Home Movies: The Original Reality TV

Audience members view the 16mm film home movie of Maureen Lee, not pictured, during Home Movie Day in Providence, R.I., Saturday, Aug. 4, 2007. Lee, from Providence, didn't know what was on the films, except the weddings of some of her relatives.
AP Photo/Stew Milne
The room darkens as the projector begins to whir and the scenes of strangers in the 1940s begin to appear: a church group wearing their Sunday best, posing before the airplane that will take them to their Irish homeland; a bride resplendent in a white gown and hoop skirt; her bridesmaids not so resplendent in maroon.

It might sound like a torturous way to spend a summer day. But for the amateur-film enthusiasts behind Home Movie Day on Aug. 11, watching these clips provides a fascinating window into the past and an intimate look at the lives of strangers.

"It's like the ultimate reality television," said Katie Trainor, a film archivist in New York who helped found Home Movie Day. "People are curious about how other people lived."

Since the first annual Home Movie Day in 2003, organizers say they've screened close to 2,000 16mm, 8mm, Super-8 and even some 35mm films made by regular folks recording episodes of their lives. The subjects include everything from bouncing babies and stark landscapes to Florida vacations and wedding cakes, and the quality ranges from abysmal to surprisingly professional.

"Many of us have movies in our attics, in our basements, in our little cubbies and closets, that are wonderful historical resources for life in the 20th century," said Karen Eberhart of the Rhode Island Historical Society. Eberhart organizes the Providence event, which was held one week early this year at the historical society.

More than four dozen cities in the United States, Japan, New Zealand and the Netherlands will host Home Movie Day on Saturday. (A list of sites can be found at www.homemovieday.com.) Screenings are held at film archives, colleges, libraries, movie theaters and the like. In most cases, it's free to participate and open to anyone, although some special events cost a few dollars.

People who want to screen their films are invited to drop them off a few days early, and archivists check them to make sure they're not too delicate to project. Trainor said about 70 percent of the audience brings films to watch, with the remaining 30 percent there to see other people's films.

Most of the people who bring in movies haven't seen them. They may have inherited them or picked them up at a yard sale. Others haven't seen them for decades. It's not easy or cheap to find a working 16mm film projector these days. That's where Home Movie Day comes in.

When the movies are screened, people are sometimes surprised by what they see.

"The first year in New York, a gentleman came in with a Super-8 movie," Trainor said. "He said his mother gave it to him and he had never seen it."

It turned out to be his own bris, a religious circumcision ceremony.

Moments like that can be valuable to historians, many of whom have turned to home movies in recent years as important documentary evidence of how people lived in a certain time and place.

"Why would small children in the pool in the '70s be significant?" said Patricia Zimmermann, a film, video and new-media historian at Ithaca College in New York. "Daily life is significant. Ask any ethnographer."

Organizers of Home Movie Day encourage people to take care of their films properly or to transfer them to DVD, then donate them to film archives or local historical societies.

While amateur films are the focus, it's not just amateurs who make home movies. This year, the Academy Film Archive, the archive of the same group that runs the Oscars, will show home movies by Hollywood legends including director Alfred Hitchcock and movie stars Esther Williams and Steve McQueen. The Austin Film Festival will screen films made by prominent local filmmakers when they were young.

At Rhode Island's event this year, there was some trepidation among audience members as the screening began.

"This is painful to watch," Donna Fishbein whispered to her friend as banal images of 1960s family life flashed on the screen.

But the films gradually got more personal, and those who brought them in started filling in the blanks of who's who on screen. People started to recognize streets and churches. They yelled out dialogue, guessing what people might be saying to each other in the silent films. Audience members asked each other questions about who took the footage and why.

A few hours later, Fishbein gave her assessment. She could have done without the lower-quality films. But she said others were a pleasure to watch, and it was fascinating to see people in the 1920s walking around and doing things not that different from how we do things today.

"I was actually surprisingly engaged," said Fishbein, 52, of Santa Fe, N.M., who was visiting an old friend for the day. "They each are so different in what they bring to you."