies to preserve memory. How do you see the more technical world of film preservation relating to this tendency towards memento?

Smith: Perhaps this is a good time to explain the difference between film and video conservation and preservation. Conservation is conserving the original object whereas preservation is transferring the original to a new format. Current practices in the archival world preserve film as film, which means transferring the film to new polyester film stock, and usually in the case of small gauges blowing up to 16mm. This can be prohibitively expensive for individuals so that it’s usually the archives—through grants and donations and perhaps institutional support if they’re lucky—to preserve home movies as film. There are big and small archives that actively collect and preserve amateur film as part of the historical record—a few that come to mind in North America are the Academy, UCLA, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the National Japanese American Museum and Northeast Historic Film—but I think it’s a rare practice compared to the collection and preservation of other film genres. I see Home Movie Day as an opportunity to draw attention to home movies as endangered artifacts that need to be recognized for their historical importance, and the fact that there is not enough dedicated funding to preserve these objects, as they should be seen, as film. But also I see the day as an opportunity for people to take action with their own collections to do all that is possible within their means to recognize the value of their personal record, and conserve their own memories. Because there are so many home movies out there—imagine how many we’re creating now with our digital cameras and cell phones—I think we all have a personal responsibility to do what we can to ensure some of it gets saved. The Center for Home Movies, an organization of archivists who initiated Home Movie Day, has a wonderful guide to transfer and conservation and preservation strategies for film and video.

SF360: There are many filmmakers and theorists who have been drawn to home movies not just for their sociological value, but for their intimacy—that strange sense that you are suddenly on very familiar terms with a group of strangers. After spending so much time reviewing other people’s home movies, what do you think are some of the pleasures particular to the genre? Are there certain things—events, gestures, dramas—that you see over and over again?

Smith: I love recognition of the camera. People have the tendency to wave and blow kisses or give a little smile of embarrassment or amusement. Sometimes you see people react to a motion picture camera the same way they react to a still camera—they’ll group themselves formally at a distance and pose unmoving. I really like those brief, almost frozen moments when little gestures appear like grand gestures – hair blowing in the wind or a shifted glance—when instantly, the past feels immediate. Of course I also love moments of performance, moments of intention, like dancing or showing off a baby doll or roller-skating or reenacting melodrama, and moments of surprise such as when someone steals a kiss outside the window of a passing train or a quick zoom to a bright Kodachrome-saturated pink and red swim cap. I’m also always amazed by camera tricks like in-camera edits, slow motion or fast motion, split framing, and magical double exposures (intentional or accidental). I have a special place in my heart for those crafted works of art that include elaborate titles, intertitles and music, when it’s obvious that home movie making is more than a pastime or hobby.

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