The nonprofit film archive Northeast Historic Film will share a $322,000 grant with its two partners, the Chicago Film Archives and the Orland-based Lesbian Home Movie Project. The three groups will work together to digitize their collections of home video shot by women in the 20th century. FILE PHOTO BY JEFF KIRLIN

Northeast Historic Film wins $322,000 grant



BUCKSPORT — Home videos may not seem relevant to the study of film, but in fact they provide clear and candid windows into our past. Or, perhaps they are mirrors of ourselves.

“Cat videos are not a new phenomenon,” said Karin Carlson, an archivist and vault manager at Northeast Historic Film. “People have been filming their cats doing crazy things since cameras were invented.”

Digitizing these home videos — and the stories of the people who film them — is the focus of a $322,000 grant that Northeast Historic Film and its two partner organizations received last week from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The money will go toward an 18-month project to digitize home movies and amateur film shot by women in the 20th century. The end goal of the project, titled “The Woman Behind the Camera: Home Movies and Amateur Film by Women, 1925-1997,” is to make those home videos accessible for all online.

“I’ve been to a couple conferences about men coming back from the war and filming their families,” said Carlson, who helped plan out the idea. “Not as much about women, who were filming quite a lot, and not just their families but their own stuff.”

“There may be a presumption that it was dad who held the camera, but it wasn’t always the case” said David Weiss, interim executive director of Northeast Historic Film. “There were lesbian women, single women and married women who took home movies, and we wanted to put together a significant amount of them.”

Carlson first thought of the idea of applying for the grant while meeting with Sharon Thompson, who leads the Orland-based Lesbian Home Movie Project (LHMP). LHMP holds over 20 collections of home footage from lesbian writers, painters, singers and others stored at Northeast Historic Film, with some film dating back to at least 1935.

Carlson and Thompson both wanted to find the time and money to catalog LHMP’s and Northeast Historic Film’s collections of home video shot by women.

“Suppose a lesbian aunt came to visit with a Super 8 camera,” Thompson wrote in an email. “What might she have focused on?”

In a film world largely dominated by men, Thompson also wrote that this project “will give women behind the camera a larger place — a fair place — in the history of moving-image making.” She also wrote that “finding a work of art, regardless of the gender, occupation, condition of the person who made it — making it visible so everyone can see it — is important in its own right.”

Northeast Historic Film and LHMP teamed up with the Chicago Film Archives (CFA), and in September they applied to the Digitizing Hidden Special Collections program, a national competition organized by the Council on Library and Information Resources.

“There’s a network of independent moving image archives across the country,” Weiss said. “And CFA was interested in joining the project.”

Northeast Historic Film and its partners weren’t the only prize recipients in the contest. The others included the New York Public Library, the University of Southern California and the American Folk Art Museum. But for Northeast Historic Film, winning the grant is only the start of the work that lies ahead.

The organization is using the grant money to hire two employees to help digitize the film, which requires using a machine that takes pictures of every frame of film and stitches it together on a computer.

“The new people will help transfer everything,” Carlson said. “And watch all the film and talk to the filmmakers’ families to contextualize it by knowing who you’re looking for.”

Once the new employees digitize all the films and research their backgrounds, Northeast Historic Film will hire consultants to build web pages and integrate databases for the films. Meanwhile, representatives from the organization will present at women’s studies conferences and at moving image archivist conferences to generate more interest in the project.

“With luck, other repositories will be able to add material of their own,” Weiss said. “So it could grow beyond the original partners.”

Weiss said the website should be up and running with film to watch within a few months. It can be accessed through Northeast Historic Film’s website, oldfilm.org. For those who think that other people’s home videos are dull, think again.

“You see things filmed in the 1920s that are the same as those filmed today, like kids sledding,” said Carlson, who also mentioned two collections where women film their unaccompanied travels around the world in the 1920s. “When I mention that to people they’re usually surprised.

“Not as much as when they hear of the same thing by men, so it’s good just to get that perspective.”

David Roza

David Roza

David grew up in Washington County, Maryland, has reported in Washington County, Oregon, and now covers news in Hancock County and Washington County, Maine for The American and Out & About.