Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories is a significant and often extremely rich contribution to the existing writing and research on the overlapping fields of home movie and amateur film practice – as well as the existing “archive” of each – within both contemporary cinema studies and a broader historiography. Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmermann’s book examines the contemporary relevance and use of the home movie within a range of conceptual and theoretical contexts, as well as from the varied perspectives of academics, archivists and practitioners. Even within each of these fields, the book includes an impressive range of contributors, from historians and contextual semioticians, to experts in film restoration and preservation, to filmmakers working within and outside the academy, and numerous others.
Mining the Home Movie emerged from a symposium held at the Getty Centre in Los Angeles in 1998, and the long gestation period of the project – addressed by the editors in their introduction – has allowed Ishizuka and Zimmermann to expand the field and range of contributors, as well as target the particular aspects of home movie “mining” they wish to tackle. This has enabled the book to attain a level of coherency and a degree of associational linkage that was probably not fully apparent in the initial symposium. Nevertheless, this also has some small negative implications for their anthology. Some of the articles have plainly been updated, while others suffer a little from the long period between their completion and publication. Other articles are obviously an outcome of this long gestation, and the combination of these elements, as well as the varied approaches many of the essays take, ultimately grants the anthology an appropriately piecemeal and pointedly selective focus, suggesting the vastness of the existing (and even the no-longer-extant) archive. In the process, this anthology constantly draws our awareness to the kinds of counter-histories suggested by the home movie, and the fragmentary and selective notion of the past that constitutes history. This structure enables the reader to sense and recognise the gaps and limitations of Ishizuka and Zimmermann’s book, a very appropriate response to an anthology that relies upon examining historical artefacts and processes from “below”, including the social and representational practices of daily life, arcane cultural activities and underrepresented elements of society (specifically in relation to culturally and politically marginalised ethnicities, nationalities, classes, castes and genders). Like numerous writers prior to this anthology, including Zimmermann in her seminal writings on home movies and amateur films (1), the various contributors to Mining the Home Movie insist upon the cultural and historical significance of home movies as a counterweight to dominant and often highly commercialised (or government-controlled) forms of cinema. Mining the Home Movie also attempts to counteract the common view of the home movie as an essentially ephemeral form, highlighting its concrete and aesthetic value as historical, textual, cultural, ideological and archival artefact.
Although Mining the Home Movie does provide something of a history of home movie and amateur film forms, it is deliberately localised and expansive in its approach. The book is roughly organised into a series of chapters that match the description of home movie/amateur film works held in various archives – and also details some of the practices and approaches of these archives (some very specialised) – with more extended analyses of particular examples, specific collections, the conceptual challenges faced by those who wish to research and write about this largely unappreciated and predominantly ephemeral practice, and discussions of the contemporary relevance, importance and (re)use of home movie materials. It is the last of these approaches that truly enlivens the anthology, illustrating the richness and potential of home movies and amateur films as challenges to, or “brakes on”, more mainstream and linear forms of history and cultural analysis. The varied perspectives and approaches gathered by the book are ethically appropriate to the key arguments it makes about the value of collecting and preserving such materials. A particular focus of several of the articles commissioned is the critical and often reflexive use of home movie materials within both documentary and found footage practice. In this regard, several films and filmmakers take pride of place, and it is unsurprising to find that Hungarian filmmaker and archivist Péter Forgács’ work is highlighted in several essays in the early sections of the book.
Although the collection draws on writers, collections and films from a variety of regions, nations and cultural perspectives, it is understandably dominated by the discussion of American home movies, amateur films and archives. This discussion itself is in turn dominated by the analysis of films and archives that speak to and from particular and often underrepresented ethnicities and cultural groups. In this regard, the home movie is seen as an essential tool for unsettling conventional notions of film history and the narratives associated with them. For example, in the discussion of The Academy Film Archive’s collection of home movies by Hollywood director Richard Brooks, the focus is primarily placed on specific footage he shot of the Negro Leagues in 1948. The discovery of this baseball footage is used to illustrate a core value of examining and archiving such amateur films and the ways in which they can often show and reveal events, and points of focus, not widely represented elsewhere (such as in the feature film, government and commercial documentary).
Despite the massive array of amateur and home movie materials available to the archivist, historian, theorist and filmmaker, it is unsurprising that the anthology finds its talismanic focus in a particular example or field of amateur/home movie practice. Four chapters are devoted to films related to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (one of these chapters provides a somewhat contextual perspective by examining home movies produced during the 1920s and ’30s that are held by the Japanese American National Museum). This provides a case study for Ishizuka and Zimmermann’s book that neatly illustrates the importance, historical significance and contemporary relevance of home movie historiography. This is clearly marked in several ways. Several of the chapters focus on the documentary Something Strong Within (Robert A. Nakamura, 1995) (actually written and produced by Ishizuka), illustrating both the significance of particular examples of home movie production and the things that they can show us, and the way contemporary cinema can reframe and re-present these materials. Ishizuka and Zimmermann’s core essay on Topaz, “The Home Movie and the National Registry”, discusses the home movie’s ability to provide an intimate representation of historical, and often traumatic, events where none was previously believed to exist. By choosing this film, which is named after the camp where filmmaker Dave Tatsuno was interned during World War II, the writers highlight the institutional recognition of the home movie as a potential source of public “memory” – Tatsuno’s film was the second home movie, after Abraham Zapruder’s notorious footage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, to be inducted into the American National Film Registry.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Mining the Home Movie is the way it pairs essays written by representatives of particular archives with extended analyses of specific films, filmmakers or representational tropes (such as work practices and particular localised cultural activities). The links it creates between these essays are rarely one-dimensional, relying on a series of associations that relate to geography, class, gender and specific forms of amateur film practice. For example, a discussion of the work of Cuban American filmmaker Juan Carlos Zaldívar is matched with a short chapter that describes some of the holdings of The Florida Moving Image Archive (and the book examines the varied holdings of national, regional, public, private and commercial archives and image repositories throughout). In some respects, there is something of a schism between the chapters written by archivists (with key exceptions) and those contributed by filmmakers, historians and academics. The standard of the writing also varies significantly in relation to the contrast between relatively naïve and sophisticated responses to the home movie form (mirroring, perhaps, the wide spectrum of practices – from the naïve or folk to the semi-professional and critical – that characterise home movie practice itself). Too many of the chapters devoted to the holdings of such archives as The Nederlands Archive/Museum Institute, Library of Congress and La Filmoteca de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México rely mostly on just describing the material they have, choosing to merely focus on several representative examples. This does allow the reader to get a sense of the range of materials that are held in various archives, some history of their collecting practice, and the different approaches and points of emphasis that are determined by such aspects as ethnicity, typicality, past colonial practices, and absences elsewhere in the film archive. But these chapters also demonstrate the limitation of writing about home movies in a merely descriptive fashion. They illustrate a tension and problem that one confronts when attempting to write about home movies and amateur films. Because one assumes that the reader has not seen the film in question (a perfectly correct assumption in almost every case), and to counter common interpretative frameworks that discount the specificity of individual examples of home movie practice, the writer is required to describe the materials he/she is analysing in some detail. Unfortunately, most of the weakest essays in this collections – including those about several of the archives, “Mule Racing in the Mississippi Delta”, and home movie practices in India – become bogged down in such descriptions, finding it difficult to move beyond such microscopic details to broader and non-generic issues of cultural significance. This illustrates a tension in the home movie – and the writing about it – between its status as a cultural phenomenon and a textual object.
Ishizuka and Zimmermann’s book is of considerable value in terms of how it gives us a sense of the vast terrain of home movie practice and the ways in which it is used within a contemporary context. The piecemeal and often very localised nature of the examples analysed points towards the value of such specific analysis (something which often hasn’t been achieved in relation to home image production of any form) and the vast history of this practice that can only ever be approximated by such archival and “mining” practices. Thus although some of the textual analysis contained within the anthology is a little laborious, as I have outlined, it is nevertheless valuable in terms of how it treats the home movie as less of a generalised social force (and imaginary) than a repository of often startling (and equally mundane) images that can both escape and be collapsed within overarching narratives of history. The book constantly shows the value of looking at these films in detail – with some limitations, as indicated above – and of exploring both their conventional and less readable elements.
Mining the Home Movie also contains numerous essays that do address the nature of the home movie as a cultural form, both celebrating its potential for expressing other viewpoints and histories (and traumas) and questioning its ability to act and exist as a stable historical artefact (or document). In this regard, the most provocative essay in the anthology is that contributed by film theorist Roger Odin, “Reflections on the Family Home Movie as Document: A Semio-Pragmatic Approach”. A key writer on amateur cinema, in this essay Odin warns against the approach taken by several of the writers included in the anthology, and towards the home movie as a document more generally. He particularly warns against regarding the home movie as a more open form of representation, seeing its very circumspect and often highly repetitive range of subjects and poses as a sign of both its stereotypical nature and its ultimate “unreadability” (an aspect which is mirrored by various accounts of the archives represented in this book, who speak of the importance of contextual information to bring the home movie not just to life, but in order to unpack and decipher its informational content). In warning against what he sees as the problematic individualism of the amateur film, Odin concludes: “Relations between democracy and amateur documents are neither always simple nor always positive. We must resist mystifying these productions as much as we formerly scorned them.” (p. 267) Odin’s is an important lesson that several of the more zealous and celebratory (in terms of what home movies and amateur films can reveal) essays would do well to take heed of.
Ultimately, Mining the Home Movie provides a kind of snapshot of the place of the home movie and amateur film within contemporary cinema studies, archiving practice and filmmaking. However, like many of the films it describes and analyses, Ishizuka and Zimmermann’s book also seems to be something of an historical artefact. For a book published in 2008, there is surprisingly little discussion of the impact of digital and web-based technology, and the ways in which such forms have – at least partially – lent a degree of ubiquity to the home movie and amateur film form. Nevertheless, this anthology does suggest the limitations and problems of this ubiquity, and the value of looking at home movies – at least initially – as distinct and endlessly varied artefacts. Partly through the variety of perspectives it offers (though most of those put forward exist within a particular, and laudable, ideological framework that favours the work and imagery of the otherwise underrepresented or dispossessed), Mining the Home Movie also suggests the possibilities for further analysis of the home movie and amateur film that exist within a range of other geographic, national and localised contexts. It also points to the potential for discovering and mining the image repertoire of periods in film history that otherwise might seem barren and underpopulated. In this context, it provides a useful model to rethink something like Australian film history. The 1940s through to the 1960s is a very lean era of Australian feature film production, the archival record of this period dominated by government, institutional and industrial documentaries. Nevertheless, various archives and state libraries around Australia have been very active in terms of collecting home movie and amateur film materials from this era. Of course, what is collected only represents a minute percentage of what was actually produced, but it does suggest an alternative vision – or, at least, a denser history – of Australian film production across this era. Some of this material has been utilised by contemporary documentary and television, and within the more experimental and critical practice of found footage cinema, but in general it remains an untapped and relatively undocumented resource and set of possibilities. It is precisely the kind of “mine” that Ishizuka and Zimmermann’s book attempts to excavate. For this and the raising of many other possibilities, Mining the Home Movie is an invaluable contribution to the study of amateur film.
Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories, edited by Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmermann, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2008.
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