Home Movies

Home Movies

Karan Sheldon
Co-Founder, Northeast Historic Film

No one but us ever saw them. Those intimate movies. The ones showing what we looked like in our bathing suits, and how we treated our siblings.

Those once private home movies, almost purposefully forgotten, now physically fragile and technologically obsolete, have a new mission. As a twentieth-century chronicle of everyday people, they offer their many meanings as personal and social documents, as historical records, to new audiences: our middle-aged selves, the class of 2010, future generations, all those without celluloid records of car trips, aunties, and embarrassment.

Home movies reside in many archives, from historical societies and regional archives, to the Library of Congress, National Archives of Canada, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. As one would expect, the home movies of people who comprise our cultural canon can be found on the archives’ shelves: Sigmund Freud, Margaret Mead, Eva Braun.

Media artists Alan Berliner, Rea Tajiri, and Daniel Reeves, among others, reprocess family film in their own work. Some archives collect amateur footage of people neither illustrious nor infamous–there is a broad and exciting continuum of “home movies.”However, access to these many forms of amateur footage is still limited.

Amateur creators are imaginative and varied. Their economic resources and motivations differ widely. Film scholar Jeffrey Ruoff says, “Women played a pivotal role in the shooting, projection, and preservation of home movies. In traditional American families, with a division of labor across gender lines, the mother often holds the position of family cultural historian.” The role of women as creators and transmitters of cultural histories is of great interest as we begin to recognize home movies’ potency not only regarding private histories, but as primary source material for new understandings of our shared cultural history.

Ten years ago I helped found Northeast Historic Film. Our archives holds many kinds of film and video made in and related to northern New England, ranging from silent dramas to political commercials. We are interested in learning about amateur footage because it offers a glimpse of what makes the region unique–and what links its people to other places. Several film historians contend that NHF has amassed one of the largest collections of home movies in North America, and we are pressing forward with the effort to promote discussion about the meaning of home movies.

Some days I get cranky about producers using home movies as visual wallpaper. I resent educators who insist on slick documentaries for the classroom, rather than exploring unedited original footage of people, places and events. Other days the sky is brightened by a hardworking scholar watching hour after hour of family film. A glimpse of fabricated home movies in advertising and feature films validates the power of the genre for me.

To counter the notion that amateur footage is restricted to birthday parties and first steps, I will outline and explain five categories of amateur footage observed in our collecting:

Domestic Life

Every day happenings, domestic ceremonies and annual events. Home movies also record–and perpetuate–taboo activities, in particular, men’s celebratory gatherings include alcohol, nudity, and unconventional behavior. A collection of 1930s hunting and fishing films was initially restricted by the donor, still sensitive after 50 years, to portrayal of prominent individuals drinking liquor during Prohibition.

Travel and Encounters with Others

Travel abroad, people living in unfamiliar cultures, country dwellers visit the city and city dwellers visit the country, and a lot of World’s Fairs. These encounters order and present cultural perceptions. The camera is often employed where the filmmaker perceives the subject as threatened or “exotic.” In 1938 Archie Stewart captured a visit to Miami and train travel on the “Orange Blossom Special,” including Pullman porters, travelers and the train’s mechanical and electrical parts.


Edited works about an industry or job. The O.P. Geer Collection contains a dramatized day in a law office–with bankruptcy case. Film is also used as a tool by anthropologists, physicians, and other scientists, not trained as filmmakers. Dr. Howard Kane filmed woods life Maine in 1929 for a friend, a lumber company president, and “medical reels” for his obstetrical practice.


Families and social groups rework popular culture in dramatic works, encapsulating family relationships and the creators’ take on contemporary culture, such as the 1929 transformation of the popular comic strip family The Gumps into the Jewish Gumpskeys in the home movies of the Meyer Davis/Pierre Monteux families.

Life Summaries

Ordered observations of occasions such as leave takings (moving, graduation), and expressions of traumatic life changes. The significance of Topaz, 8 mm. film by David Tatsuno depicting the life of interned Japanese Americans in Utah during World War II, was recently recognized by the National Film Registry. This category might be defined by the purposive nature of the documentation, such as film shot in South Africa (1946 – 1952) by a minister for a human rights campaign, film now held by the Human Studies Film Archives.

These categories are neither definitive nor exact. Naming each category is particularly problematic–the final one has been “Milestones,” “Summaries of Joy and Pain,” and a few other things. Whether this final category is even essentially different from the first, Domestic Life, as a record of quotidian struggle, is debated. However, the purpose of these definitions is to suggest the complexity of amateur work so as to foster discussion about the motivations of the creators and inspire us to examine their work closely. Further, these categories suggest that the material was created for expressive effect and did reach audiences, whether family groups, club members, or colleagues.

Northeast Historic Film commits a large portion of its resources to home movies because we think they are intrinsically interesting. We are increasingly supported in this point of view by many of our archiving colleagues. We accept entire collections and keep them intact, believing that the oeuvre comprises the totality of footage shot or gathered by an individual or family. We favor well-photographed material that contains information about our culture, builds on material already at the archives, and helps us understand certain topics such as changes in rural life, gender issues, leisure activities, work, and the environment. We try to make connections between this material and a diverse audience of users, whether for a broadcast commercial, a history series, a video term paper, or to serve a personal research interest.

Having devoted precious resources to preserving amateur footage, we face the issues of reuse. Why should material originally intended to be shown privately be moved into the public sphere? What permissions are needed to allow reuse or access of any kind? What additional policies must be created and maintained for healthy donor relations? What legal issues are involved regarding privacy and protection of materials from unauthorized use? Who pays for preservation work, for storage, for creation of reference and production materials? What is the importance of the arrangement and description of the materials? What usage should be encouraged? What usage, if any, should be discouraged or prohibited?

These questions emerge on a daily basis. They confront everyone collecting and using amateur moving images. In the future, I predict we will see expanded development and understanding of this immensely valuable resource; for Northeast Historic Film the accessibility of amateur material is a very salient issue.

At NHF, members of the staff make many decisions required by each collection, trying to meet the needs of donors, the archives, and potential users. We have found it perplexing and complex to describe amateur footage. Some aspects are relatively easy–captured in the initial accession process. We can describe the footage via its technology: gauge, color or b&w, sound or silent, intertitles, generation, edited, or edited in the camera. If possible, we determine who created the material and when. Original box- and can-notes are preserved and transcribed, providing personal names, geographical locations, and dates. We welcome family members who contribute annotations to verify initial documentation and add to it. The creators’ artistic choices are interesting, particularly in examples of early sound, unusual film gauges, or strikingly shot material.

Other points of access are not so easy. Although we have developed a thesaurus of index terms related to the strengths of our collection, mood and other intangible aspects of an amateur film may elude precise description. Suppose a researcher requests “a winning moment” or “kids acting out in the car?”

Identifying a genre such as satire, drama, or dramatized workday may be possible, but it is difficult to determine ways to capture other cinematic components. What is the archives’ responsibility toward description of physical disability? Ethnic self-identification? Sex roles? Humor? Class distinction? Exploitation of natural resources, or animals, or family members?

Some scholars have taken on amateur film as an area of historical and anthropological inquiry. Jeffrey Ruoff, Richard Chalfen, Karen Ishizuka, Toni Treadway, and Robert Wagner, have all written on amateur film. Patricia Zimmermann’s book, Reel Families: A Social History of the Discourse on Amateur Film, is an important work for those interested in understanding what she calls “a cultural process” of amateur film. In a compelling talk to the Association of Moving Image Archivists in Toronto in 1995, she argued that amateur film as a practice and as social relation is deeply political.

To strengthen knowledge of our visual heritage and social history in the next decade, we would all benefit from increased scholarship in this area of amateurism. We could discuss the ethics of reuse and try to formulate a range of answers; not all answers will work for every institution, every film, or every user. It is important to encourage new forms of narrative visual history in the area of broadcast documentary. I would like to see more productions that start from visual documents, rather than from a script requiring illustration. Finally, I hope we will work toward broader recognition of home movies as a historical resource in their original arrangement. I think of this as analogous to the historical significance of turn-of-the-last-century scrapbooks, a recognized source for the interpretation of domestic history. There are many equally rich amateur films, such as the women’s club satire, A Study in Reds, ca. 1932, (Collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society.)

Amateur films contain extensive cultural and political information from unheard voices. Who made these films? Why? Who saw them? These questions require much greater attention. It is a privilege to uncover this private past.

Pamela Wintle, Raye Farr, Patricia Zimmermann, Toni Treadway and Jeffrey Ruoff helped with this article.