A Review of mIrrorspeak and Home Movie Day by Carlyn Thomas

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“There’s no such thing as a bad home movie. These mini-underground opuses are revealing, scary, joyous, always flawed, filled with accidental art and shout out from attics and closets all over the world to be seen again. Home Movie Day is an orgy of self-discovery, a chance for family memories to suddenly become show business. If you’ve got one, whip it out and show it now.” — John Waters, from the Home Movie Day Website

On the evening of Saturday, November 23, the EMP Collective  hosted the Baltimore chapter of Home Movie Day in conjunction with their current exhibition, mIrrorspeak.  The event featured ten home movies, which may better be categorized as short personal films, especially to delineate them from the stigma often associated with the campy home movie.

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Home Movie Day is an annual celebration of amateur filmmaking. It has been held at a number of venues in nineteen participating countries since 2003. The series is intended to explore and celebrate amateur filmmaking and to share home movies with a larger audience. In past years, filmmakers could show up at the event with their footage in tow and everyone was guaranteed a screening. Now in its eleventh year, the films were curated from a group of submissions. According to EMP Collective, “Home Movie Day is a night of film and stories from local residents and filmmakers examining who we are and how we got here.” Additionally, the event is supposed to raise consciousness for the value of home movies, film and digital, and the best ways to preserve them.

Dwight Swanson and Timothy Wisniewski curated this year’s Baltimore installment and selected ten video artists for screening. Although not all the participants were local, all have an association with Baltimore. Many of the artists were present to give a brief introduction to their work, while others sent recorded videos or written statement to be read aloud before. The films ranged from actual home movie clips to complex, edited compilations of footage, and from directed shorts to heavily filtered experimental videos. The featured artists were Andrew Lampert, Lorenzo Gattorna, Mary Ancel, Séamus Miller and Jorge Silva, Dave Iden, Margaret Rorison, Barron Sherer, Morgan Christie, Siobhan Hagan, and Sausan Saulat.

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mIrrorspeak, the current exhibit at EMP Collective, explores the idea of the self-portrait in non-traditional ways, examining visual methods for constructing self and identity. Curator Carly J. Bales was interested in screening films to reflect the content of the exhibit, so she reached out to Swanson and Wisniewski offering to host Home Movie Day as a unique extension of the mIrrorspeak programming. Both the portraits and films rely heavily on personal narrative and nostalgia, offering literal and interpreted representations, essentially, portraits of lives. For this screening, the selected filmmakers edited their home movies and personal films into interpreted recollections of their lives and surroundings. These curated memories aren’t literal or event-specific, but function as reflections of individual experiences.

About half the videos were shot with and screened on Super 8 and 16mm film, and the rest were digital. Barron Sherer’s film depicts a playful interaction between a father and two sons on a summer day. It was filmed with a hand-held camera and appears more similar to popular definitions of home movies than some of the others. After the screening, Sherer disclosed that the video was shot by his then 4-year-old son, as an experiment to see if an expired roll of Super 8 film would even hold an image. He later used the footage to be the first example to teach his son how to splice film. Though he admits to previously scrutinizing family films, he agrees that even video artists create home movies.

Lorenzo Gattorna took a completely different approach to his digital video submission. His wide-angle shots and slow pans across a desolate gray landscape of dead plants and run-down houses are grim and somber. There is a soft-spoken yet daunting male voice reciting a poem over the video. His film, entitled, “Fathers,” never depicts people, but was intended in homage to his father. For Gattorna, the film represents “the longing for home, the disruptive passages through space and time as well as the domestic trials and triumphs of the bond between father and son.”

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One of my favorite films of the evening, “Home,” by Siobhan Hagan, featured a compilation of imagery from baseball games, horseback rides, pans of the inner harbor, a lightening storm in her family’s backyard, her high school marching band,  a hay ride, and playing in the snow. Instead of organizing the footage chronologically, Hagan curated by season, so that the memories become part of a universal narrative. In addition, the audio played in an asynchronous manner from the video. For example, during a clip of playing in the snow one would hear the stats of an Orioles game, or a plane taking flight atop the footage of the marching band. The familiarity of the sounds and images created an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, but also engaged the audience to interpret two narratives at once, both jumbling and clarifying the message.

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As a whole, the evening featured an eclectic array of videos, techniques, and mood, from endearing and familiar to avant-garde and experimental. The variety of films was crucial to depict the diversification of filmmaking styles in Baltimore and catered to a wide audience. The screenings ran smoothly, switching back and forth between film and digital and the accompanying statements by the artists helped the audience understand the emotional and personal ties between the filmmakers and their work. Attending the event makes me wish for more opportunities to screen personal films, to appreciate the sense of familiar sentimentality that isn’t often found in directed films. Despite their wide variety in approach and message, all the movies explored the question of identity in thought-provoking ways, and in particular how the world builds and destroys one’s sense of self.

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* Author Carlyn Thomas is a Baltimore native, aspiring independent curator, visual artist, and arts and culture enthusiast. She graduated from UMBC’s Art History and Museum Studies program and currently works at the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, interns at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, and is frequent volunteer at Maryland Art Place.