Dwight Swanson is an archivist, history lover, and self-professed cinephile. But that doesn’t mean you’ll find him seated at some avant-garde art-house screening. No, his affinity is for films of a much more obscure variety — the type of movie that never makes it to the big screen, let alone outside most people’s living rooms (YouTube uploads notwithstanding). Swanson’s genre of choice: home movies. Ironically, he has no family films of his own to look back on, save for a short video clip of his now deceased cat. Swanson said his dad stuck to slides and photographs to document family affairs. It wasn’t until he began working as an archivist, when he started poring over historical video footage, that he discovered a world of intimate moving snapshots filed away among old documentaries and TV commercials.
“One thing I really latched onto was the home movies,” he said. “And I just started watching more and more of those. I was really drawn to them by their kind of immediacy and I guess I would say honesty. They were just so direct. What you were seeing projected on the screen, there was no artifice, and nothing fake about it.” Swanson fancied the amateur films so much, both for their historical significance and candid sincerity, that he now serves on the board of directors for the Center for Home Movies, a nonprofit organization established for the sole purpose of promoting and preserving the home-made medium. More specifically, the center was formed as an anchor for Home Movie Day, an annual celebration and screening of home movies launched by Swanson and a group of colleagues in 2002.
“Most people can’t believe that anybody else would want to see their own family’s home movies,” Swanson said. “Or ultimately they can’t imagine that they would want to see the home movies of someone else’s family.” But Home Movie Day, which has gained a worldwide following since its modest inception, has proven otherwise. Swanson said even the most typical moments and seemingly mundane familial activities that unfold in such candid films are often the very vignettes that draw an audience in. “Sometimes it’s just a single thing,” he said, like a subject’s quick glance at the camera, “but you recognize it. And it’s something you can relate to. Or maybe not … maybe it’s surprising.”
Swanson, who resides in Baltimore, Maryland, has culled sixteen American home movies from archives across the country, had each resized to a 35mm format, and added family commentary to some, for a Home Movie Day screening at the Pacific Film Archive (2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley) on Saturday, October 15. He’ll speak at the theater along with California Audiovisual Preservation Project coordinator Pamela Vadakan, who has organized Home Movie Day events at the PFA for the past four years. The selections, ranging in date from 1915 to 2005, include Our Day, which shows a day in the life of a Kentucky family in the 1930s, and the 1960 film Welcome San Francisco Movie Makers, about a club of San Francisco filmmakers.
In past years, organizers accepted public film submissions, but this year’s incarnation, dubbed Amateur Night: Home Movies from American Archives, is more of a curated affair, with films pre-selected by Swanson — though the Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak St., Oakland) accepts personal submissions, starting at 11 a.m., for a Home Movie Day screening at 12:30 p.m. on the same day. 6:30 p.m., $5.50-$13.50. 510-642-1412 or BAMPFA.Berkeley.edu