2002 Symposium

Close Readings: Seeing Amateur Films in Important Ways

July 27-28, 2002

Dwight Swanson
Northeast Historic Film

What follows is a too brief review of the symposium on amateur film here at Northeast Historic Film. I’m not even going to claim any objectivity, but believe me when I said that it was an excellent symposium, with a consistently high level of dialogue. The presenters are to be congratulated and thanked for continuing to broaden the intellectual framework of home movies and amateur film beyond what it was even a few years ago.

Saturday morning started with opening remarks by Mark Neumann from the University of South Florida, whose presentation from last year, “Home Movies on Freud’s Couch” was recently published in The Moving Image, the journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Mark did an excellent job, as usual, in giving an overview of the state of home movie research.

Rick Prelinger spoke first about his association with the Internet Archive ( and the Prelinger Archives ( and the change in philosophy which he had to go through in the process of moving from the world of for-profit stock footage sales to putting vast amounts of his collection online and downloadable for free. While there have been evolutionary steps towards increasing the accessibility of archival collections in the past several decades, the Internet Archive to me seems like a revolutionary leap in allowing free access to original materials and also encouraging reuse and recontextualization.

Following these same lines, the next presenter was Barbara Greenstone, from Mt Ararat Middle School in Topsham, Maine. She showed how she has used the media in classrooms and the success she has had in reaching otherwise unmotivated students. In the upcoming school year, 7th graders across the state of Maine are going to be given iBook laptop computers in a program called the Maine Learning Technology Initiative. Barbara demonstrated how the iMovie editing software has already been creatively used by her social studies students to produce documentaries using archival footage and newly shot video.

Next, Martha McNamara from the University of Maine spoke on her experiences of using amateur film in her classes. For years she has used “From Stump to Ship,” a 1930 film shot by the owner of a Maine lumber company, as well as “Woodsmen and River Drivers,” a documentary which made use of this original footage an adds interview footage of original participants. Discussion soon focused on the issues of authenticity in amateur films and how college students approach this archival footage.

On Sunday the first presentation was by Jeffrey Ruoff of Dartmouth College, who showed clips of a documentary which he had produced using amateur footage made by a Japanese man who drove across America in 1927, filming the whole way. Interestingly, the filmmaker said that he had previously only ever seen one or two movies, so was approaching the entire filmmaking experience almost completely naively. A paper about the film can be found online at

Megan Shaw Prelinger spoke next about her use of some amateur films of the Pendleton (Oregon) Roundup from 1941 which had come from the Prelinger Archives. The theme of the presentation was ways in which amateur film can be used as historical and ethnographic evidence. Megan spoke broadly about events and trends in Oregon history, and related the films to her own personal experience.

Greg Pierce of Orgone Cinema and Archive in Pittsburgh brought nine reels of found home movies from a Pittsburgh family, the Yeckleys, 1971. Together we sat together and watched them using an Elmo projector and a small screen set up on the stage. After having grown used to watching video transfers of carefully curated and selected clips, it felt almost radical to be viewing an entire home movie collection in what was if not a familial setup, at least a collegial one. The films seemed loaded with cultural and psychological baggage, lending them to a fascinating interpretive exercise led by Bob Brodsky. [Art Form analysis]

Finally, Blair Foster, who was an associate producer on an upcoming series “The Perilous Fight: World War II in Color” produced by KCTS in Seattle showed several home movie clips and spoke about how they were incorporated alongside government films in the production.

After dinner the group gathered again for more viewing of home movie clips from various collections.