Cameras are more widely available than they have ever been. There are estimates that 10 percent of all of the photographs ever taken were shot in the last year. 16mm and Super 8 may not have been as clean-looking or as professional as the 35mm film used in feature films, but it was cheap and easy to use, and it worked well enough for non-professionals to capture and share family moments.
Cheaply manufactured film stocks, however, don’t last forever, and amateurs aren’t always the best preservationists. Compared to today’s trends in obsessive self-documentation, old home movies aren’t as common, and as the films age and deteriorate (or get lost or thrown away), the images of our past are in danger of being lost; eclipsed by an avalanche of images from the present.
In 2002, an international group of archivists founded Home Movie Day, an annual event in which communities around the world gather to watch old amateur films, often from the home collections of locals. Now celebrating its 10th Anniversary, Home Movie Day will take place simultaneously in hundreds of cities and 21 countries around the world.
Since 2011, the Charlottesville chapter of Home Movie Day has been organized by Steven Villereal, who came to Charlottesville in 2009 to work as the audio-visual conservator for the UVA Library’s Preservation Services Department. He hosted last year’s Home Movie Day in the University’s Special Collections Library, and showed several films he had recently restored for the collection—including the Feil family films, the work of a Charlottesville resident who was a Kodak employee in the 1930s and ’40s. The Feil collection includes rare and priceless color footage of Downtown Charlottesville and University Grounds from the 1930s, including breathtaking aerial photography shot from a biplane taking off from Pantops.
Villereal will co-host the day with Piedmont Council for the Arts at CitySpace on the Downtown Mall. While there is great footage lined up—including some Kodachrome shot in L.A. in the ’60s, and some footage from as recently as a year ago—attendees are encouraged to bring in their own reels for inclusion in the program. Trained film archivists will check the prints to make sure they can safely be shown. “It’s a terrible idea, if people have old films, to just throw them on a projector,” Villereal said. “There’s an impulse to want to see what’s on there, but a projector is the best way to damage an old piece of film.”
Villereal, along with employees of the Library of Congress’ preservation depart- ment, will operate an inspection station to check and repair the prints. “It’s very difficult to do on your own,” he explained. “We’ll clean the films slightly, and check them for edge damages, and make sure, if there are splices, that the splices are strong, so we can repair the ones that aren’t. It’s great to have it sponsored by the Library, because it raises awareness about preservation issues.”
Not all home movie footage is interesting or historically valuable. The common clichés about home movies—family pets, babies walking in backyards, college graduations, children’s birthdays—are often present, and are essentially the mid-20th century equivalent of cute cat blogs and Instagrams of lunch. But those images can be more interesting than one might expect, especially as incidental facts of the films—rotary phones, beehive hairdos, old station wagons—become documents of a bygone era. “You might think you know what home movies are about—they both meet all of the generic conventions, but also wildly exceed them in interesting ways,” said Villereal. “Content-wise, it’s amazing stuff that you’re just not going to see anywhere else.”
“The best part of the screening is the interaction between members of the audience,” said Sarah Lawson, executive director of PCA. “Since most of the films are silent, it opens up the possibility for people to discuss what’s going on, yell out the names of places they recognize, or ask questions to the room. It’s much more participatory and fun than a normal film screening. It’s also a great way to learn more about film and see it projected live, which is a relatively rare experience for most people nowadays.”
Home Movie Day takes place at CitySpace, 100 Fifth St. NE, at 5pm on Saturday, October 20. The event is free. Anyone wishing to bring film for the screening is invited to drop it off at CitySpace between 12:30 and 4:30pm, or they can contact Steven Villereal in advance by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.