The Past and Present Collide at Home Movie Day

Troy Price

The projector clicked and hummed as memories of a time long ago flickered on the wall.

Eli Savada watched his mother and father take a cruise through San Juan, Martinique and Grenada in February 1955. The former American Film Institute employee and current film critic marveled as he watched, for the first time, the exploits of his parents and Aunt Delma as they traversed the Caribbean more than a half century ago.

“I could spend days watching it,” Savada said.

He wasn’t the only one. Over a dozen other home movie lovers had gathered Saturday in a modest theater, tucked away in the National Building Museum, to share their own old home videos or delight in the movies of others. The group had come together to celebrate Home Movie Day, an international event targeting anyone who’s ever rummaged through their attic and found old film reels and wanted to see what wonderful secrets or stories they might hold.

Caitlin McGrath, the organizer of Home Movie Day’s D.C. chapter, espoused the importance of these old 8mm, Super8mm and 16mm stories as critical historical documents, offering an almost literal window into a time passed.

Savada said professional filmmakers could take these amateur films and repurpose them for stock footage of a particular era to be used in documentaries or fictitious cinema.

But the main importance of these films has nothing to do with their greater historical significance or ability to be repurposed. At their core, these films are a testament to familial history, an opportunity to revisit relatives who have died or a chance for younger family members to meet their ancestors for the very first time.

When McGrath said, “Sweetie, you have to get down from there” as her daughter pranced around on the same stage that the child’s great great grandfather was tending to his 1974 garden upon, there was an unerring sense of connection between the two, even though they were separated by almost 40 years and a film reel.

To the home movie lovers present at Home Movie Day, these are the moments that must be protected. To do so, Savada recommended keeping the film reels in a cool, dry place because a humid environment can lead to film shrinkage, which would render the film unusable. He also suggested sending the films to a film lab, where they can be preserved in a more long lasting format.

Laura Major, who works at Colorlab, a film lab in Rockville, Md., is often tasked with taking film that can no longer be used and transferring it to a new positive or negative that will allow it to last forever.

Due to a fear of damaging the film or a scarcity of projectors, the Colorlab staff is frequently the first to view these movies, so their resources and knowhow could mean the difference between a unique memory being lost forever or made everlasting — often into DVD format.

If home movie lovers like Savada have their way, Major and her ilk will never run out of work, allowing for a fresh Home Movie Day every year.

These films are “such a blast to go through,” Savada said. “Home movies are a terrific thing.”

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