Apr 9, 2017

On a Mission to Rescue Home Movies and Orphan Films

     “Home movies too often have been perceived as simply an irrelevant pastime or nostalgic mementos of the past, or dismissed as insignificant byproducts of consumer technology”.  Patricia Zimmerman and Karen Ishizuka say it best in their book Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Home Movies.  I am a firm believer of this, that home movies serve a much greater role outside of the families that they belong too.  The Center for Home Movies proclaims on their website that “you may be surprised to learn that your home movies can hold great interest for a much wider public, including local historians, international scholars, and artists. Popular celebrities or historic events that appear in your films would be obvious examples, but in fact it is the record of normal human beings being themselves in everyday circumstances that may be of most historical value.” This brings me to the questions: Can someone curate home movies and only home movies? This question stems from a paper I wrote for my final assignment in Howard Besser’s Culture of Archives, Museums and Libraries class in the spring of 2016. In this paper, I surveyed three historic houses located on Long Island, New York. A historic house can be defined as a building, where people can go to learn more about their local history of the town they live in.  Some of those houses represent a single family that once owned most the land at one point in time.  These types of houses are common throughout Long Island and much of the country and I was wondering if I could draw common threads between them and analyze what they might be lacking and in need of.  It turns out that none of them considered themselves historic houses but rather variants of that name.  More importantly, they are all in need of an archivist. Some houses had small moving image collections that were known to exist but had never been inspected or assessed of their value.  It is a hope of mine to survey as many of these houses as I can to bring these materials to light and show the people of New York what wonderful things lay dormant on film and maybe stumble upon something special that no one knew existed before.
     This is the beginning a project that will be based on Long Island that involves surveying not just historic houses but libraries, museums, local television stations, town halls, schools and colleges in Nassau County for home movies and orphan films. The end goal of this project is exhibition of this material in its original form as well as creating awareness of the potential of this material. This could be a good way to drum up attention for home movies and preservation of local history in general. I believe that if enough home movies are discovered, we could curate events using those home movies. We could get local musicians to score the home movies and perform alongside them as they are screened.  Historical societies and libraries are always in search of new and varied events to hold that are also educational.
     Another impetus for this project occurred over the summer.  While interning at Indiana University Libraries’ Moving Image Archive in Bloomington, Indiana, I was given the task of beginning the inventory of the Edward and Naomi Feil Collection. During that time, I was intrigued by a film can that read, “World’s Fair 64-65”. To make a long story short, Edward Feil took his camera into a theater at the fair that was showing a film, Think. Ed captured three minutes of this ten-minute film and I was aware that the Library of Congress was working on a restoration of the film.  There were still questions surrounding the film’s original exhibition and some of the images within it. These questions were answered in Edward’s home movie from the World’s Fair. This re-discovery got me thinking. What other wonders lay dormant on home movies throughout the country? Throughout the world? How could I go about figuring this out? How could I obtain the funds to do it? How can I rescue home movies that have been orphaned over the years? Could I stumble upon something as equally as important as Edward Feil’s home at World’s Fair?


     Could I do this in a pro-bono fashion? How can I get people who don’t care about home movies to care about home movies? So many questions and so few answers.  Over the course of my career as an audio-visual archivist and preservationist I hope to become part of the larger community of like-minded professionals who speak of and save home movies.
     Well, to keep costs down, preliminary work would be done on the phone. This will also be an easy way for others who want to get involved in such a project, to do so. Since I live in Nassau County on Long Island, I will begin there and begin with historic houses throughout Nassau County, which there are many, almost one for every town.  Sixty-three cities, towns and, villages make up Nassau County.  Almost each one has a library, multiple schools and historic houses that work towards preserving local histories.
     Having worked with my local historical society in Malverne, NY and a couple others in the recent past, this is the where we will start. The Malverne Historical and Preservation Society, for the past year, has shown interest in hosting an event using home movies found within the town. I have suggested that, to do this, we could use the local television station to reach out to local people and communicate the idea that home movies are important and relevant to not just the families who originally shot them. With enough home movies, we could program an event to show the development of Malverne over time. This could serve as an example of what can be done in any town with their home movies and could inspire others to reach into their closets, attics, and garages, dig up their home movies and allow them to part of this project.
     In the fall of 2015, I performed a collection assessment for my local television station of their tapes and found a box of VHS tapes of home movies. They broadcast them occasionally. These are films that have been reformatted to VHS by the families that owned them and it is no longer clear who gave the station these reformatted VHS tapes.  A quick search revealed that a film collection at Northeast Historic Film houses some other home movies from Malverne in the 1930s. 
     The first Wednesday of every month, Malverne holds a board meeting that the television station broadcasts live to discuss issues and the goings-on in the town.  During this meeting, there is a segment where anyone who wants to address the board can ask them questions, speak to the camera and address those who are watching.  Here I could make a plea for the opportunity to inspect and exhibit their home movies at an event at the Malverne Historical and Preservation Society sometime in the future.  I will also ask if those who have donated VHS tapes in the past if they still have the film.  I would love to use these home movies but the VHS tapes and DVDs I have seen are poor presentations of the material.
     Looking beyond Malverne, we could contact each historic house and library by phone or email.  For the purpose of this project, when discussing film materials, the term “moving image” will not be used in conversation.  Too often, I receive confused looks when I refer to film and video as moving image material. Below are some questions that could be asked of these places in an email, over the phone or in person:

  • How large are your holdings?
  • How is your material handled and stored?
  • Do you have any home movies on film or home movies that are now on tape or DVD that were born on film?
  • Are you ever approached by local people who want to give you home movies or film materials?
  • Do you have any film projectors in your holdings?
  • Have you ever had an archivist on staff?
  • Would you be interested in having an audio-visual archivist inspect any films materials?
  • Would you be interested in this project I am working on?
  • Do you know of any other places such as other historic houses or libraries that may have film materials that need inspection?
  • Would you be interested in hosting an event this exhibits home movies and/or orphan films?
  • Would you be willing to work with us to secure funds for the digitization of any home movies or orphan films found in your possession?
  • Would you be willing to provide broader access to these materials once they have been digitized?
     In the summer, after graduation from the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program (MIAP) at NYU, I will work on answering all of the questions raised in this blog post.  In a hypothetical situation where this project is a success, minimally, we would end up re-discovering a few hundred home movies. The films that are in good shape will be exhibited in their original form with both 8mm and 16mm projectors that have been provided by The Malverne Historical and Preservation Society. Projectors that I help maintain and have access to regularly.  We will attempt to secure funding for films that have been inspected and appear to be in poor condition, shrunken, and are unable to be projected. Assuming we are able to project most of the films discovered, we could stumble upon something of importance. Using the example of Edward Feil’s home movie from the World’s Fair, one never knows how valuable a home movie could be.
     I’m already aware of two historic houses that possess home movies of the families that once owned them. These two houses happen to be Gold Coast mansions.  Gold Coast mansions are home located on the north shore of Long Island.  These mansions were built during the 1920s.  It would be interesting to exhibit these home movies in conjunction with each other.  One could witness how different families of affluent background lived at that time. One of the historic houses from my survey mentioned that they possess nitrate film in their holdings.  This project can also serve to connect local institutions that may not necessarily communicate with each other. Long Island, including Brooklyn and Queens, is a highly-populated area with great potential for home movies and orphan films to be re-discovered. Since most historic houses have material that is in need of archiving and preservation but no money for an archivist, I’m hoping the attention that the combination of events and the re-discovery of home movies and orphan films will highlight the need for archivists in not just on Long Island but all over the country. There is special material, both moving image and non-moving image that is waiting to be researched and re-discovered but no one knows what specials thing lay dormant for people to see.  Beginning with a few emails and phone calls, I am optimistic that this can be done with great results within a year or two. I am on a rescue mission so to save local history in the form of home movies and orphan films.

Sources Cited:

     Center for Home Movies. Web. 02 Mar. 2017. <http://www.centerforhomemovies.org/>.

     Ishizuka, Karen L., and Patricia Rodden. Zimmermann. Mining the home movie: excavations in histories and memories. Berkeley: U of California Press, 2008. Print.

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