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  • Dealing with Domestic Films:Methodological Strategies and Pitfalls in Studies of Home Movies from the Predigital Era
  • Cecilia Mörner (bio)

Home movies and other amateur film forms have become objects of interest in recent times, not only for historians and anthropologists but also for film scholars. There are good reasons for this. Whereas historians typically use such films to verify and explain the existence of certain phenomena in the past, and anthropologists understand different aspects of human interaction through home movie collections, film scholars tend to explore private practices of visual technologies and to explain home movies as part of a domestic visual culture that is distinct from commercial media.

Home movies made prior to the video revolution of the 1980s are different from any other film form. Despite their relatively poor technical and aesthetic quality compared to professionally made films, home movies offer a unique way of understanding [End Page 23] domestic visual culture from the past. Like today's digital DIY films exhibited on YouTube and other websites, home movies convey valuable information about private history as well as about such things as national or state iconography as well as consumer technology. 1 However, most home movies from the predigital era were intended to be watched domestically. 2 Consequently, they either addressed people who had experienced the films' subjects and events in real life and were able to fill in possible textual gaps, or they were shown with oral commentaries (e.g., by the filmmaker) that could explain and contextualize the events in the films. In most cases, at least one of these two methods was necessary because most predigital home movies are fragmented and hard to make sense of for a viewer outside these circumstances.

As a result, the study of home movies often involves dealing with films that are difficult to analyze textually. In her 1999 book Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions, American filmmaker Michelle Citron analyzed her own family's personal memories and narratives. Citron used her family's home movies and her own documentary films to trace memories of child abuse and a problematic relationship with her mother. She adopted theoretical perspectives on themes such as power, authenticity, and memory and also used close readings and oral testimonies of family members. Even though the analyses of the oral testimonies were not made in the systematic way stipulated by traditional ethnographic methods, Citron's study demonstrated the value of combining textual analyses and interviews. 3 The present article aims to suggest that ethnographic methods, in particular, interviews, can compensate for the lack of both textual analysis and contextual analysis in studies of home movies, even when the purpose is to study the films themselves rather than their reception.

Only a few studies of home movies published in the last two or three years include ethnographic methods. For example, most of the researchers in the 2009 British anthology Movies on Home Ground relied on a combination of textual and contextual analysis, 4 and only two out of twenty-seven articles in Mining the Home Movies: Excavations in Histories and Memories, an American anthology published in 2008, included interviews. 5 The 2010 Spanish anthology La casa abierta: El cine doméstico y sus reciclajes contemporáneos, which in part dealt with home movies, utilized no ethnographic methods at all. 6

There are, of course, several examples of ethnographic methods in studies of film forms other than home movies. Annette Kuhn's British ethnohistorical study from 2002, An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory, reconstructs 1930s cinema culture in Great Britain by combining analyses of informants' oral histories with analyses of other more conventional sources. Other examples of moviegoing history [End Page 24] include Australian Nancy Huggett's 2002 thesis "A Cultural History of Cinema-going in the Illawarra (1900-50)," which explored processes of meaning making through oral history narratives; the ongoing History of Moviegoing, Exhibition, and Reception (HOMER) project, which started in 2004; a 2006 study, Sociology Goes to the Movies, in which British sociologist Rajinder Kumar Dudrah combined textual analyses of films with analyses of participant observations and extended interviews; and "Cinema, Memory, and Place-Related Identities: Remembering Cinema-going in the Post...


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