This Sunday, the BMA will play host to its first Home Movie Day as part of the the Imagining Home Opening Celebration. Dwight Swanson is on the Board of Directors for The Center for Home Movies, and spoke to BMA Museum Educator Jessica Braiterman about his love of home movies.
JB: Why do home movies capture your imagination?
DS: I started falling in love with home movies for two contradictory reasons–first, because of how familiar they are–I could recognize something of myself and my life, or my family’s life, across generations and across cultures, since in a lot of ways people have kind of always been the same no matter where they are from. On the other hand, though, there are moments that completely surprise me, like when a moviemaker comes up with a new way of looking at something, or some event or place that I never would have been able to feel so deeply if someone hadn’t captured it in their camera.
JB: What can they reveal about us, our culture, what we care about?
DS: Some home movies are historically important because they are the best or only documentation of something, and what matters is the content…what is revealed in the frame–the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination is obvious example here, but it could also be of a long-gone building in our neighborhood. More complicated, though, are the little bits of unspectacular, everyday life, and what we can learn by looking at those. One question that I’m interested in is why people choose to film what they do? Sometimes the answer is obvious–people always bring cameras on vacations, because they are seeing something new. People like me who have watched a lot of home movies tend to get most excited about scenes of everyday life in the past (like shopping, or pumping gas) that were not usually filmed. I was taught a long time ago by someone who had been working with home movies for decades, that what I should look for in the films is gestures. These brief moments, maybe a glance, or a movement, may not teach me about history or culture in any broad sense, but they can be really powerful in showing us bursts of humanity across time.
JB: What is one of your favorite moments from a home movie—perhaps one of the best surprises or a deeply poetic moment?
DS: One of the projects I have been working on for several years now is “Home Grown Movies,” which grew out of Home Movie Day, and shows some of the favorite films discovered by the local Home Movie Day hosts at their events. Last year, one of the contributions was a home movie of a family reunion shot on a farm in Illinois in 1930. There are some wonderful scenes of the family at home and at work on the farm, looking a lot like what I’d imagined a Depression-era farm to look like, but what I wasn’t expecting was when the men playing banjo, guitar and fiddle in a string band were suddenly joined by a bobbed-hair girl (one of the family members) dancing the Charleston with a lot of gusto. Its moments like that show me that I need to forget a lot of my assumptions, and remember that people have always had the ability to surprise us.
JB: Tell me a little about your project Amateur Night: Home Movies from American Archives
DS: Amateur Night is a feature length 35mm compilation of home movies and amateur films compiled from 16 film archives. It was developed as a way of highlighting the wonderful work being done by moving image archivists and preservation laboratories to try to capture our history on film. I picked the films that I did to try to show the diversity that home movie show, which is something that they’re not usually given credit for. The movies come from all across American and cover nearly a century of images. They also range from very typical home scenes to elaborately constructed stories. The goal was really to put together a show that would entertain or intrigue any type of audience.
JB: Are there any special moments in the upcoming screening at the BMA that you are really excited about? Can you give us a little teaser?
DS: One of my favorites is an edited film that is a portrait of a woman named Pucky that tells her story through home movies and videos and friends and family talking about her always perfectly-coiffed hairstyles. I’m really happy that films are from as early as the 1920s and as recent as a few months ago. Not all of them were shot in Baltimore, but the ones that were really capture the people of our city.