Remembering and Re-inventing our Past - the use of home movies in recent Canadian avant-garde film
Before the home video revolution of the nineteen eighties, thousands of middle class North Americans documented every birthday, wedding and vacation with 8mm or super-8 film. The brevity of these celluloid home movies, as compared to the hours of material frequently collected onto home video, helped to maintain the novelty of this form. For three minutes, all spectators would glue their eyes to the screen. Hand held, silent images were shown repeatedly to visitors and children until the distinction between the original event and the document became blurred. As many households stopped making this type of home movies in favour of video, the process of screening film began being perceived as troublesome and the rolls of film were often forgotten in the back of closets. Now these films of the 50s, 60s and 70s are being dusted off and are finding a second life in the hands of a new generation of avant-garde filmmakers in Canada.
The history of Canadian avant-garde film which leads up to this proliferation of home movie use is not completely evident. During the late sixties up until the mid eighties, the popular style of avant-garde filmmaking in Canada had been formalistic minimal/structural film. Highly influential films by Michael Snow, Bruce Elder or Al Razutis highlighted the presence of the film form with a distinct absence of content. However, as the eighties came to a close, the government grants necessary to complete these sixty to six hundred minute long works began to dry up. The budgets of many of the granting agencies became frozen or were not keeping up with the rate of inflation, meaning that they would be supplying less spending power to the artists they fund. However, this in itself cannot fully explain the rapid reduction of the production and exhibition of structural film during the nineties.
Most arts grants in Canada are assessed by a jury of ones peers. As such, the projects funded are reflecting the concerns of the current art community. With much economic hardship beginning in the late eighties, artists were beginning to feel the pressure to justify to the general public what they were spending money on. Structural film, which flew in the face of all conventions, was perceived as extremely self-indulgent. The audiences for these films had been shrinking to an elite core. If the public money to the arts needed to serve the public, then funding of projects which the public did not want to see became increasingly difficult. Artists seeking funding needed to be screening regularly at festivals or at other public arenas to allow the arts juries to declare one or the next to be a "legitimate" film artist. This removed the onus from the jury to justify its decisions.
There are no Canadian film festivals which are solely committed to experimental or avant-garde film. The presence of avant-garde films in festivals became contingent on passing the test of an often mixed jury whose backgrounds might be weighted towards traditional dramatic or documentary filmmaking. Therefore, films which contain radical content with a more familiar form would succeed over those with radical form and no content. Presence in festivals and other programmed events would bode favourably when the granting hat was passed around.
The films being made under these new attitudes often emphasised the politics of race and gender. Films made by and for first nations people, immigrants, homosexuals and political exiles would be honoured and welcomed. In films such as Brenda Joy Lem's Open Letter: Grasp the Bird's Tail (15 minutes, 1992) and Francisca Duran's Cuentos De Mi Niñez (Tales From My Childhood) (9 minutes, 1991) filmmakers exercised their voices which had for too long been silenced. Long ahead of North American mainstream film in these attitudes, Canadian avant-garde film grew and evolved to accept these new film styles. The approach most often taken was through the use of a straight forward voice-over. The image stood only as a metaphor underlying the sentiments spoken by the filmmaker or his/her representative. Landscapes, silent faces, and found images were commonly shot and shown in these films.
Many avant-garde filmmakers began embracing this approach. The voice over soundtrack became a cheap and effective medium through which a filmmaker could express views beyond those by the marginalized people mentioned above. Issues about modern culture, the environment and politics became common (again). Most interesting were films in which the filmmaker used the medium to tell a story about his or her family or personal history. Following in their footsteps, these films often took on the same form as the more social films above. The images of landscapes and people or found images were combined with a [first person, singular viewpoint] voice over, turning the personal into the political.
In some films such as Tracy German's ...I Smiled Too (3 minutes, 1994) and Inarya (10 minutes, 1994) or my own GerFilm II (2 minutes, 1991), the landscape which was once home is returned to and recaptured on 16mm as it is re-explored. Other filmmakers re-constructed scenarios in which an event took place. In Kika Thorne's Discovery of Canada (7 minutes, 1991-1996) Thorne's voice-over tells us her story about being in bed, in the dark, with a sleeping man whom she is terrified of. The images, reproduced from super-8, are a nervous studying of a nude man on a bed. Through the limited viewpoint of the camera, the male body is turned into a foreboding landscape.
However, in films such as those by Marian McMahon and Lisa Fitzgibbons, the world of the past is not physically returned to at all but is visited in the form of old home movies. As I will discuss, numerous filmmakers have taken home movies from their own past and reproduced them one frame at a time onto 16mm film with the use [usually] of an optical printer. This device allows some manipulation of the image to occur. It also will allow the editing of home movies without the need to cut into the original footage. In most cases, the home movies that a filmmaker uses had been shot by his or her own family for the same reasons that most home movies are made - as documents of special places and events.
In Nursing History (10 minutes, 1989) by Marian McMahon the filmmaker conducts a study of her mother's life, based upon the events captured on film. Central to this film is 8mm footage of her mother's marriage to her father and her own graduation from nursing school. The interesting thing this filmmaker does is to frequently pause the film so that we can look at a single frame for a period of time. She also uses the optical printer to zoom in and out of some images so that our attention can be focused on one specific detail. Although this may seem like an extreme manipulation of the original footage, it is not. In their original form, these home movies would have been run multiple times, with someone in the room usually narrating and pointing out details. McMahon grew up watching these films and would have edited the film in her head. Memory is not so linear as we might want to believe. A small moment in a film may be so important to us that it encompasses our entire memory of that film, even immediately after viewing it. Furthermore, even though our eyes may not have the ability to physically zoom in like a lens does, the zoom is the only device which comes close to simulating the mind's ability to concentrate its attention to a small portion of the larger image we may see. Therefore, on that level, McMahon is manipulating parts of these home movies in an effort to give us the same viewing experience she gets of these films.
Lisa Fitzgibbons's Domestic Sciences (9 minutes, 1993) uses even more manipulation to present us the home movies from her childhood. By printing different 8mm films onto the same piece of 16mm film (again with the use of the optical printer) she created a densely superimposed film in which images are constantly colliding and blurring into each other with only occasional glimpses of clarity. In this way, Fitzgibbons is not presenting the films the way she sees them but rather the way she remembers them. With this film, we are given a person's past without signposts, without the guiding voice to tell us what is important and what is not. The past is an immense and confusing place where one can easily become lost.
While further expanding upon the notion of the document replacing the memory, Gary Popovich created Archaeology of Memory (13 minutes, 1993). It is filled with images from Popovich's childhood, in particular images on the beach with his mother, fishing with his dad, at a birthday, a wedding and a new years eve party. From out of the mire of silver oxide, made apparent by the hand processing of much of the 16mm film, a flickering image of the beach emerges. Rephotographed from the movie screen, these images make the spectator keenly aware of the rhythm and the process of watching home movies. As the film progresses, the images grow more rapid, compressing the filmmaker's life into the time it might take to drown. One must pose the question, are these events, the vacations, the celebrations, the only events we wish to remember?
Mark Wihak mixes his childhood vacation movies with new footage of the same places as they stand today in his 1995 film (stories from) The Land of Caine (25 minutes). With this approach, Wihak tries to come to grips with the changes and the discrepancies between memory (enhanced on the repeated viewing of the home movie) and the reality. Most illuminating is the contrast between the vacation film of the Expo '67 site in Montreal against new footage of the same, now dilapidated site in the mid-nineties. In an effort to respect the role and integrity of the original footage, all of the reproduced 8mm films are presented silently. The dichotomy between silence and sound, old and new, past and present is very strong. However, Wihak's highly subjective camerawork in which he often moves the camera very fast and even spins it rapidly in circles, prevents us from ever interpreting the past as mere memory and the present as reality. Clearly all viewpoints are subjective samples of one particular moment, unrepeatable.
In Sammy (3 minutes, 1991) Louise Lebeau pays homage to her late dog by constructing a film out of pieces of home movies she had taken of him over the years. The reproduction onto 16mm allowed this filmmaker to dwell on the scant footage she found herself with. By looping the film clips over and over again, she could share her memories and her grief over the dog's death with others so that they might know how special the love of a pet can be. Rather than exploring issues of memory, this film is a visual poem, weaving the images into an ode to Sammy. Meanwhile, the voice over returns to the process of spectatorship of home movies as the filmmaker's voice is heard talking to and about the screen as if narrating it to another spectator sitting in the same room. Casual lines such as "There he is! Look at him. Hi Guy!" force us to imagine the filmmaker/narrator sitting transfixed on a couch, transfixed by the flickering image on the silver screen.
Annette Mangaard's Let Me Wrap My Arms Around You (28 minutes, 1992) begins as a traditional dramatic film about two women talking about their past over a cup of tea. However, one central flashback scene is entirely constructed out of home movies shot some years earlier at a village outpost in the far north of Canada. This footage, reproduced from super-8, was straight forward film of people living their lives. Everyone is aware of the camera, but are also clearly familiar with the person behind the camera. Some wave and smile while others are more uncomfortable. Thus, the film seems undeniably a legitimate home movie style document of a northern community. The character in the dramatic film within which the super-8 is contained narrates over the old footage, telling her friend (and we the spectators) about her experiences at this outpost. By using this sparse diary film style, we come to believe that the entire dramatic film is really just a device to tell a highly personal true story about falling out of love, feeling trapped, stressed and eventually getting sick in this remote community. However, it is not until the very end of the film that a title card reveals that although the filmmaker did go north in 1981, the stories told about those people and events are entirely fictitious.
By removing the traditional dramatic structure from this sequence, filmmaker Mangaard has led her viewers to believe they are listening to a film such as those which are made by the avant-garde filmmakers, films which are meant to exercise a voice which yearns to tell the deepest of secrets. Furthermore, the use of the home movie grants a legitimacy to the sequence. Its images are powerfully codified due to the nature of the actions of the people within it. Actors can rarely seem so true to life, so nervous and camera-shy or so gregarious and vain as those non-actors who are captured by the amateur. Once we as spectators have accepted that the home movie is "true", then we are quick to accept that the narration over top of it is also honest. Naturally, the insight about the fictitious nature of this film is quite distressing to one who delights in avant-garde genre. It is not that amateur movies have not been frequently used to tell outrageous stories, but usually only when that fiction was intended from the onset with each person on screen being aware of their role. By adding a false narrative to this footage a decade after it was shot, Mangaard is denying the real stories that must have taken place that year in the Canadian tundra. Everybody has a story they want to tell, but this footage can no longer be the venue through which those tales will become known.
Why a filmmaker may chooses to integrate old home/vacation movies into an avant-garde film will vary in each instance. However, some patterns do arise.
Home movies contain images which are powerfully codified to the filmmakers who see their younger selves within them. Films which make use of home movies give the filmmaker two layers of highly personal memory-based material (image and words) with which to convey their sentiments and nostalgia about their personal or family history. This could be pride and longing, this could be shame and regret. The experience of displaying your past to the public can be a way of moving beyond your past, to stop believing in that perfect day on the beach or that moment of vulnerability and to start living in the present.
A filmmaker is able to make reference to historical situations while remaining distant from them. The film is a frozen glimpse of the past. Who were we then and who did we think we were? This critical distance will allow some filmmakers, now adults, to come to grips with their childhood and discuss those revelations in the open forum of the screening room. They can lead their audience members to question their own memory. All home movies have a certain familiarity. If you were to watch someone else's childhood over and over again, would it become your childhood? If we had no document of the past, would it be forgotten, would it cease to exist?
Feeling [perhaps misguided] pressure to be vigilantly politically correct, some artists assume that they do not have the ability or the right to critique any person other than themselves. Ones own history is a subject which a filmmaker can discuss as an insider (based upon memory) as well as an outsider (based on a spectator of the home movies). The past is objectified through the lens of the camera. The only person whom you can claim to really understand is yourself. Although this may seem outrageous, various filmmakers study their own roots wishing to discover purpose and identity. Furthermore, it is hoped that by exposing aspects of themselves, they might begin the process of allowing others to understanding them. Through the telling of stories, it becomes evident that there is no static truth, no definitive right or wrong. The world is filled only with opinions and points-of-view.
Through the eighties and nineties, optical printing devices have become more commonly available to be used at economic rates by filmmakers in Canada through many of the film production co-ops. Some inventive filmmakers have embraced this device which, when used well, allows a filmmaker to create a film with a minimum of post production expenses (negative cutting, superimpositions, dissolves, internegatives). In these tough financial times, optical printed films are a clever means of overcoming limitations and continuing to use film as a means of personal expression.
Some filmmakers create new films from home movies simply as a means to preserve and present the footage. Others seek a way to re-invent their past, creating order out of what always seemed like random events. Whatever the reason, these films have an audience appeal due to the familiarity of the imagery. This familiarity, even when highly disrupted by rapid cutting, superimpositions or freeze frames has been helping these films find venues in which they might be programmed. Like a spoonful of sugar, the playful vacation footage acts as a buffer to indoctrinate new audiences into appreciating avant-garde film practices.
The films I encountered and have discussed above contained home movies which were either taken by the filmmaker or by the filmmaker's family. It does not seem to be of interest for filmmakers to use images in which they do not have a personal connection to. However, in a film such as Let Me Wrap My Arms Around You, the amateur footage could just as easily been appropriated from another source. Although I have encountered many diary style films which have used optical printing to create, control and manipulate their images, the number of these films which use old family films as a source is naturally restricted to the existence of those home movies of that persons family. As there is a limited amount of interesting home movies existing in most households, it would be logical to assume that the use of these elements would be limited to one or two films per artist. Furthermore, with the average age of filmmakers entering into the avant-garde practice being early twenties, by the turn of the century few new filmmakers will possess any 8mm film of themselves, due to the decline of super-8 and rise of video in the early nineteen-eighties. Of course, this will mean a drastic rise in the use of home video in personal art video in the years to come, but that will be another chapter.
Most of the films discussed in this paper are available through the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, 37 Hanna Ave., Suite 220, Toronto, ON, Canada, M6K 1W8. Web site: http://www.cfmdc.org
Gerald Saul is an experimental filmmaker, animator and writer based in Western Canada. He recently completed an MFA in film production and film theory at York University in Toronto.
© Gerald Saul 2005