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Amateur Film: Meaning and Practice, 1927–77 by Heather Norris Nicholson (review)
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Heather Norris Nicholson’s Amateur Film: Meaning and Practice, 1927–77 is the first scholarly monograph on amateur film published in English during the last seventeen years. While Patricia R. Zimmermann’s Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film was a pioneering study that has become highly influential in this growing field, developments within the film archive sector make it increasingly clear that amateur cinema consisted of more than avant-garde experiments and home movie footage. In this respect, Amateur Film is an overdue and very welcome addition to literature on this diverse and geographically dispersed cultural practice. Charting the development of Britain’s amateur film scene over a fifty-year period, the most original aspect of this study is that it covers amateur film-making in both the family and cine-clubs. As Norris Nicholson notes, “understanding Britain’s amateur filmmaking movement as a continuum stretching between casual usage and high-quality cinematography that reflects expertise and many years of experience helps to accommodate this vast range of output that exists within public archives and still in private hands”(238–39). This inclusive approach begins with two chapters charting the history of cine-clubs and the hobby press, before examining the overlapping concerns of causal and serious amateurs through chapters on family films, local lives, and images of work and travel and, finally, assessing social issue filmmaking.

The chapter on cine-clubs details their proliferation with particular reference to the northwest of England, which can be traced through the amateur film press as well as primary evidence from club records. To my knowledge, this is the first scholarly overview of the origins and subsequent development of the club scene at a national level, and in that sense, it is invaluable. Most previous accounts have focused on case studies of individual clubs rather than painting a picture of how they developed as networks in relation to each other and to regional and national governing bodies. Most striking is the reference to the founding of Croydon Cine Club in 1899, which preceded other early British clubs by more than twenty years. If this date can be empirically verified, it demonstrates that organized amateurism dates right back to the invention of film. Similarly, the next chapter on the hobby press argues for the importance of critical voices in the development of the British amateur cine movement. Norris Nicholson details how magazines such as Amateur Cine World attempted to instill cineliteracy in their readership:

unlike the American press that, according to Zimmermann, was heavily influenced by rival companies’ commercial interests, much of Britain’s specialist literature thrived more independently and offered idiosyncratic but commercially more impartial advice on amateur practice. This home-grown cine press rapidly matured into a well-regarded, focused and distinctive genre of hobby literature.

(63)

The relative critical independence of amateur film journals detailed here resonates with similar magazines in other areas of the world and demonstrates how the comparative analysis of the amateur filmmaking histories of various nations can add a richer dimension to our understanding of the sector.

The remaining chapters of the book focus attention more specifically on individual titles that have been acquired by archives in the north of England. Paying close attention to amateur films allows the historian to explore topics of local significance, and Norris Nicholson is especially interested in the distinctive aspects of northern culture and society. Although the chapters allude to various productions, made by both families and cine-clubs, she is frequently drawn to nonfiction footage that enables the viewer to reflect on the films’ relationship to contemporary life. As she notes, “amateur footage frequently combines self-conscious and more accidental recording of details that later acquire significance of impending change” (161). The process of change is a key theme as Norris Nicholson explores the thematic connections among a disparate range of titles. Often the underlying gender and social assumptions, which are discernible from the footage, are linked to broader surveys of the changing nature of British society. The relative exclusion of women filmmakers from the organized amateur film movement is especially significant and perplexing, but her consideration of the films of Lucy Fairbank and others goes some way...



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