Life, Death, and Home Movies

Home Movie Day Promo 2014 from Center for Home Movies on Vimeo.

This year marks the fifteenth annual observation of Home Movie Day — a project I co-founded with four cherished colleagues when I was just starting out in my career as an audiovisual archivist. For the students I’m teaching now, it’s the best example I have of how you can create your own opportunities to learn, grow, and make an impact professionally.

As a Home Movie Day host, I learned to organize public events, deal effectively with the media, solicit donations of venue space, equipment, supplies, food, and cash, coordinate volunteers, and talk to people about film preservation issues and how the images we looked at together could have historic significance, even if they didn’t show famous people or notable places. I also learned a lot about small-gauge film that I didn’t learn as a graduate student — what it looks and feels like, how it behaves, how to prep it and project it. (True confession: Despite being the founding chair of the Small Gauge and Amateur Film Interest Group of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, I had never once operated a film projector before the first Home Movie Day event on August 16, 2003, and only barely knew how to splice film. It took years for me to become an expert film handler, but Home Movie Day was both a motivator and a means for me to do that.)

Being a co-founder of the Center for Home Movies, which oversees not just the annual, international Home Movie Day event, but a range of other projects aimed at transforming the way people think about home movies, furnished still more opportunities. I learned what it takes to create, incorporate, and responsibly run a non-profit organization, to write and revise mission statements and other core documents, to fundraise, to write grants. I’m incredibly grateful to my co-founders and fellow board members for being smart, talented, and driven in different ways from me — so that I could learn how to have productive disagreements, ask for input from the folks in the group who are inclined to be quiet, get help when I needed it, and be accountable for my mistakes. Together, we produced a DVD, helped get multiple amateur works listed on the National Film Registry (I’m still working on getting the NFR opened up to works that originated on video, but am confident that will happen in the near future), and expanded Home Movie Day from two dozen venues in four countries to nearly a hundred cities on every continent except Antarctica. This year, the Center for Home Movies and Home Movie Day were honored with the Society of American Archivists’ Hamer-Kegan Award for archival advocacy.

Although I stepped down from the CHM board a few years ago to focus on research, teaching, and writing (count that as another lesson I’ve learned — how and when to step away from a project you love, making room for others to step up and carry it forward), I remain strongly connected to the project and support it in all the ways I can. I’m helping out once again at this year’s Home Movie Day events in Los Angeles, of course. There’ll be two “classic” open screening events at different locations on Oct. 7 and Oct. 21, plus a curated program of selections from the Academy Film Archive’s collection the evening of the 7th — full details for all the LA events are here. And I’ve just drafted a new “living will” for home movie collections, which I’ve shared with the Center for Home Movies, and which I invite everyone to circulate far and wide. Fillable PDF and editable Word and Google doc versions are all available for use under the Creative Commons CC-BY (Attribution) license — which means anyone can freely adapt them for use in other circumstances, with acknowledgment of the original source/creator.

Whether you’re going to a Home Movie Day event near you this year or not, you can use this template to capture basic information about your (or your family’s, or your community members’) home movie collections. The document is also designed to stimulate home movie owners’ thinking about what might happen to their home movies in the future, and make sure their wishes and preferences for this are formally noted somewhere. I recommend printing out one copy to keep with the movies themselves, one copy to keep with your important papers, one copy to send to a fried, family member, attorney, or someone else who can act as a “trustee” for your home movies in the event of something happening to you.

Why is this important? Well, among other things, it’s part of the basic disaster planning that we should all probably do. Whether you live in earthquake-and-wildfire country like me, or flood-and-landslide country, or hurricane-and-tornado country, or plague-of-locusts territory, or under an oppressive political regime, or what have you, it’s important to recognize that your materials might be at risk — and, more importantly, that you might not always be able to care for them yourself. Over a decade ago, families who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina lamented the loss of irreplaceable keepsakes like family photos, and strangers were moved by finds of abandoned and displaced images left behind by fleeing residents and receding flood waters. Even in the absence of disaster, surviving family members (or estate agents) who have to clear a lifetime’s worth of stuff from the house of a loved one may not recognize the importance of a home movie collection. A few words of direction jotted down on a form like this lets them know they’re acting in accordance with your wishes, and helps ensure that your movies will survive and remain accessible into the future.

I believe, after over fifteen years of working with other people’s home movies, that the personal stories told through this medium are an essential part of the historical record. I’ve observed that home movies are often exquisitely well cared for and cherished by their families of origin, but I’ve also seen how easily that care can be interrupted. Taking an hour or so to fill out a form, jot down some notes, and think about what you want for your films and videos in the future is a worthy investment in these heirloom images — put it on your disaster-preparedness checklist today!


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