Today we have a real treat: an interview with for Dwight Swanson, a co-founder and a board member for the Center for Home Movies, an organization dedicated to preserving home-made motion pictures — from the old-timey Super 8 films made the middle of the 20th century, to today’s impromptu smartphone films, which can be shared worldwide a few moments after they are shot.
Dwight resides in Baltimore and maintains the home office of the Center for Home Movies. He has a B.A. in history from the University of Colorado and an M.A. in American Studies with an emphasis on popular and material culture from the University of Maryland. His initial training was in photographic history and museum studies. Since graduating from the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at the George Eastman House he has served as the archivist for regional film and video collections at the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association, Northeast Historic Film and Appalshop, as well as working on projects at the Human Studies Film Archives and Historical Society of Pennsylvania. He is a specialist in amateur film and regional film production and has lectured and written extensively on home movies and amateur film, including presentations at the Orphan Film Symposium, the Northeast Historic Film Summer Symposium, the University Film and Video Association, and the Association of Moving Image Archivists’ annual conferences.
You can learn more about what the CHM does by visiting their website at http://www.centerforhomemovies.org.
Listen Closely Productions: Tell us a little bit about why the Center for Home Movies was founded and what the organization does.
Dwight Swanson: After having successfully organized two years of Home Movie Day events (an annual home movie screening event that started in 2003) on an informal ad hoc basis, we realized that it was going to be an ongoing project, and we had a lot of other ideas that we wanted to follow through with. To do so we needed to be an nonprofit organization to do what we wanted to do, so we organized the Center for Home Movies.
Despite our name, we are primarily a virtual organization (we’ve never had a brick-and-mortar presence), with board members and friends scattered around the country and the world. Our mission statement says “our mission is to transform the way people think about home movies by providing the means to discover, celebrate, and preserve them as cultural heritage,” and that allows us to work with home movies in widest possible way.
I like to say that if it involves home movies, we are interested in it. Most simply, we love home movies, and want people to engage them in a serious but enjoyable way, so we are involved in projects related to preservation, education, promotion and curation.
Do you focus exclusively on moving pictures? Are any other sort of home-produced media included (records/audio, websites, etc.)?
As much as we love other types of amateur and personal media, and feel that they are connected, as a small organization we have more than we can handle dealing with film and video, so we focus entirely on moving images.
Why should anyone outside of one’s own family care about the preservation of home movies? What can we learn from home movies – our own or those produced by others?
The answer to this is easy when a home movie captures something historically important or unique. The most obvious example here is Zapruder film, which is the most famous home movie ever made, but it’s also true in the instance of something like the reel of his grandparents’ film of their trip to pre-World War II Poland, which is described in the recent book by Glenn Kurtz, “Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film.”
This short segment of a typical family travel film is a unique record of life among the Jewish residents of the town — unique because everyday life is not something a newsreel camera or professional filmmaker would have bothered to document.
The harder answer is why we should care when the movie is not something unique. How many fathers shot home movies of their kids opening presents on Christmas morning in 1965? Hundreds, or maybe even thousands. Only a portion of those movies will still exist, but while any one of them might not appear to be very interesting, if you could somehow manage to watch all you would get a fascinating understanding of one small ritual of modern life. You would also probably make inevitable connections with your own life, seeing how yours is different from the family you are watching, and how it is the same.
It is true that for the most part they do cover happier family events, but home movies cover a much wider range of activities than they are usually given credit for — if you look hard enough you can find home movies on almost anything. In the end, though, they are really all about people and how we live our lives, and there are few things more interesting than that.
What is Home Movie Day? How can readers learn more and participate at the local level?
Home Movie Day is an international home movie screening event now approaching its 13th year. They are local events scattered around the world, all run by local volunteer organizers. The third Saturday in October is the official Home Movie Day celebration, but some events occur earlier, later, or at other times of the year. Our new unofficial motto is now “every day is Home Movie Day,” so that people can feel free to host an event in the way that makes the most sense for them and their audiences. Most events are open screenings, meaning that the public is invited to bring in their home movies (and videos, in some cities). Volunteers then inspect the films and project them for an audience. We use the opportunity to educate the crowds about home movies and preservation, but I like to say that another important aspect is “home movie appreciation,” meaning that sitting around and watching other people’s home movies is so much more enjoyable than people usually think that it changes minds about the importance of home movies. And likewise, showing your own home movies to an appreciative crowd makes people value their own films all the more. In addition to the open screening aspect, a lot of local organizers also screen programs of local films from their archives, or documentaries that use home movies, or other important amateur films.
A lot of cities have more or less permanent groups of organizers, while some pop up anew every year. We are always looking for new volunteers to contact us with ideas for local events. It’s a lot of work, but we have been doing it for a long time so can help out with some of the basics of how to go about it. Our website, www.homemovieday.com is chock full of resources if you want to find out how to get involved, or we can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tell us about the Home Grown Movies compilation. How were these selections picked to be included and shared?
Every year we ask the Home Movie Day hosts to describe some of the movies that were screened at their events. After reading about so many fantastic films, we were agonizing over the fact that most of them were only being seen by a roomful of people, so we decided that we would document at least a few of them. In 2010 we released Living Room Cinema, which was a DVD of 22 of some of the most interesting films from the first years of Home Movie Day. Given the decline of the DVD market, we decided last year that we would revive the project in an online version, calling it Home Grown Movies. At the end of each year we read through the Home Movie Day reports and try to select a group that best shows the diversity of home and amateur film and video making. We then digitize the films and supplement them with essays, commentaries and in some cases new musical scores.
What are some of the common issues that home movie owners have about preserving their original footage? What resources can you suggest related to preservation and transfer?
The first problem that people have, and one of the reasons for Home Movie Day, is that fairly often people have their old films but no longer have a functioning projector to view them on. More and more this is going to be the case with older videotapes, as consumer video decks become obsolete. Without being able to view them, it is very difficult to be able to know what they are and how much effort and cost it is worth to preserve them. Everybody wants to get their films transferred to video, and of course we encourage that, but it is not an inexpensive process for a large collection. The “Your Home Movies” section of our website is where we try to put as much information as possible about how to preserve and transfer your films, as well as a list of film transfer houses from around the world that we have been compiling.
How are home movies evolving as the technology to capture moving images for personal use moves forward? Do you think this will change how people value and utilize these movies?
It felt for a long time like the transition from film to video in the 1980s was a seismic shift in amateur media technology, and in many ways it was, but more and more it is feeling like the shift from analog to digital video is even more important. I say this because a VHS tape was for the most part still only available to a small group of family members around a TV in a living room — more convenient than viewing an 8mm film on a projector, but not radically different. Now, home videos are shot on phones (almost exclusively) and within a matter of seconds they can be posted on YouTube, Facebook or Instagram and potentially viewed by hundreds of people. The world has never had access to more amateur moving images, which helps people to utilize them, but does having so many personal moving images make people value them less than when they were physical objects? I’m not sure.
Do you have any upcoming projects that the center will be involved in that you’d like to preview for us?
Aside from Home Movie Day, our biggest project ever is just beginning now. It is called the Home Movie Registry, and is online in a testing phase at www.homemovieregistry.org. We hear from so many people and filmmakers looking for home movies of a particular subject or place that we want to make it as easy for them as possible to go to one site and search for thousands of films. We are in the process of creating a database of home movies, using the online catalogs of archives around the country, so that you can do keyword searches and then view the films through the registry. Initially we are working with archivist colleagues to gather the records of home movies in their collections, but ultimately we are envisioning it as a resource that could contain an almost unlimited number of films in personal and family collections, as well.
Home Grown Movies sample films
Reyes Family Home Movies – These films were shot by Manuel Reyes and screened for the family at holidays. The footage was shot in Michoacán, Mexico, at the family ranch, as well as in Yuma, Arizona, and Salinas, California.
Morton Savada: Halloween 1958 – In the commentary for this home movie, Elias Savada, Morton’s son, tells the story of his family’s 1958 Halloween night.