Founded by the Center for Home Movies in 2002, Home Movie Day is a global event held every October where people gather to screen their home movies and learn how to preserve them. The event is an effective way of raising personal archiving awareness because it presents examples of obsolescence that everyone can understand. I mean, when was the last time you watched your home movies with your family? Whether it’s because you don’t have the playback equipment or you can’t afford shipping them to a digitization vendor, there’s probably footage you haven’t seen in decades.
Home Movie Day is also a fantastic chance to showcase how cultural artifacts can create synergies across time and communities. We think we’re all so different, but how many us have a home movie of opening Christmas presents in our PJs? At this event, you could even experience what Christmas was like in 1945 right next to the woman who lived it! It’s personal and historical and awesome, and I wanted to do it.
This city has had several Home Movie Days – in 2006 it was at the Library of Congress, and for the past few years it was held at the National Building Museum. I wanted DC Public Libraries to host it in 2015, and apparently so did the talented AV archives staff at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. But NBD! Home Movie Day is great for collaborating!
It was a perfect partnership- Walter Forsberg and his staff had the experience (they’ve hosted HMDs in NYC in the past), the expertise, and the equipment, and DCPL could provide the venue and assist with community outreach. I also reached out to Jared Earley of playbackthetape, who hosts a monthly free VHS screening in neighborhoods around the city. After going to one of these screenings in Petworth, I saw that Jared was a thoughtful video advocate who really understood the potential that the medium has in bringing communities together over a shared cultural history. Many of these screened videos were recorded by donors from television, and when a commercial for Nesquick comes on and the people start talking about how they haven’t had it in years, or they finds themselves singing along to the jingle for Power Wheels (pow pow powerwheels….), that delightful, buzzy feeling of a collective unconscious happens that I hoped would also appear at Home Movie Day (it did).
The first thing we had to do was secure a venue and date. We needed someplace really dark for the film projectors, and a date that didn’t conflict with any of the partners’ commitments. We ended up securing Saturday, Oct. 24th (which we learned later is Global Super8 Day- not planned but awesome) in Southwest Neighborhood Library’s basement.
For those of you reading this that aren’t familiar with DC, having the venue in Southwest also speaks to the importance of preserving local amateur films as cultural records. After the Civil War, the neighborhood was settled by European immigrants and freed blacks. In the 1950s and 60s, it went through a massive urban renewal, and the majority of the residential blocks were destroyed and replaced by office buildings, federal buildings, and a large freeway that failed to “revitalize” the area. We even later discovered that on the same day as our event, a meeting was called about the renovation of Greenleaf, a nearby public housing complex, because residents were worried that they would not be able to afford to return. As an archivist, urging members of threatened communities to preserve stories from their own perspectives is an ethical imperative, and although I don’t know how many of the people that came to Home Movie Day were from the neighborhood, I’m hoping that we were able to make some impact either as a community event or by helping SW neighbors to preserve their films.
After the date and venue was settled, we started on the other necessary event criteria: home movie formats we were taking, publicity copy, outreach targets, equipment, a hashtag, volunteers, and ringer movies we could provide so that we had enough material to last throughout the event if submissions were sparse.
Out of all of these, outreach was the most time consuming for me. I posted on listservs, gave presentations to DCPL’s Federation of Friends and Adult Services working group, handed out flyers at community centers and various library branches, advertised on Twitter and Facebook, emailed community organizations I thought might be interested, and gave a radio interview. The most effective strategy was getting in the newspaper. The Washington Post’s metro paper the Express did a half page write-up about the event, as did CityPaper.
By the day of, I still had no idea how many people were going to come. There was an understanding amongst event veterans that the turn-out would be pretty low, and by reviewing the DC Home Movie Day field report archives provided by the Center for Home Movies, it seemed the highest turn out was in 2006 with 48 attendees.
Home Movie Day Arrives
In the morning, we organized the flow of guests into different stations. If a guest arrived with a home movie, they would first come to the inspection station, where they would fill out a form with their information, sign a liability waiver, and have their home movies inspected. Films that they wanted to show were placed in a large ziploc bag along with their form and a ticket that was used to track their items. A runner would then take the bag and walk it to the the projectionists, where they would communicate any special preferences or point out the guest’s appearance so they could be called on to narrate.
Because video tapes are so long, we also had a viewing station where guests could view and queue their home movies. This station also came in handy if guests just wanted a private place to watch what they had.
Once inside the theater, a guest could stop at the outreach station, where they could pick up promotional materials and preservation information tip sheets created by Smithsonian staff (one for video and one for film). At the snack station, guests could choose from juice boxes and sealed munchies graciously provided from Whole Foods before taking a seat. (Leftovers were later donated to a DC shelter).
The projection station was apparently the most bangin one any veteran Home Movie volunteer had ever witnessed. Playbackthetape managed and MC’d the videos and DVDs, and Smithsonian staff managed the 8mm, 16mm, and Super8 projectors. Threading the film can be time consuming, so switching between film and video was an effective way of managing the presentation flow…. Unless you’re awesome, and you decide to create an eyegasm of simultaneously running home movies.
This approach was fantastic. Viewers could actually look across time! As my coworker and DCPL Special Collections Manager Kerrie Williams said to me, you began to see influences that you would never have expected.
How it went
With 35 people in the room at all times for the entire 5 1/2 hour run, we estimate about 100 people in attendance including around 15 volunteers. We were hit with several guests right at the start of film drop-off, and we had to play catch-up a bit as we ironed out our workflow. At this awkward beginning stage the ringers were a godsend.
Looking back we were very lucky. The majority of attendees were there to watch, and those who wanted to show their film had amazing material and were eager to narrate. The projectionists did an excellent job of asking questions – “Is that picnic table still there?” “Who is this we’re seeing?” “Tell us more about growing up in Illinois” etc. – and I would recommend this as those seeing their home movies for the first time in years may glaze over or become very emotional.
People brought every format we could play (see our flier above), and some we couldn’t. Some guests misunderstood our capabilities and thought that we could digitize their home movies at the event itself. Almost everyone was initially surprised to learn that it was important to save their film even after it was digitized, but upon seeing their formats projected live alongside digitized formats, the differences were easily recognizable.
Our event was long, and it helps to have injections of activities or change. Running the quadruple screening was one such injection, as was the bingo game (provided for free by The Center for Home Movies). High-interest ringers such as footage of the Selma march provided by NMAAHC or a 90s news report showcasing the stinkiest sneaker in the US from playbackthetape also helped break up the day for those die-hard fans that stay for the full event.
Those that brought in their home movies were fantastic and really made the event a success with their enthusiastic narrations.
It was also nice when members of the audience get curious about all of the whirring machines.
Never an event without surprises, the last film shown was an 8mm brought in by David who couldn’t remember what was on it. Shockingly, the first scene opened on his grandfather’s wake and a view of the deceased. Projectionist Jasmyn Castro handled the situation perfectly by covering the projector lens as a method of “fast-forwarding” and all was well.
I know this was a lengthy post, but I wanted to give you an in-depth look at the event in case you wanted to host it yourself. It’s a lot of work, but completely worth it, and we had MANY attendees ask when we were doing it again.
For more pictures and event coverage, search #homemoviedaydc on twitter!