Once home movies and now national treasures, Tony Tracy takes us through some vintage homemade cinema from the Irish Film Archive.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 135, 2010
Considered until recently amongst the most personal and ephemeral forms of moving picture production, home movies are experiencing a burst of institutional recognition and appreciation as artefacts of wider cultural value. Festivals celebrating ‘orphan films’ in the late 1990s began this rediscovery followed by the tentative reflections of film archivists – largely descriptive – on home movie materials found in their collections. A similarly inspired, though more academic, joint project between the IFA Irish Film Archive (IFA) and University College Cork –Capturing the Nation – gave rise to the recent Home Movie Heritage Day at the IFI as part of Heritage Week 2010.
A selection of the IFA’s holdings were screened from five collections (material from a single donor or source), each prefaced by an introduction from a person related to either the shooting or preservation of the collection before it was lodged with the archive; what might be termed its ‘biscuit tin’ phase.
The Horgan Collection (1910–1920) must count amongst the nation’s cultural treasures. Actuality film is a non-fiction film genre that uses footage of real events yet is not structured into a larger argument like a documentary. Contemporaries of the Lumière brothers, John and Edward Horgan’s earliest images resemble the iconic actualities of the French pioneers of moving pictures. Made in their native Youghal, Co. Cork, their early films are local actualities comparable to canonical films like Train Arriving (L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat) and Workers Leaving the Factory (La sortie des usines Lumière). Like those films, they are not technically ‘home movies’ but small gauge films made for paying audiences, usually screened as part of a variety show. Clearly inspired by the Lumière’s examples they share formal similarities in their static framing of crowds moving frenetically around the camera like the unaware specimens of scientific observation, save for the occasional young boy who has spotted the camera and feels compelled to interrupt the illusion of invisible observers.
One early film is notable for the variety of headgear worn by the crowds, a lost fashion custom that provides a useful index of social class and function. We see men in top hats and neat formal suits, in sailor’s caps and garb, humble caps and women in broad hats and shawls. It is a fascinating window on a disappeared world. If the future direction of cinema, as has sometimes been suggested, was a duel between the literal tendencies of the Lumières and the dreamlike impulses of their neighbour and competitor Georges Méliès then the Horgan brothers sought to include both. Also screened was a tantalizingly short extract of a film that animated the clock tower in Cobh and moved it around the main street in the style of a Méliès trick film.
The films of the Egan family (the selection dated from 1937–1943) are precisely what the term ‘home movies’ summons up. In her touching and affectionate introduction Valerie McCarthy spoke of her father as ‘a wonderful man’ and his pride and love for his home and family is palpable in the films he left them. They depict an idyllic middle class family life of happy children in happy surroundings; there is wonderful colour footage, for instance, of a young girl chasing geese in a farmyard that evokes the imperishable innocence of childhood innocence as well as the gaze of a doting father.
The gaze was not all male, however. The films of Margaret Currivan included footage of her daughter Helen’s communion in the 1960s. As with all her films screened, there was a cinematic sensibility at work that went beyond mere ‘recording’. The short film intercut images of the Holy Communion event with more abstract footage shot separately to communicate the mystery and iconography of the sacrament. Here was a fascinating attempt to not only document the externalities of this right of passage but to interweave an interpretative framework of reference that, in hindsight, tells us much about Catholic spirituality of the period.
This was not the only footage interpolated by a Catholic viewpoint. Irene Devitt deposited the film collection of her late uncle Fr Jack Delaney with the archive in the 1990s. In introducing extracts she recalled childhood holidays where she and her sister travelled from the Navan Road (where they lived) across the city to his house in Dun Laoghaire.
Fr Delaney’s footage was perhaps the most poignant of the afternoon and an explanation of why this is would require a social history of modern Ireland. Along with footage of his family, Fr Delaney had a notable interest in filming the marginal figures of Irish society – the impoverished ‘working classes’ walking through streets and inner city laneways, poor children playing amongst city rubble, a Corpus Christi parade utterly unimaginable today and an ‘open day’ for the girls of the notorious Magdalene laundry – in this instance the ‘Gloucester Diamond’ laundry on Dublin’s Sean Mac Dermott Street, which Irene recalled being brought along to as a young girl. The unique status of this last footage has led to it being used frequently by chroniclers of the dark history of institutional abuse: States of Fear, Sex in a Cold Climate and elsewhere. The images here are haunting because of what we now know; not so much for what they show as what they conceal. A slow panning shot across the happy faces of these young women gives them a humanity no amount of reports will, and complicates our response as only the photographic image can. Who are they? What ‘sins’ did they commit? Their happiness is troubling because we distrust its status and consequently become retrospectively implicated in their incarceration.
Formally, Fr Delaney’s footage seems rather conventional with a preference for assembling a line of people and having them march towards the camera. But this repeated choreographing has an unexpected resonance as the gaze of successive groups who have been beyond the boundaries of ‘official’ history – written and visual – confront the gaze of the modern viewer. This is especially true of the ‘Magdalene sisters’ but it is also true of Dublin’s poor, revealed in a shockingly fresh and intimate manner that recalls Roberto Rossellini’s groundbreaking post-war films Rome, Open City and Germany Year Zero. Given that this footage was made in the 1950s one wonders if Fr Delaney saw those films. These images of Ireland’s ‘ordinary people’ make one long for what might have been – a neo-realist inspired Irish cinema movement in the ’40s, ’50s or ’60s that drew on Rossellini’s Christian humanism. A real sense of solidarity and shared humanity emanates from Fr Delaney’s moving pictures, a welcome contrast to the increasingly common consensus of the Catholic Church as devoid of empathy and interest in the poor.
Reflecting a more privileged social background, Mark Leslie introduced an edited version of one of his well-known family’s cherished home movies. Them in The Thing is a sci-fi pastiche from 1955 made by his father Desmond Leslie (author of the best-selling Flying Saucers have Landed). Inspired by the contemporary craze for ufos, the Leslie film not only reflected cold war paranoia and the reach of American popular culture but offered an insight into Irish cultural diversity during the ‘hungry ’50s’. Filmed in colour around Castle Leslie in Monaghan, the film offered us a cosmopolitan corner of Ireland where, in contrast to mass emigration that dominated the daily lives of many, an imaginative and bohemian Anglo-Irish family amused themselves with genre spoof featuring family friend Sir Patrick Moore. Them in The Thing – sadly missing its pioneering electronic soundtrack – is part of the Leslie family archive of home movies which would, should they be screened more widely, complicate and enliven histories of post-war Ireland.
Michael Coyle’s films of the Vietnam conflict in 1967 stretch the terms of ‘home movies’ to encompass amateur footage of an Irishman fighting in an American war in Asia. Given such exotic provenance it was ironic to discover that this footage was perhaps the least surprising of the afternoon. Coyle’s personal story is a fascinating one and we shared his regret that so much footage he shot was lost as he scrambled to escape burning tanks. What remains seems familiar from Apocalypse Now and its descendents; a sense intensified by the use of The Doors on the soundtrack (introduced by IFA for this presentation), which had the effect of flattening the images. This was a pity because beyond such surface familiarity there is material that augments and diverges from Hollywood imagery. The footage is clearly made from within the conflict; his fellow soldiers remain undisturbed and natural as they roll through the Vietnamese jungle in tanks and armoured carriers. There are surprising shots of the young American soldiers posing with friendly Vietnamese families and truly exotic footage of an indigenous tribe – the women topless, men in loincloths, returning the baffled gaze of the passing ‘foreigners’.
In his opening remarks at the event, Ryan Tubridy described the makers of the home movies as ‘historians’. Are they? If the ‘making’ of history is the analysis and interpretation of primary sources then some of the filmmakers, by virtue of selection, point of view and editing are comparable with the traditional historian. Most, however, simply point their camera and shoot. But – as was evident from the IFA event – what they shoot is widely varied: birthday parties, communions, parades, local events, faux-narratives, foreign wars – ordinary people in ordinary and sometimes extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps what this question of meaning poses more generally is a hermeneutic or interpretive one: how are we to understand the value of home movies? Clearly this depends, in a way that art arguably doesn’t, on the questions one poses the material, on what the viewer is looking for. What is interesting and exciting about the private films screened at the ifiis that for the most part the viewers of these films were for a long time asking relatively private questions like ‘who’s that?’, where’s that?’, when’s that?’ This came across in the short but sincere and highly personal introductions to the films, which gave them both context and great personal value – rescuing them from the ‘orphan’ category. But as such material begins to seep into the public domain (as they quite literally did in the company of strangers that afternoon) the questions, and responses, become more generalized and varied and the films yield up meanings their makers may never have imagined nor intended. It takes courage to allow home movies – capsules of private memory – enter into the collective memory. But, ultimately, both the private and public spheres are enhanced by the process.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 135, 2010
Tony Tracy is Associate Director of the Huston School of Film and Digital Media NUI Galway