On a recent trip home, I spent a few hours rummaging through my parents' basement. While wading through boxes of old Christmas ornaments, stacks of yellowed Life magazines and bags of old clothing, I came across a rare treasure: a box of Polaroid photos. The pictures captured my parents' early married life, the honeyed eyes and sweet smiles of young love.
There was Mom dressed in a pretty blue sweater and Dad in his work suit and thick-rimmed glasses staring dreamily back at her. With each photo, I discovered an era that I had heard about but never experienced.
As I neared the bottom of the box, a spark of light bounced off a metal film canister lodged under the last pile of photos. I pulled out the canister. In faded black ink its label read: "Joan and Doug's Wedding." I had found the motherlode of memories: the home movie. But I was at a loss for what to do with it. I had no projector to screen the film, and I certainly didn't have the money to purchase one. So I left the film in the box. And there it sits, waiting to escape.
My scenario is familiar. Many people discover old home movies stuffed away in their attics and basements, but with no way to view the film, become discouraged. The valuable artifact is often ignored or discarded, tossed in an old cardboard box or chucked into the trash. (A 12-minute, black-and-white film of the wedding between famed boxer Jose Torres and his wife, Ramona, was found inside a movie projector lying on a New York City curb. After screening at New York's Home Movie Day, it was later returned to them.) Some home movies are even hocked at yard sales or flea markets.
This is a tragedy, says Marsha Orgeron, program director of North Carolina State University's film department. "People don't recognize the intrinsic value of their own home movies," she says. "They are not only connections to your family's past, they are a direct link to our past. To throw them away is to throw away a bit of history."
The importance of home movies as a living document inspired Orgeron and her husband, Devin, a fellow NCSU film professor, and Skip Elsheimer, owner of the traveling film archive AV Geeks, to sponsor an annual Home Movie Day in Raleigh. This event is part of a larger movement, annual Home Movie Day, launched in 2002 by members of the Association of Moving Pictures Archivists who wanted to educate the public about the value and preservation of home movies. Home Movie Day is celebrated nationally and globally as people from Buenos Aires to Berlin, Baltimore to Blacksburg pull out reels of 8 mm, 16 mm and 35 mm film to publicly share their histories.
The Triangle's first Home Movie Day happened in 2003 at Duke University's Perkins Library. After the screenings ended, the Orgerons and Elsheimer felt determined to host a similar event in Raleigh.
"There's a lot of laughter at Home Movie Day," Orgeron says. "Catching a glimpse of someone's mom clowning around on film or dad playing a practical joke is not only nostalgic, it's humorous and light-hearted. There's something magical about the way film captures the idea of a person, in the way that photography can't."
In addition to a few rounds of Home Movie Day bingo and music, courtesy of a DJ who spins tunes while the flicks roll, there's an important educational aspect to the event. People can bring their old films for inspection (with a guaranteed sniff for the vinegary smell of celluloid deteriorating) and a mini-lesson on proper film storage. Elsheimer, who stores more than 18,000 films, says they must be kept cool and dry; yet, most home movies are stored in damp basements or sweltering attics.
Home Movie Day connects community and family, and also appeals to a voyeuristic society entranced by gotcha YouTube postings and videos captured by cell phone. Traditional home movies have also found a home on the internet (homemoviedepot.com), and technology now allows people to digitally place themselves into their family flicks—a mash-up of past and present.
These amateur films are indeed more than quaint ephemera, says Orgeron. They have historical and cultural significance that deserve attention and preservation: "We saw a way to educate the community and really show people how important these old movies are."
Home Movie Day Raleigh will take place 1-4 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 11, in G107 Caldwell on the NCSU Campus, located on Hillsborough Street across from Bruegger's Bagels.