Do you remember home movies from when you were a kid? For most of us, old home movies are likely gathering dust in a basement somewhere. But for experimental film makers, home movies and similarly found footage are a treasure trove of inspiration: old film reels and VCR tapes are being given new life in modern film and documentaries, an artistic process called appropriation.
However, the appropriation of old footage in new film is often interpreted by viewers as “archival” footage—a representation of the past and history, which can be problematic. In the past, archival footage was defined as footage obtained from official institutes such as the National Archive and Records Administration in the United States, which were the major sources of film footage; now, footage can be found anywhere, even YouTube. So how is archival footage defined now if it can be appropriated from anywhere? Jaimie Baron, a professor in the Department of English & Film Studies, looks at appropriation in film and how it relates to the “archive effect.”
The archive effect redefines archival footage as an experience of the viewer: “So when we’re watching a film, there’s certain footage that has a particular effect; we recognize it as coming from a previous time and a different purpose—I call that the archive effect. I’m looking at how this effect manifests itself in different films, and the historical and historiographic implications of how it occurs,” explains Baron. “[Archival footage] tends to take on this evidentiary quality and we tend to give it a certain authority about the past.”
However, Baron cautions that film footage, particularly when it is appropriated, can be framed in specific ways to tell different versions of events. In her classroom, she regularly shows how different films use the same footage in different ways to tell different stories. “It’s edited in certain ways; it’s framed in certain ways…. People are very affected by the way a piece of footage is framed. An individual piece of footage doesn’t really mean anything until it’s been re-contextualized,” says Baron.
Baron notes that viewers tend to view archival film footage as a “truth medium” that represents the real—for example, some viewers believed The Blair Witch Project was documentary footage because it was presented as “found”—but she hopes that her research can help create informed viewers that question how archive footage shapes our perception of the past: “Appropriation is happening all the time and having a vocabulary for talking about how it works, how it affects us, makes us more informed citizens. Makes us able to parse what’s happening as opposed to taking it in without thinking it through.”
Baron is the creator of the Festival of (In)appropriation, a film festival that showcases experimental film created from appropriated sources. The festival started in Los Angeles in 2009.
“I’ve always been interested in experimental film. One genre that I found totally confusing was found footage film because a lot of it was chaotic and it didn’t make sense and I didn’t know what to make of it. My own frustration with it was intriguing and I think that’s where it started. And I was also very interested in history and this question of ‘how do we know the past?’ and those two things came together in my book.”
When Baron came to UAlberta, she brought the Festival of (In)appropriation with her, holding the first Edmonton-based festival in 2012. “Experimental film can be challenging. If you don’t know what you’re getting into, it can be alienating. [The Edmonton festival] certainly provoked discussion, which is my main goal. I don’t really care if they liked it, I just wanted them to talk about it,” laughs Baron.
“People are very affected by the way a piece of footage is framed. An individual piece of footage doesn’t really mean anything until it’s been re-contextualized.”
Home Movie Day
Home Movie Day (HMD) is another annual film festival that provokes discussion. This year’s HMD is taking place on Saturday, October 19 at the Provincial Archives of Alberta and was organized last year by UAlberta English professor Liz Czach. However, unlike the Festival of (In)appropriation, HMD features home movies in their entirety—without any appropriation.
Baron regularly attends HMD and is pleased by how many people show up to participate each year. “I think it used to be this stereotype where you don’t want to watch other people’s home movies…. There’s a dread that someone is going to show you 10 hours of their vacation,” she says. But as film gets more and more rare, people are increasingly attracted by the nostalgia of home movies.
“For me, certainly, seeing people bring home movies from the 50s is really exciting! Because even though I don’t know the people in the footage, I can see all the traces of the past that are meaningful. Even in the way they dress or the way they set their hair,” explains Baron.
It’s particularly meaningful when the home movie depicts a scene or location that has personal significance for the viewers in the audience. “The last home movie day I went to, this one guy brought in footage of himself and his family when he was a kid and it was just footage of sledding around Edmonton. What was really nice was that people were pointing out ‘Oh, I know where that is! I used to do that!’ and there was a sort of identification with the space. So even though you don’t know the people, there’s a sense of shared memory because it’s local.”
Home Movie Day
Festival of (In)appropriation
Jaimie Baron’s EFS website