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With this post we revive a long-dormant Home & Amateur feature “Four Questions,” in which we interview people associated with home movie projects. Here we interview filmmakers Penny Lane and Brian Frye, whose upcoming film Our Nixon was featured in a recent post.  This sure-to-be-landmark documentary is being developed from 204 reels in the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum’s Super 8 Motion Picture Film Collection, which consists of home movies made by Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, Chief Domestic Advisor John Ehrlichman, Special Assistant to the President Dwight Chapin, and Deputy Assistant Larry Higby.

The film is in the earliest stages of production, but its Kickstarter campaign has already reached its initial goal, so is now on the way to a second goal of raising $25,000.  Donate now!

Penny and Brian answered their four questions (and one bonus question) by e-mail:

Home & Amateur: Even though the White House Super 8 collection is fairly well known among aficionados of super 8 film and home movies (since there’s not really anything like it) almost nobody has actually seen the films. How did you first find out about them?

Brian: In 2000, I was a visiting professor at Hampshire College, teaching an introduction to filmmaking class.  I commuted to Hampshire with one of my colleagues, Bill Brand, who also lived in NYC.  Bill had recently won a contract with NARA to preserve the Nixon Super-8 film collection by creating an optical internegative, and he told me about the films as he worked on them.  Eventually, Bill showed me a workprint of one of the preserved films and I was quite taken with the material.  I soon decided that I wanted to make a film using the material, but the preservation was a long process.  In the meantime, I wrote an article about the collection for Cineaste, titled “Three Great Filmmakers: Haldeman, Ehrlichman & Chapin”.  (The title of the article was a riff on Pontus Hulten’s article “Three Great Painters: Churchill, Hitler & Eisenhower”, published in Alfred Leslie’s journal The Hasty Papers.)  About 10 years later, Penny & I decided to pursue the film project.  Bill showed us another workprint of one of the preserved films, and we committed to pay for the first video transfers of the material.

Penny:  The way it became a collaboration was that I kept bugging Brian about when was he going to make that movie he told me about, until I finally said, “Ok, I will just make it with you, okay?”  So really, while it was totally Brian’s idea, I take all the credit for making it finally happen.  🙂

Home & Amateur: When you first saw the collection, what struck you about it as a whole that made you want to start in on this project, and have you developed any favorite reels yet?

Penny: The first thing is just the absolute sweetness of it. The films are goofy and silly and almost heartbreakingly naïve… like any amateur home movies, I suppose.  That quality is just so not what you think of when you think of the Nixon presidency.  So even though neither Brian or I came to it with any real special interest in Nixon per se, we were inspired by the way that watching the home movies changed our vision of Nixon’s men and his presidency. Once, Penny said to a friend, “There are no bad guys in home movies. Everyone smiles and waves at the camera. It’s just that in our footage, the guys smiling and waving and goofing off are people like Ehrlichman and Kissinger.”  The tension between that and what we know to be true about the abuses of power and other things that are not so nice… it’s just incredible.

It’s hard to pick favorites, honestly! There is so much good stuff.  I just can’t.  Brian?

Brian: Unfortunately, I am a sucker for kitsch.  So I really like the guy in the Easter bunny outfit.  And the “biker gang” of smiling teenagers in ringer tees & gym shorts visiting the White House & shaking hands with RN.  That said, the May Day protests on the National Mall are pretty amazing.  However, the soul of the material is the straight-up home movie material, where Nixon’s aides clown around & pose for each other.

Penny: Okay, I agree. All of that stuff is great.  Also just the gazillions of smiling happy Nixon fans along the campaign trail are pretty amazing.  I could watch them forever.  The faces of the Silent Majority.

Home & Amateur: Tell us a little bit about the technical history of the collection–how it got from the original super 8 reels to the digital video that you’ll be working with?

Brian: Haldeman, Ehrlichman & Chapin owned Super-8 cameras.  Haldeman owned a Kodak XL55 and later a Canon 518.  Chapin owned a Canon 814.  Apparently, the US Navy Photographic Film Center supplied the Super-8 film, which it also processed and printed.  Haldeman’s assistant Larry Higby also shot some Super-8 film, probably using Haldeman’s camera.  During the Watergate investigation, the FBI confiscated 204 reels of Super-8 film from Ehrlichman’s office.  It appears that some of the reels were originals and some were prints.  Apparently, Ehrlichman had custody of originals or prints of some or all of the films made by Haldeman, Chapin & Higby because the collection includes films made by all four.  Under the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974, most of the films became the property of the US government.  The FBI returned to Ehrlichman the films that were purely personal in nature & deposited the rest with NARA.  Eventually, NARA bid out the preservation of the films & Bill Brand of BB Optics won the contract.  Bill made a 1:1 16mm internegative of the Super-8 films.  The Super-8 films were shot at 18fps, so the 16mm internegative is silent and 18fps as well.  Colorlab made our video transfer of the Super-8 films from the 16mm internegative.

Penny: We’ve worked with Nixon / NARA archivists Steve Greene and Ryan Pettigrew on this project.  Steve helped us with phase one (the films) and Ryan is now helping us with phase two (sound).  Our current idea – and this may change – is that just about 100% of the materials that make up this film will be public domain and archival in nature.

Home & Amateur: What can we expect as far as the look and the structure of your film, and since the films are all silent, what are you going to use for the soundtrack?

Penny: The structure is more or less chronological. It begins in 1969 with the Inauguration and ends with the 1973 resignations of Haldeman and Ehrlichman.

The soundtrack is composed of selections from the secret Nixon White House tapes, H.R. Haldeman’s contemporaneous daily audio diary, White House Communications Agency sound recordings and oral history interviews commissioned by the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum with our four cameraman: Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Chapin & Higby. The oral histories especially act as a structuring device, providing context for what you are seeing in the home movies and adding “voice” to the perspective of the cameramen.

We really want the home movies to dictate the form and tone of OUR NIXON with as little of our authorial intrusion as possible; we see our role as providing context and support to the home movies where necessary.  We see this as a unique approach compared to most documentary filmmakers who would see the home movies are simply another form of b-roll.  With OUR NIXON, the home movies ARE the documentary.

The musical score is still very much in development… we have some super secret and super awesome ideas!

Bonus question:
Your Kickstarter campaign has been going gangbusters, with lots of attention from bloggers and others. What do you think has grabbed people’s attention about your film?

Brian: Indeed it has!  We’re really thrilled that OUR NIXON is getting so much attention & that it seems to have resonated with the Kickstarter community.  I think there are a lot of reasons we’re doing so well.  First, Penny did a great job strategizing the campaign & putting together all of the promotional material.  We hired a great graphic designer, Molly McLeod, who helped us create a visual identity for the campaign.  Also, Penny did a fantastic job coming up with rewards for various pledge levels.  Political buttons, bobbleheads, compilations of all the home movies, Super-8 copies of a home movie reel, a producer credit, there’s something for everyone & at a reasonable price.  But ultimately, I think that people are just fascinated by Nixon.  He’s a bona fide political enigma & people love anything that might give them a new angle on Nixon’s character & motivations.  OUR NIXON promises to do that, by presenting RN from the perspective of those closest to him, rather than outsiders & capturing the excitement & disillusionment that RN’s supporters felt.

Now making the rounds, by filmmaker Adrianne Finelli.

“too soon too late is an experimental documentary that explores the notion of family memory loss, the denial of our own dysfunction and hardship. Hushed stories, hidden letters and forgotten home movies interweave to reveal moments between the smiles.  In this work I examine my own family through interviews with my father and his five siblings about the life and struggles of my grandmother.  too soon too latereworks found footage from the 1950s-1960s to form a collective memory and poses questions about the causes of  mood disorders in women of this era.”


Robin Hessman’s documentary, My Perestroika, about coming of age in the waning years of the Soviet Union, is making the film festival circuit.  The film makes extensive use of home movies from the 1970s and 1980s.  Hessman discussed the home movies in her interview with the CBC.

Q: How did you gather the home movies?

A: I was gathering through friends of friends. Someone would pass through a friend of a friend in the Metro a bag of films. Or someone would send them through their relatives off in Siberia in a train. I was asking anybody I knew. When I met Borya and Liuba Mayerson for the first time, after about two hours of conversation, I asked about the home movies, and Borya opened the closet and there they were. That was an incredible gift.

[His father] was an engineer. He was a fan [of making amateur movies]. He would develop them in the bathroom. He didn’t just film his own son. He would film all the kids on Communist cleanup day: the kids raking and cleaning the schoolroom and the assemblies.

Source: CBC

My Perestroika website

J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg are reportedly working on a home movie-inspired film called “Super 8.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Heat Vision blog got an early look at the preview and describes it as “quick, visceral and creepy,” though it doesn’t reveal anything concrete about the plot, which has been said to involve kids shooting Super-8 movies in 1979 and capturing something sinister on film. (The idea was inspired by Spielberg and Abrams’ discussions of their childhoods shooting home movies.) Despite this premise, SUPER 8 will apprently not be filmed in the handheld vérité style of the Abrams-produced CLOVERFIELD (which similarly began its buzz with a mysterious trailer attached to TRANSFORMERS).

Source: Fangoria

The new documentary “Remembering Playland” by Tom Wyrsch, looks back at San Francisco’s amusement park.

“Playland’s” archival footage comes mainly from home movies shot in 8 mm. Through Richard Tuck’s Playland Not at the Beach museum in El Cerrito, Wyrsch tracked down the aging film stock. “People remember seeing 8 mm home movies projected on the wall as being this small picture, (and looking) terrible. Now we have the ability to transfer the footage and digitally clean it up. When you see it on the big screen in 35 mm, the images so clear and the color is so good, it’s pretty amazing.”

See more at San Francisco Chronicle website

A new documentary, to be release in the United States later this year, uses Polish home movies  shot by American Jews visiting relatives in the 1930s.

“Po-Lin, Slivers of Memory” was conceived by Polish camerawoman Jolanta Dylewska, who was inspired to make the 80-minute film after coming across one of the home movies in Jerusalem archives in 1996 while working on an earlier project.

“That movie had an enormous emotional value for me,” Dylewska said. “People in it reacted with great warmth to the camera because it was in the hands of a family member, a close person. The camera transported that warmth onto me, watching the film 60 years later.”


Source: Washington Post

Trailer (in Polish)

Opening next week at MoMA is Jan Sikl’s eight part series Private Century, including a Q&A with Sikl on March 9th.

Composed entirely of family home movies, still photographs, letters, and diaries dating from the 1920s to the 1960s, Private Century explores, in Chekhovian fashion, how sweeping historical events transform the private lives of ordinary people, and how small domestic pleasures can crystallize into profound and enduring memories.

Source: MoMA

[This is the first in a new series of interviews with filmmakers and home movie aficionados]

Morgan Dews, in his riveting new film Must Read After My Death, combines home movies, snapshots and dictaphone letters to riveting documentary about his grandparents’ marriage.  Allis, Dews’s grandmother and the creator of the home movies and source of the audiotapes is, as one critic wrote, “a gifted, frustrated woman, entrapped by the ideology of the [1960s] – the perfect husband, the ideal marriage, the adorable children, the all-knowing psychoanalyst.”  Through this layering of intensely personal documentation, we watch the unraveling of a  troubled marriage and family life.

Home & Amateur: You’ve said that you had intended to make a short film from your grandmother’s home movies before you had the dictaphone tapes.  Because those tapes are so central to “Must Read After My Death” what form was that original film going to take?

Morgan Dews: Long before my grandmother died, I had been living in Barcelona and had amassed quite a collection of Super8/8 projectors and other peoples films and home movies from the flea market. Then I met the SuperOcheros. Danny Perillat and Jonathan Brown were two other americans in town and they were doing a live show with 4 to 10 projectors going at the same time. It was essentially live media mixing of the highest order. The first video I ever cut was a music video for my latin break-beat band, easy, that a friend shot of one of their performances.

In pretty short order, I gave them all my projectors and films. What they were doing was just so beautiful and vital, full of energy and life. I really think it was some of the best and most fun art work anyone was doing in the nineties. It was insane.

So when my grandmother died and theses films that had been in my life since childhood came to me, I had a pretty solid idea of things you could do with the footage. Danny gave me back a projector and a splicer so I could put the two hundred 50′ reels onto twenty three 400 foot reels and catalog the footage. I spent a week in the Pyrennes splicing, viewing and putting notes into a spreadsheet.

I had the vaguest idea of combining the footage with a memoir that Allis had written in 1991 into a short film about her. But I was never very convinced about using text in the film and before I had to deal with that I found out about the audio material.

H&A: It is obviously rare for a family to have such diverse and intimate
documentation available.  What role did the home movies play in the
family’s lives? Were they watched communally?

Dews: I was really the only one interested in the films. My mother and uncles had always said that all the could remember about the films was what a pain their father was, always chasing them around the house with the camera. I have my own boxes of home movies I’ve shot and it’s true that people are forever complaining about being filmed. Then sometimes they ask you why you aren’t filming and you’re there thinking, ‘but I thought you hated it?”

Bruce went so far at, a recent Thanksgiving gathering, as to suggest that filming was a generation skipping hereditary disease that I had gotten directly from Charley.

Since I was a child, I remember pulling out the projector and setting it up at my grandmother’s house. She absolutely refused to talk about those times, as did my mother and uncles. So I remember being very young, maybe eight or ten, and running them through like a detective. Then I would gingerly ask Allis about them. It’s funny to think about it, but that’s almost the same way I made the movie. Instead of asking Allis, I would be on the phone with my mother or my uncles asking them what the people were talking about in audio recordings.

H&A: How would you describe your grandmother’s approach to home movie making and what did you learn about her through her home movies?

Dews: I think both my grandparents were very excited by technology and very caught up in that modern feeling of progress. There are many many shots of trains, planes, cars, skyscrapers, world fairs etc. Allis also was very into filming flowers and gardens and Charley, her husband, and her children.

I also noticed that the films are all very presentational, very public records of how they wanted their family to be viewed. There’s a strong tendency to idealize in the family films. It almost seems like an inevitable byproduct of those saturated kodachrome emulsions.

H&A: I read in interview  “My next project is called Amigos and
traces a decade of debauchery in Spain using my home movies and those
of my three best friends.”  I’m curious to hear more about this. What do you find most interesting in the home movie aesthetic?

Dews: Well this project is very exciting. It’s my attempt to make a fiction film out of a largish collection of home movies. It’s how I made Must Read After My Death, but since all the main characters are dead (my grandparents) or hidden (my mother and uncles) it wasn’t necessary to change events in order to tell the truth.

What I find compelling about using home movies to construct narratives is that it pushes you into an approach much like the 20th century autobiographical novel.  You’re taking material that is analogous to diaries in a way, and massaging it into a narrative arc. The more explicit truths you want to get at, the more you have to change names and details in order to protect your friends and family.

There are also ideas about authenticity. I turn off the camera when my friends start to scream or cry, so you lose direct dramatic situations. But there is an honesty about home footage or documentary. People aren’t pretending the camera isn’t there, they aren’t pretending to be someone else, they are there with you filming and to some extent with the viewer viewing.

There’s also something to be said for the long arc in home footage. My grandparents filmed for 20 years of their lives. I have been too. Things really change over that span of time that are really hard to fake.

Must Read After My Death website

Making the circuit, after serving as the closing night feature at this spring’s New York Underground Film Festival, is Random Lunacy, a documentary about the “Flying Neutrinos,” a family led by the peripatetic father “Poppa Neutrino.”  The film is taken largely from home videos shot by the family.

All happy families are not alike, as proved by Poppa Neutrino, aka David Pearlman, and his Flying Neutrinos. A wandering soul, a particle spontaneously transforming, Poppa leads his family on a true quest for freedom and adventure. Rather than to drift through the obligations of an ordinary, “sequential” life, Poppa chooses to be what most people recognize as homeless—a lifestyle he elects for himself as well as his ever-expanding family. —NYUFF

Official Website

Getting rave reviews at the just-completed Telluride Film Festival was Czech director Jan Šikl’s series Private Century.

An 8-part documentary series that chronicles the 20th century through amateur family films. This material was in the time of its creation an exclusively private matter concerning only a narrow group of people. It however has grown to become a unique testimony of spontaneous private lives. It is a probe to intimate family niches. The Private Century cycle is free of the ambition to present self-contained historical views. Its aim is much more modest: to stop the time. Within Private Century, the local private memory becomes public. All the meanings in the film acquire much wider and more universal humane scope. Private Century shows the history as a set of intimate human stories.

Source: Institute of Documentary Film

“I discovered something quite basic in the process that I’d overlooked before. It became obvious that I had to research the background of the private footage, and get information from the relatives of those involved. On their own the silent films were lifeless–they showed streets, people, and a time about which nobody knew anything. So I began to search for the family members of those in the archival footage, and in this way I made the connection between the film material and people’s memories, and I had a starting point for the films.”–Jan Šikl