Private Pasts and Future Publics

Curator's Note

Recent decades have seen an increased interest in preserving and presenting home movies in a variety of settings, ranging from state historical societies and grassroots libraries to national archives and organized events such as Home Movie Day. The rally to preserve and present home movies has taken an array of forms, including those institutional, personal, and creative. Whatever approach may be taken, the various processes involved in preserving and presenting home movies necessarily affects the histories that may be created out of them. In turn, how are the histories of home movies being employed, and how are these histories affected by the intentions of those utilizing these materials?

Private Century (2005-2007) is a creative take on the repurposing of personal materials. Filmmaker Jan Šikl compiled home movies, family photographs, letters, diaries, and personal stories of Czech families from the 1920s through the 1960s and constructed these materials into an eight-part series for Czech television. What he creates is an intimate view into the lives of those on screen, processing twentieth century Czech history through the images and voices of individuals who experienced it. This clip from the episode “A Low-Level Flight” is indicative of connections made between private and public histories as the narrator speaks in the first person about both her relationship with her husband and her husband’s military training. Throughout this and the rest of the series, Šikl presents home movies both as personal experiences and illustrations of broader historical moments during a tumultuous time in Czech history.

Examples such as Private Century raise questions about the histories that may be told through home movies and the intentions of those constructing these histories. Whether or not decisions in preservation or presentation are explicitly or implicitly motivated through the ideologies or politics of those responsible, what are the further implications of narrativizing or mobilizing particular histories through home movies? Is the focus on content or context? In other words, what are the politics of recycling old media in new ways? Selecting particular home movies for preservation or presentation necessarily excludes others, and if home movies are emblematic of histories from unique perspectives, which of the countless home movies from private individuals should become a part of broader public discourses? And in turn, whose history is it?


Daniel, Thanks for raising the issue of the ideological work that goes into, often unacknowledged, the repurposing of home movies into new films, into archival objects, and into a form of visual history from below. It's all too easy to assume that since home movies aren't the "official" or "state" history that they are automatically a form of authentic history of the average citizen. And while home movies might be less explicitly manipulated than a newsreel or documentary, it would be a mistake to not be aware of the social norms that are being enacted and sustained in home movies. That being said, do have an opinion on the questions you raise? How should scholars and archivists address this issue of selection? How do we make sure that the history of the everyday that we are using home movies to recreate is not just one specific people's experience of daily life?

Andy, thanks for your comments and questions on these issues. I think many of these questions may be addressed by exploring the relationship between provenance and representation. If home movies are to be used as "visible evidence" of the everyday, I think it's important to first recognize that home movies, in their inception, do not always literally present the "everyday." Your point about home movies being "less explicitly manipulated" is great to consider in regard to the original contexts of the movies. Add on top of this, the recycling of these movies into archived collections or new media works, and the relationship between provenance and representation becomes all the more complicated since they may be serving new purposes which could be altogether different from the original contexts of production. Are the home movies selected truly "representative" of the everyday on a larger scale? Do the curators/filmmakers/scholars/etc. have the goal of making these films representative, or, is it the context of their selection that necessarily positions them on a representative scale? For example, if we are looking at the home movies selected for the National Film Registry, the mere fact that they are a part of a nationally "sanctified" collection should encourage debate about how nationally representative they may be. The home movies on the Registry have presented excellent examples of making some more marginalized histories better known, such as those seen in Topaz, but most of the histories from the home movies of the Registry are more extraordinary than they are ordinary. This is beneficial in mobilizing key US histories, but then why not expand this even further and build an even more dynamic and inclusive moving image history? I think it is important for scholars and archivists working with these materials to engage with these questions and the potential consequences their work may bring. Home movies may certainly act as fulfilling pieces of larger histories, yet how those histories are framed or constructed may also affect how the home movies, themselves, may be further understood or contextualized.

I found Private Century beautiful and thought-provoking, not to mention an interesting contrast to Alan Berliner's 1986 collage film, Family Album. I looked at both of them in quick succession recently, having assigned them for a course on "home movies as history," and was glad I had. In both examples, the source footage lends a distinct veneer of nostalgia, of historicity--but Berliner deploys it (along with a patchwork of what he calls "authentic family audio recordings," although the meaning of authenticity in this context is not clear--and as Andy hints in his comment, a viewer's assumption of, or home movies' implication of, authenticity is a manipulable quality) in a universalist essay on human life cycles. I certainly found Sikl's work to be much more specific, and much more evocative of a particular time and place, not to mention particular (and personally identified) individuals--but as a viewer, I recall being keenly suspicious of its cohesiveness, continuity, and lack of fragmentation and lacunae. They tended to make me wonder how much of it really was authentic, and how much had been manipulated...or whether Sikl had really just hit on a mother lode of home movie material that presented a pretty complete picture, and his masterful editing just filled the minor cracks. I kept looking for evidence that the source material was actually from several different families (who happened to be similar in appearance, class, composition, etc.), which was a bit distracting. Berliner's work is quite discernibly a collage of different visual and audio source material, and presents a narrative that's kaleidoscopic, but still linear. These images and voices were easier for me to take at face value in this context--some faces and features recurred, but I was more comfortable watching the whole and not trying to pick apart the components here. In many ways these two projects are emblematic of how differently home movies have been/are being approached as objects of study, as raw material for derivative works, or as sources of data. My personal feeling is that the apparent guilelessness of home movies or amateur footage can be really deceptive, and that's something not every viewer is alert to. I think the brouhaha in 2006 over the use of re-enactments in documentaries speaks to that point--and the debate about using fake footage in docs continues--what we really still lack is a consensus view on the politics of home movie re-use. We might need to have a good down-and-dirty, between-public-intellectuals fight about that one of these days!

Snowden, thanks for your points about Private Century and Family Album. These are both very interesting (and different) examples of how home movies may be utilized in new and purposeful ways. I think your comments point to many issues regarding aesthetics of home movies. I agree that authenticity is a very contentious and manipulatable quality, and it seems that the use of home movies in these examples serves as a means to present a level of purported authenticity in narrative. Šikl discusses the process of making Private Century at a screening series at the Museum of Modern Art. He notes that this project began when he started collecting films in the early 1990s, yet had no particular intent when initially collecting. This changed as his collection grew and he eventually reached out to some of the families from which the footage came. I think it is a combination of both keen editing and a large collection of materials to build from that enabled Šikl to create such a seamless narrative. The narrativizing of home movies in these cases raises issues not unlike concerns over re-enactments in documentaries or fake footage. I think these issues of aesthetics and narrative are also similar to the use of home movie "conventions" in feature films to codify a certain experience or nostalgia, as well as the editing of home movies into documentaries to bring a level of "actuality" to the events presented. In any of these instances, I think we need to consider how the reframing of home movies affects popular views of home movies and their purposes. And yes, a broader discussion about the politics of recycling of home movies would be great!

I enjoyed reading these postings. As with all historical texts, reading the subjective narratives of amateur footage needs care. It opens window upon private past moments. They come to us now with the subjectivities of that moment. It does not make them less valid but we simply can’t generalise about the private worlds of the past. Their versions of the past remain private points of view. Their visual details remain partial, incomplete, and inscribed with the perspectives of their maker. Lots of personal variables affected each cine enthusiast’s reputation and identity and how he or she choose, gained access to and dealt with different material. In another’s hands, these visual stories would be different. How people engaged with films in the past is speculative unless we can track down people who may remember watching films long ago (and then we enter another linked realm of remembering and forgetting). But there are aspects of past interpretation we can consider. Take for instance watching locally made amateur films in a community hall. People attended because possibly they knew either the filmmaker or people and places featured in the film. They were possibly pupils or parents of pupils, friends, neighbours or colleagues or in some other way. That relationship influenced how they watched and listened. When amateur footage moves into contemporary public settings, even at local level, viewing is framed differently as those earlier terms of reference no longer exist. Local places and events become alternative connecting threads between past and present. Remembering who was in charge of the cine camera is as important in reading the visual evidence at community level as it is in making sense of those captured by the ethnographic or late colonial cinematic gaze. Even if we can’t recover intentions with certainty we can at least be more awareness of positionality and context. Clearly amateur footage must not be used as a source of undifferentiated archive footage. Just as the family and local historian explore the micro-details of historical experience against a wider backdrop, amateur cine practice includes creative individual acts of cultural curation by self-appointed keepers of visual memories.

I read your entries time ago and I have finally some time to enter the conversation. I am very interested in these topics. In 2007 I published in Spanish (I teach in Spain, in Universidad de Navarra) about the use of home movies in "historical" contemporary documentaries, such as the ones of Péter Forgács. I proposed to see these documentaries as a filmic version of the microhistorical approach used by some contemporary historians. This is also connected with the broader approach of "histories from bellow" and with the sociological studies on everyday life. I just finished a new version in English of these questions, to be published next year hopefully. Besides Forgacs, I included films such as Liner Nahimov (Private Chronicles. A Monologue, Russia, 1999), Mémoire d Outremer (France, 1997); Something Strong Within (USA, 1994); Y in Vyvorg (Finland, 2005), For My Children (Israel) or I for India (UK).

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