As the lead partner on the grant, titled The Woman Behind the Camera: Home Movies and Amateur Film by Women, 1925-1997, NHF will embark on an 18-month project to digitize home movies and amateur film and video made by women in the 20th century, and to make this material accessible online and to researchers. The $322,000 grant, one of only a few to fund the digitization of film-related material, will be shared among NHF and its co-collaborators, the Chicago Film Archives (CFA) and the Lesbian Home Movie Project (LHMP).
Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Digitizing Hidden Special Collections program is a national competition administered by CLIR to support access to rare and unique cultural content in archives, libraries and museums across the country. This year’s competition received 144 applications and awarded over $4 million to 17 recipients including NHF, the New York Public Library, the University of Southern California and the American Folk Art Museum.
The Woman Behind the Camera project includes 58 collections of film and video shot by women filmmakers, and represents over 300 hours of unique footage. NHF and its partners, CFA and LHMP, located in Orland, Maine, will digitize and describe the material, making digital copies available for viewing online, and providing finding aids for those interested in learning more about the films and the filmmakers who made them. The digital copies will be shared via a project website, with links back to the original holding institution for more information. Most of the films included in the project are original camera reversal, meaning the archives hold the sole copy. Protecting original analog film and video with the highest quality digital copies is important for access and preservation.
The project is an important effort to highlight these women-made films, and to challenge the notion that women were simply the subjects of home movies and amateur film, rather than filmmakers themselves. The films nominated for digitization, each created by a female amateur filmmaker active in the twentieth century, are diverse in subject matter and provenance. They document families and friends and include the travels, home lives, interests, and some significant moments in each woman's history.
For example, Anna B. Harris (1896-1979), an African American resident of Manchester, Vermont, shot 8mm films of her community between 1949 and 1958, depicting four seasons of Vermont life among people of color. Dorothy Stebbins Bowles (1903-1989) was an avid traveler and an amateur filmmaker who shot home movies of her home life and travels from the 1920s through the 1960s. Her films feature images of her home life with her children and husband, politician and diplomat Charles Bowles, in India and Connecticut, mixed with political life where figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru make appearances.
One of the Collections from the Chicago Film Archive features film from JoAnn Elam (1967-1990), a feminist experimental filmmaker. She worked as a letter carrier and as a tax accountant for filmmakers to make a living. Within this collection is a work print of an unfinished film, “Everyday People.” It documents the lives of postal workers, yet has the beginnings of poetic pacing that underscores her visuals.
Films from the LHMP Collection include the Ruth Storm Collection, 18 reels of film shot by Storm (1888 – 1981), a lesbian New York schoolteacher who documented her life and community in the mid-twentieth century. The project will bring forward representations of lesbian women long before many were able to safely live out and open lives. These films and videos impart insight into the way the women who made them saw the world and what they judged important enough to document.