“My parents never had a movie camera,” says Michelle Puetz, an experimental filmmaker and PhD candidate at the University of Chicago. “I had a very unusual relationship with them as a child. I was treated more like an adult, and they didn’t document my growing up in a typical way.” But by high school Puetz had noticed that her friends’ families had home movies. And one night at a home-movie screening at an uncle’s house, she saw footage of her aunt and uncle, “adults who I knew as very conservative, as young newlyweds playing party games that involved tossing a pickle around the table. It was a very strange experience, uncanny, being able to witness them in both times.”

When Puetz learned last year that a group of film archivists was organizing nationwide “Home Movie Day” events, at which people were invited to bring in their reels for public screenings, she signed on to organize the Chicago version. The event’s founders felt home movies weren’t getting the attention they deserved, even among their creators and owners, and so hatched the plan at a conference in the fall of 2002. Last year’s free screenings were held in 23 different cities, and this year there are 40 venues–most in the U.S. but also in five other countries.

“When people think of home movies at all, they imagine them to be either a total bore or just some sort of hazy nostalgia vehicle,” says Brian Graney of the New Mexico state archives. But “as archivists, we spend a substantial amount of our time working with and watching home movies, and have fallen in love with them….We feel like if we could just get people to watch their films again they would see that the actual content is much more evocative and interesting than they are stereotypically given credit for.”

Many home-movie reels lie unused in boxes in damp basements or hot attics, both terrible preservation environments. And despite the huge loss in picture quality, many people transfer their home movies to video for easier viewing, then discard the celluloid. One purpose of “Home Movie Day” is to encourage owners to save their originals: properly preserved film often lasts far longer than video.

At last year’s event in Chicago, held at Chicago Filmmakers, silent-movie accompanist David Drazin brought home movies from the 30s and 40s that he’d bought at garage and estate sales. “They were really beautifully shot films,” Puetz recalls. Some were interesting for the way they revealed the conventions of amateur filmmaking: there were many shots of families standing in front of their new cars or their houses. Other movies showed Chicago buildings or cityscapes that no longer exist. And some stood out for their sheer oddness. “There was a film with a number of shots of Persian cats in a really gaudy house from the early 50s, with a woman petting the cats and making coy expressions to the camera and giving the cats a bath in her evening gown.”

This year Puetz has enlisted two partners: Charles Tepperman, a fellow U. of C. grad student, and Carolyn Faber, an archivist and experimental filmmaker. Tepperman, whose dissertation is on amateur and nontheatrical films of the 20s, viewed his own family’s reels, unseen for a couple of decades, just a few years ago. “Even if I can bring an image of my grandmother to mind, the shots of her sitting on a sailboat 30 years ago or losing her balance on cross-country skis are so much richer,” he says.

“I come from a big family who saved everything–papers, photographs, memorabilia, souvenirs, postcards, you name it,” says Faber, who began patronizing thrift shops and buying others’ home movies as a teenager. She says they offer “an alternative to textbook histories of great leaders and wars.” Instead they present a “micro history of individual lives.”

Chicago’s second “Home Movie Day” takes place at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, on Saturday, August 14. Those interested in showing films in the 8-millimeter, Super-8, or 16-millimeter formats should bring them in for a “film check-in and inspection” between 12 and 5; the free public screening is from 6 to 10. See www.homemovieday.com or call 312-421-0313 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.