It’s the Reel Thing
Arkansans take a time trip
with the state’s first
Home Movie Day

BY JACK SCHNEDLER
ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE 


    SPECIAL EVENT 
    Home Movie Day 1:30-4 p.m. Saturday, Darragh Center Auditorium at the Main Library, 100 Rock St., Little Rock Admission: Free. (501) 918-3049 or (501) 918-3056 www.butlercenter.org 
    Talk about a long show: Kathleen Fairweather has collected more than 4,400 minutes of amateur film from the 1930s through the early ’80s for the state’s first Home Movie Day, being presented Saturday by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. 
    Happily for this weekend’s audience, volunteer Fairweather is distilling those 73-plus hours of raw footage (from about 40 contributors) 
    1 into a 2/2-hour program for free public viewing at the Main Library in Little Rock’s River Market District. 
    No fan of television’s long-running 
America’s Funniest Home Videos, 
which she considers “more cruel than funny,” Fairweather says the Butler Center venture could fairly be called “Arkansas’ Most Poignant Home Movies.” 
    The Home Movie Day coordinator likens Saturday’s presentation to “a bit of time travel, back to kinder and gentler days.” Home movies, she says, “were the original reality shows, when you think about it. They were also among the first documentaries. And they were cinema verite, in that ordinary people were just picking up a movie camera and aiming it at their own lives.” 
    Fairweather, who moved from the Los Angeles area to Little Rock this spring, once worked as director of DVD production for MGM. She has made documentary films including 
All the King’s Men: The Hidden World of Elvis Impersonators. And she belongs to the Association of Moving Image Archivists. 
    In 2003, some association members helped create Home Movie Day, which has caught on enough that it will be staged this weekend at 56 sites in 26 states plus the District of Columbia and six foreign countries. Organizers call their source material from 8 mm, Super8 and 16 mm cameras “Orphan Films” or “People’s Movies.” 
    The Butler Center, a department of the Central Arkansas Library System, hooked up with Fairweather after she met a staff member at a cookout welcoming newcomers to the state. Now working as broadcast producer at Stone Ward advertising agency, she describes Home Movie Day as “near and dear to my heart, and a great opportunity to get myself immersed in my newly adopted state.” 
    Working with her on the project are Jajuan Johnson, the Butler Center’s oral history coordinator, and Cary Cox, the facility’s program and outreach coordinator. 
    “Watching home movies made by families and friends was once considered the ultimate in boredom,” Cox says. “But these days home movies are being recognized for the valuable visual information they may contain on cultural, community and family history.” 
    Cox, who hasn’t seen the footage, is “looking forward to the scenes of common, everyday life. Too often, our memories focus on the important public events that affected the whole community. We tend to dismiss the everyday, so we don’t have as much memory of the ordinary: What did people wear? What did they eat? How did they act?” 
    Everyday life will predominate in Saturday’s showing, says Fairweather: “We have plenty of domestic scenes. There’ll be a birthday party from the 1940s, what I call real-life archaeology. There’s a lot of Christmas and Easter stuff. I expected a lot of it would be tedious. But just being able to see these time capsules is a real fun exercise. And it’s a little voyeuristic to be peeking into people’s lives.” 
    A MYSTERY QUEST 
    The home movies — most of them in color — were solicited through newspaper notices, fliers at public events and contacts with museums and colleges. The effort became, Fairweather says, “like a mystery quest, a scavenger hunt. We had no idea what would come in. People don’t know what they have, because in many cases they haven’t looked at these films in 20 or 30 or 40 years. If the reels were passed down by parents, they may never even have watched them.” 
    The Butler Center aims to show at least a few minutes from every batch of amateur movies submitted. But Fairweather is still debating whether to include a couple of reels labeled “Hog Killing” — which she jokes “might be Arkansas’ first snuff film” — and “Squirrel Cleaning.” She thinks “Hog Killing” might be too grisly, “but a lot of people have never seen a hog butchered, and it might be interesting for them.” 
    Among more conventional material, Fairweather is seeing a lot of snow scenes — “not surprising, since snow is a big deal in Arkansas.” A memorable slice of history is footage from one of the two Arkansas camps where Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. Evocative of the Eisenhower Era are sequences from a Soap Box Derby in the 1950s. And she is finding “lots of shots of cars, which were works of art back then, and lots of dusty dirt roads.” 
    Johnson tracked down homemovie images shot by blacks in North Little Rock in the 1970s and early ’80s. They focus more on public events than family life, but the oral historian also sees “a stroll down memory lane, when life was a lot simpler. There’s one film of black children playing Tball, and you can see their happiness. It moved me to reminisce on my own life.” 
    Johnson and Fairweather detect what he calls “a different value system” in the vintage films, the oldest of which appears to have been shot around Mountain View in the 1930s. 
    “It’s visible that life was more communal a half-century and longer ago,” Johnson says. “People were more concerned with their fellow humans than they are now. You can see that.” 
    Fairweather is noticing “families that seem more intact and hopeful. It’s true that some of these images are from the holidays, a more festive time. But I really get a sense of the family having been more important.” 
    She cites a vignette “of a little girl completely unaware that a camera was watching her. She is playing in a yard and is so carefree. She’s wearing just a little girl’s pair of white underwear.” 
    Another difference from today, Fairweather adds, “is that if you took a shot like that, somebody probably would be calling the police about child pornography.” 
    She describes another sequence of “a little wash tub in the yard, with kids jumping in and out of the tub. Somebody is scrubbing clothes on a washboard. She’s a black nanny, and the family is white. It’s a completely different time period, without all the appliances and accessories we have today.” 
    TEMPERING THE NOSTALGIA 
    A basic change evident from the old films, says Fairweather, is that “people simply didn’t have as many things as we do. At a birthday party, a kid would receive a cap gun and be happy with it. Or there’d be a playground with one swing and a bunch of kids taking their turns around it, as opposed to the elaborate setups of today.” 
    Lest the nostalgia get too thick and deep, Fairweather points out that early home movies were the province of well-off Americans in the late 1920s and Great Depression era of the ’30s. Even when they became more common in the 1950s, relatively few cameras were owned by poorer consumers. So the more dismal and disheartening aspects of day-to-day existence at the economic margin were rarely captured on film. 
    Still, as redoubtably eccentric director John Waters asserts on the Web site www.homemov ieday.com, “There’s no such thing as a bad home movie. These mini-underground opuses are revealing, scary, joyous, always flawed, filled with accidental art and shout out from attics and closets all over the world to be seen again.” 
    Martin Scorsese, five times an Academy Awards nominee for best director, writes that “home movies do not just capture the important private moments of our family’s lives, but they are historical and cultural documents as well. Consider Abraham Zapruder’s 8 mm film that recorded the assassination of President Kennedy, or Nickolas Muray’s famously vibrant color footage of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera shot with his 16 mm camera. Imagine how different our view of history would be without these precious films.” 
    Fairweather thinks home movies can be a kind of Rorschach test. “Everyone takes something away from every home movie, even if all the people in the film are unknown to them,” she says. “We’ll see something that we remember from our childhood, or a scene that makes us think about something we’d pretty much forgotten.” 
    In this digital age “when everyone seems to have a camera of some kind,” she says, “home movies are a reservoir of our disappearing heritage. In our 21stcentury society where everything is changing fast, and we’re constantly bombarded by stimuli, home movies provide concrete evidence to fuel nostalgia.” 
    Some Arkansas home-movie contributors will be present Saturday to talk about the images they’ve contributed, and participants will be given CDs on which their films have been copied. The Butler Center aims eventually to put all of this year’s 4,400-plus minutes of footage online. 
    “We’re only scratching the surface with our initial Home Movie Day,” Cox says. “If we have the response and the energy and the resources, maybe we’ll do it again in 2007.”