Saturday, October 6, 2012

Home Movie Magic: A Q&A with AMATEUR NIGHT Director Dwight Swanson

By Devin Wachs, BMFI Public Relations Manager

On Tuesday, October 9, Bryn Mawr Film Institute celebrates amateur filmmaking with a special screening of Amateur Night: Home Movies from American Archives, the new film by accomplished archivist and Home Movie Day co-founder Dwight Swanson, who will answer questions following the screening. This feature-length compilation features home movies by Alfred Hitchcock, the Nixon family, and the “Average Joe”, as well as amateur recordings chronicling historic moments, like the testing of an atomic bomb, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and The Last Great Gathering of the Sioux Nation. The screening, which is free for BMFI members, is presented in conjunction with Home Movie Day's 10th anniversary.

Our theater manager Alexis Mayer interviewed Dwight Swanson via email. Keep reading to learn more about the origins of Amateur Night and what you can do to protect your own home movies.
How did Amateur Night come about? How did you choose which films to include?

The genesis of Amateur Night came at a meeting of the Association of Moving Image Archivists' amateur film committee. We were a group of archivists who were working with home movies, and while excited about the preservation projects we were undertaking, largely with the support of the National Film Preservation Foundation, we were frustrated that the fact that so many of them were going unseen. There just wasn't a history of doing public screenings of home movies and amateur films, and the filmmakers that used them were mostly using short clips rather than showing the films in their entirety.

"Our Day" by Wallace Kelly is a 1938 day-in-the-life portrait of the Kelly family of Lebanon, Kentucky.
Featured in Amateur Night courtesy of Martha Kelly and the Center for Home Movies.

At the time, and still today, we felt like we were battling with a lot of preconceptions about home movies, and so felt that instead of just getting on our soapboxes and giving lectures about the importance of home movies as cultural and aesthetic documents we would just give audiences something to watch. We came up with the idea of putting together a program that would spotlight some of the amazing films that archives around the country were collecting and preserving, so that we could give people a hint of the history of amateur filmmaking and show why we love the movies so much.

Where can people go to see more of these films?

Amateur Night will eventually have a video release, but a few of the individual films are available now. The Chicago Film Archives has included "Fairy Princess" and several other films by Margaret Conneely on their YouTube channel. "Nixon in Idaho Falls" is also on YouTube and it will be included in the forthcoming feature documentary Our Nixon. Wallace Kelly's "Our Day", the final film in Amateur Night, is available online with the new score by musician Rachel Grimes. Rachel re-recorded the score with a chamber orchestra and is selling it as a standalone DVD.

Amateur Night was preceded by a similar DVD project that the Center for Home Movies produced in 2007. Living Room Cinema: Films From Home Movie Day includes twenty-two home movies and amateur films that had been shown during the first two years of Home Movie Day events.

The archives who contributed the films to Amateur Night are also an excellent source for home movies, both in the archives and on their websites, as more and more films get digitized. And finally, we are still finding that some of the best home movies are still sitting in drawers and basements in the filmmakers houses (or the houses of the filmmakers' kids).

What should people do with their own home movies?

The best thing that can be done to extend the lifespans of the reels themselves is keep an eye on their storage conditions, and to keep them as cool and dry as possible. Also, make sure that they are identified in some way, so if they are discovered years from now people will know what is on them and will be less likely to discard them. Getting films transferred to video will make it much easier to view them and share them with friends and family. If you don't have a projector of your own or want to talk to preservation professionals, you should bring them to Home Movie Day on October 20th. It will take place in cities around the world, including at PhillyCAM in downtown Philadelphia.
Thank you, Dwight! You can ask him questions of your own after Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s screening of Amateur Night.

Dwight Swanson co-founded Home Movie Day and the Center for Home Movies. He received his M.A. in American Studies from the University of Maryland and graduated from the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at the George Eastman House. He has worked as an archivist at the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association, Appalshop, and Northeast Historic Film, has written and lectured extensively on amateur film and home movies, and is a past member of the National Film Preservation Board.

Devin Wachs is the Public Relations Manager for Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She joined BMFI in 2005, following her graduation from Bryn Mawr College. If you send BMFI a message on Facebook or Twitter or are interested in onscreen sponsorships, she's the one who'll be in touch!

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