- Northeast Historic Film: “The Whole World Is Watching!”
No, it was not the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and no, a riot did not break out in Bucksport, Maine, sometime between July 24 and July 25, 2009, but the phrase “the whole world is watching!” came to mind as I sat down to write about yet another stimulating year at the annual Northeast Historic Film (NHF) Summer Symposium. The year 2009 was, aptly, the ninth annual gathering of the tribes, and much of the conversation outside and inside the theater made note that we were quickly coming up on a decade of symposia. The study of amateur, regional, and noncommercial films has come of age, and NHF has had a great hand in encouraging, promoting, and supporting this scholarship. If I may stretch the comparison to Chicago 1968 a bit further, several months before the 1968 convention, activists had decided that this would be the place to confront the “system,” demanding an end to the war in Vietnam. Like the dreamers and doers at NHF, who put out an open call for conference participants each year, encouraging them to think beyond the confines of commercial moving images, these activists were thinking big: they invited over one hundred thousand people to come and take part in this planned confrontation. The numbers they expected did not show. The official statistics report that only a few thousand people participated in the demonstrations, and most of them were locals who had been swept up into the fray by their sheer proximity to the events rather than by intention or personal political convictions. These protests would have remained small and inconsequential had they not been captured by TV cameras and subsequently transmitted to living rooms across the nation and the world. The whole world was watching. And as we know, thanks to the preservation efforts of the National Film Preservation Foundation, in addition to the commercial cameras present at these events, locals and amateurs, such as the Chicago Film Group (People’s Right to Know: Police vs. Reporters, 1968) and the Youth International Party (Yippie!, 1968), also documented and reflected on these activities.
But why on earth am I going on some nostalgia trip about 1968? Well, thematically, it does tie in to NHF’s opening presentation this year by Heather Norris Nicholson, “Purposeful Pleasures,” which examined social awareness and film practice in Britain from 1927 to 1977. Indeed Britain’s amateur cinema movement had been documenting not only leisure-time activities but also societal problems long before 1968. Nicholson’s talk centered on research that she began in 2005 when she first started to work with the collections of the Northwest Film Archive in Manchester, United Kingdom, but that became more focused in 2007 as she was working with the Sam Hanna collection. We had the opportunity to screen some of Hanna’s work from a career that began in the throes of World War II, along with the work of another schoolteacher turned headmaster. Though Hanna’s principal career was that of a woodworking teacher at a school called Townley in the borough of Burnley in Lancashire, and though his early films often featured his students’ projects, Hanna soon began to exhibit his films in venues that took him beyond the show-and-tell or how-to classroom act. In fact, by the 1950s, Hanna and his wife, Edith, were visiting local prisons to screen his films as well as other fiction films from his personal collection. Many of Hanna’s films documented artisans and workers and the conditions of workers. They were eventually screened throughout England, giving his so-called simple films a larger reach and providing his audiences with a subtle yet effective means to think beyond their own identity and reflect on their place in a larger social framework. Nicholson demonstrated this larger social context by pointedly ending on a film shot by another Manchester school headmaster in the late 1960s that featured a protest and political rally.
Leaving the cottage industry of regional filmmakers in the United Kingdom, we then jumped back in time to Philadelphia circa 1907. Caitlin McGrath encouraged us to enter “This Splendid Temple...