Gathering NC home movies for a collection of the past’s oddities

jshaffer@newsobserver.comOctober 12, 2013 

A promotional flier for Home Movie Day, which is produced by N.C. State Archives as an event where forgotten film treasures can be forever preserved.

N.C. STATE ARCHIVES

  • If you go

    Home Movie Day will be held from 1-4 p.m. on Oct. 19 at the N.C. State Archives auditorium at 109 E. Jones St., Raleigh.

— There’s no such thing as a bad home movie.

So said John Waters, a celebrated filmmaker with a love of the campy and bizarre who described these homemade documentaries as “mini-underground opuses … revealing, scary, joyous, always flawed, filled with accidental art.”

With that in mind, Raleigh wants all your dusty masterpieces.

On Oct. 19, the State Archives hosts its annual Home Movie Day, part of a worldwide drive to watch and preserve these nuggets of history decaying in a thousand attics: tricks performed by long-dead dogs; naked toddlers in kiddie pools; prom dresses too puffy to be believed.

Bring them downtown, and Skip Elsheimer of the film preservationist group A/V Geeks will play them on the big screen. He’ll even burn you a new copy on DVD.

“These are little cultural artifacts,” said Elsheimer, a longtime collaborator at Home Movie Day. “They give us an idea of who we were and what we did.”

Now in its 11th year, Home Movie Day has spread to 56 cities worldwide, from Argentina to Japan. Raleigh’s event remains one of the best-attended, at times drawing more than 100 people with their discarded films.

The event takes on new vitality with the equipment for making home movies in nearly everybody’s pocket or purse. Twenty years ago, home movies were the province of grandparents and forced viewings. Now in the world of YouTube, the value of amateur video is clear as a smartphone screen.

“My students immediately get why this stuff is interesting and important,” said Devin Orgeron, director of Film Studies at N.C. State University, who also collects and writes about home movies. Looking at their own, he said, students ask, “What’s going to happen to this when I’m gone?”

A glimpse of Hitler

Elsheimer got involved with home movies after hearing talk at archivists’ conferences describing them as cultural documents without a curator.

“Nobody was actively caring for them or talking about taking care of them, and that was kind of scary,” he said.

In his years of shepherding home movies out of obscurity, Elsheimer has seen:

• A woman bringing in a discarded film showing her parents as professional clowns, dancing and joking with 30 of their rubber-nosed colleagues.

• A man arrive with the movie he picked up at an estate sale that showed strangers’ travels through Europe in the 1930s, in which they bumble into a Hitler rally.

• A fellow unearth the music video he made with his chums in the 1950s, featuring their rendition of “Get A Job,” by The Silhouettes.

Sometimes this material is found after a long time of disuse. Other times it gets inherited. On occasion, it gets discovered during a move. But however it’s found, there’s often no accompanying equipment to view it.

Two years ago, a couple brought in footage of their wedding that they’d never seen. A guest shot it and gave it to them, but they lacked a projector.

Along with projectors, A/V Geeks bring telecines to digitize films. Film can long outlast a VHS tape or DVD, so don’t throw one out.

Magic in the dark

Orgeron’s own collection, and interest, began thanks to such hoarding.

At an estate sale in Washington, D.C., he picked up what he described as “a beat-up old warhorse of a projector” and got a collection of home movies thrown in as a bonus, not thinking to ask any details about the family who starred in them.

“I just liked gadgetry,” he said. “I liked the smell of burning dust.”

But once he watched them, he saw a husband and wife team of world travelers, accompanied by their child and what appeared to be his college chum, traipsing over Thailand and prewar Vietnam. Soon he was hooked on acquiring more home movies.

“If it’s a couple dollars,” he said, “I don’t have anything to lose.”

Donations to the archives are encouraged but not mandatory. It’s helpful to see what Chapel Hill looked like in the 1950s, how a kid celebrated a birthday or how a bread-winning father wore a suit.

“Even though it’s not about a famous person, it still has value,” said Kim Anderson, an archivist for the state. “It’s valuable for reasons other than why it was shot.”

It might not make John Waters salivate, but if you dig your movie out of hibernation, it could make a little magic in the dark.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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