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The Most Direct Filmmaking: Dwight Swanson on Home Movies

By Emily Davis

One man’s trash—or at least his reels of long-unwatched 8mm films—is another man’s treasure. In this case, that man, Dwight Swanson, is deeply passionate about preserving and presenting what he believes to be “perhaps the most direct type of filmmaking”: home movies and amateur film. Swanson’s Home Movie Day combines these dual passions, giving amateurs both a chance to learn about protecting highly unstable old technologies like Super 8 and 16mm film and a venue for watching and sharing home movies. His work has unearthed a range of films—from Butt Shakers (which captures dancing at a 1961 house party) to footage of a 1971 visit to Idaho by Richard Nixon to a moving amateur documentary about a family struggling as they learn to live with a son with Down Syndrome. The cultural value of these films, he tells the Walker’s Emily Davis, is that they can share unexpected moments of intimacy and humanity or views of history that might otherwise be lost. These tales, he adds, can be so honest and bracing due to the simple fact that their intended audiences may have been only a handful of people.

Emily Davis

How did you get interested in home movies and amateur films?

Dwight Swanson

I was a history major in college, studying 20th-century social history while living the life of a cinephile, watching as many films as possible. My first job out of college was cataloging historic photos for a local history museum project in Colorado. It was there that I began to be interested in photography and motion pictures as historical documents, and I started thinking about home movies and how they are perhaps the most direct type of filmmaking.


How did two of your enterprises get their start—Home Movie Day and the Center for Home Movies?


In the late 1990s, there was a small group of very passionate home movie archivists scattered around the country. One problem we saw was that the archives were waiting for people to come in and donate their collections before anyone could see them. We wanted to go out into the communities and meet people there, people who might not be interested in depositing their films in an archive but who still wanted others to see them.

We also sensed—correctly, it turned out—that a lot of families have films but no longer have functioning projectors or equipment, so they often haven’t seen the movies in decades. The idea of Home Movie Day, which held its first events in 2003, was to be able to share preservation information with the public, but also to view home movies in public, which is something that had never really been done before. I call it “home movie appreciation.” One of the most common reactions that people still have is, “Nobody would want to watch my home movies!” But then they’ll show their films to a responsive crowd while at the same time watching and enjoying other families’ films, and people will make some poignant connections.

After running Home Movie Day for a few years without any real structure or budget, we realized we needed to start a nonprofit organization in order to be able to get small grants and donations. While Home Movie Day is still our largest activity, we picked the ambitious name the Center for Home Movies (despite the fact that we still don’t have a brick-and-mortar presence) because we had a lot of plans for projects that we wanted to work on—preserving films, developing a collection, curatorial projects such as Amateur Night, and online access to home movies.


What are some of your favorite home movies or amateur films?


At the top of my list is probably Think of Me First as a Person, which was named to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. It’s a moving amateur documentary that was produced by Dwight Core, Sr. (and finished by George Ingmire, his grandson) using home movies shot over 15 years. It’s about Core’s son and the family’s struggles dealing with Down syndrome, but how love kept their family strong.

Getting to know the Ingmire family has been a great joy, and similarly one of the other pleasures of my home movie work has been making friends with the late Robbins Barstow and his family. Robbins brought two of his favorite films, Disneyland Dream and Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge to early Home Movie Day events, where they were instant hits. Robbins, who was in his late eighties when we first met him, had been showing his films to small crowds around his home in Wethersfield, Connecticut, for seven decades, so he was more than willing to let us include Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge on our first DVD. Then, when we showed him that he could post his films online on the Internet Archive, he made his entire collection available for download, and the world fell in love with his films, and with Robbins. Both of those films went viral, and have now been downloaded more than 200,000 times, and Disneyland Dream was named to the National Film Registry in 2008.


How did Amateur Night, a feature-length home movie compilation, come into fruition?


Amateur Night began as a project of the Association of Moving Image Archivists’ Small Gauge & Amateur Film Committee, a group of archivists who are doing spectacular work in preserving home movies, largely through funding from the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF). Each year, more and more home movies would be preserved and have new prints and video copies made, but far too often they were going back onto the shelves in the archives’ vaults after having been seen by only a few people. Two problems were the lack of a history of showing home movies in public as well as the regional nature of the collections. People wouldn’t consider, for example, that a home movie from Minnesota would be of interest to someone from California. So the idea was to put together a feature-length program with as much appeal as possible for general audiences in order to showcase the work that was being done in archives around the country.


How did you select the films?


I had in my head some typical home movie categories that I knew I wanted to be represented—travel films, alternate visions of historical events, narratives, and regular old home movies—so that the program could in some way be a shorthand history of American home movies. Mostly, though, I wanted it to be something that could be watchable and enjoyable all the way through, so I could trick people into figuring out what I learned a long time ago: home movies are a lot more fun to watch than most people think.


Do you have a favorite?


Obviously I like all of the films that were included, and love most of them, so I can’t really pick a single favorite, but people have responded especially well to Butt Shakers, Our Day, and The Coker Avenue Gang. The one that I still watch the most closely is Nixon Visits Idaho Falls, because it is just so unusual, showing a typical event—President Nixon shaking hands with a crowd—from an unexpected vantage point.


Two films from the Walker’s James Dimond Home Movie Collection were included in Amateur Night. How did you find out about the Dimond collection, and why did you select these two films?


I found out about the Dimond collection when I was first looking through the lists of films that had already been preserved through NFPF grants. I was specifically looking for home movies that had been shot on 9.5mm film, a gauge that was introduced by the French firm Pathé Frères in 1922. It was more commonly used as a way for people to watch cartoons and shorts at home, and was never as popular in America as 16mm, which Kodak put on the market in 1923, but it did have its adherents who shot their home movies on its cartridges. Of all of Dimond’s reels, I was most drawn to the contrasting high-energy feel of the Chicago bus trip and the homey charm of the frolicking pet squirrel. Only when I was finishing the editing did I realize just how many animals show up in Amateur Night—people just love filming animals.


To the average person, home movies may not seem important outside of their original context. Can you talk a little bit about why you think home movies and amateur films are important historical and cultural documents?


One the one hand, it’s important not to forget that the family home movies were created as records of family life, and the people in them do have a unique perspective that we can try to capture by recording commentaries by the family members. That’s not to say, however, that even the simplest family films don’t reveal a lot about the time and culture in which they were created. Secondly, sometimes there were only amateur filmmakers around to capture important events (as with Last Great Gathering of the Sioux Nation and Smokey Bear) that otherwise would have gone undocumented. Finally, there are some very talented filmmakers in the amateur world. Margaret Conneely, who directed Fairy Princess, was a member of a Chicago amateur film club, so she had regular audiences for her films, and while Wallace Kelly only made films for his family and friends, Our Day has been recognized as being as on the same technical level as some of the best Hollywood films of the time.


In your experience hosting Home Movie Day over the past nine years and touring around with Amateur Night, what does the average person think of home movies and amateur films? Have you seen a shift in people’s attitudes toward home movies?


Most people still usually come in with the perspective that “home movies are boring,” so that makes our jobs harder. Admittedly it’s true that some of them are, but the audiences that are coming to see Amateur Night are open to new viewing experiences and do recognize the historical and cultural value in them. One key is to show people exceptional films that are intrinsically important, but that’s almost too easy. The more satisfying challenge is to get people to appreciate the special moments in typical films. At Home Movie Day events we usually have family members describing the films, and it is always fascinating to see the connections that people make between their personal histories (“I had that same toy!”) and the movies they are watching.

Documentary filmmakers are using home movies more and more, but we also work with a lot of scholars and academics, and they have been working hand-in-hand with the archivists in taking closer looks at the movies. It has been fascinating and encouraging to see the number of articles, dissertations, and books on home movies growing every year, with some interesting new perspectives being developed by film historians and a variety of multidisciplinary fields. Recently, a group of gerontologists in England have been showing home movies to elderly patients to battle the effects of dementia. It is such projects that make me hopeful that the world of home movies is opening up beyond simple nostalgia.

Home Movie Day poster

David H. Jarrett, Butt Shakers, 1961

George Ingmire and Dwight Core, Think of Me First as a Person, 2006

Robbins Barstow, Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge, 1936

White House Staff, Nixon Visits Idaho Falls, 1971

Stuart Dimond, Baby Squirrel, 1927–1928

The James Dimond Home Movie Collection, Walker Art Center