Amateur film/ Home Movies/ underground film[1]

Amateur work has not generated a great body of critical discourse. Archives are recent, crude and for the large part unstudied. I decided to describe the field of amateur film enough so we could see its influence on the underground both in its US phase and in its recent phase in London. Along with the evidence from my oral history interviews of the collective I hope to show that the cultural field of amateur film is important to a critical contextualisation of the Exploding Cinema.

Very little analysis has yet been made of the home movies now in public archives. I will sketch a history of amateur film before going on to discuss a selection of actual films. One of the few books devoted to the history of amateur film is Patricia Zimmerman's Reel Families, A Social History of Amateur Film (1994), which deals exclusively with the USA and is mostly based on the study of contemporary discourses about what amateur film should be, rather than studies of the relevant primary materials to see what people actually made. I will first summarise some general aspects of her history that are relevant to my later examination of British amateur films.[2]

Amateurism... emerged between 1880 and 1920 as the cultural inversion of the development of economic professionalism. (Zimmerman 1994 p7)

Amateurism stood for the spontaneous, anarchic, whimsical, personal and subjective. It stood for freedom, daring, mental agility and pioneering invention. In other words, it was a positive label for all that was excluded by the corporate professional work structure. As leisure increased and became more widespread the meanings practically reversed and amateurism came to signify poverty of technique, lack of sophisticated aesthetic judgement and intellectual incoherence. But both meanings have continued to have currency and are evoked at different times for different purposes. Hand-held stills cameras had been introduced in 1888 and their use differentiated amateur from professional photographers. As picture making became available to all for the first time it was considered by many to be a democratic art form compared with the upper class associations that clung to painting.

The technical development of movie film from its early beginnings c1892 happened alongside the development of corporate industrialisation. Kodak had practically achieved a monopoly of 35mm film as early as 1910. This drove other film manufacturers to seek an amateur market but this did not take-off until the standardisation of the 16mm format in 1923. Amateur film making then took off in earnest through the Twenties, however 16mm filmmaking was still a hobby for the relatively wealthy.

Within the broadened sphere of amateur production the positive significations of the films produced were: authenticity (being less mediated); nostalgia and emotion; the personal and intimate; spontaneity and immediacy; a direct relation with its subject (lack of illusion); an interaction with its subject; non-narrative (often using an unedited real-time chronology). These themes converged in a practice that, according to Zimmerman, typically occurred within the private domain of the bourgeois family. The idea of the 'home movie' was born in this context.

Following the consolidation of the 16mm standard in 1923, colour was introduced between 1928 and 1937, and the cheaper 8mm standard came out in 1932 boosting amateur camera sales. But the potential popularisation of cine culture afforded by 8mm was restricted by the effects of the depression.

In World War Two the military use and development of 16mm for mobile documentaries and surveillance opened up methods of filming that had until then been derided as amateurish. These hand-held camera newsreel techniques using only natural lighting were gradually incorporated by the mainstream film industry as special effects. More recently this has been cleverly repackaged as a complete style signifying integrity and authenticity by the Danish 'DOGME 95' group.[3]

In the post-war period there was a dramatic rise in consumer wealth and a subsequent expansion of suburban living. In 1952 6% of US families had movie cameras but this was to rise rapidly throughout the Fifties and Sixties as cheaper 8mm foreign cameras flooded the market, even forcing the mighty Bell and Howell out of amateur camera production in 1962.

Amateur film on 8mm was denigrated by film writers of the time as substandard, worthless and unwatchable. Amateur film-makers were constantly directed to imitate Hollywood's narrative conventions. Advice that was in practice, as Zimmerman notes, consistently ignored (1994 p74). Amateur 8mm film technique seemed to be typified by some of the following methods:

1. Shooting whatever takes your fancy within the constraints of a limited footage. (A reel is just under 4 minutes). This tends to make the filmic relation to perception transparent.

2. Flash panning and fire hosing. This means the camera follows eye movements. The effect achieved is anti-illusory forefronting the presence and spontaneous will of the camera operator.

3. Lack of planning. Having chronological rather narrative intentions. Recording experience as an end in itself.

4. No editing. Giving a sense of unmediated record or memory and making the production process evident.[4]

One of the values of home movies is as an ethnographic record, with the crucial difference that they are unmediated self-representations. In this sense home movies can also be works of art in their own right. This was widely recognised by the US underground in the Fifties and Sixties.

In the early Thirties European experimental films, such as the works of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov had begun to circulate in the USA and their relevance to amateur practice had not gone unnoticed. Eisenstein's process of montage was closer to amateur practice than the script orientated professional Hollywood movie. The Second World War then created a great market of surplus 16mm equipment that contributed to a post-war flowering of independent cinema.

In the post-war period many US artist filmmakers were using amateur film language and there was an explicit cross fertilisation between these two areas. The most important of the film artists writing in the Fifties was Maya Deren. She argued for the aesthetic values of amateur film and clearly saw her own practice as coming from this area even if her intentions were more formal.[5] The American underground films of the Fifties and Sixties were widely circulated around the USA and imported to Britain in the late Sixties as I have noted above. As I have already noted the prominent Lithuanian writer, organiser and film-maker Jonas Mekas took energetic leadership of this movement after Maya Deren died in 1961, articulating his support of the amateur aesthetic both in his own films and though his prolific writings.

Mekas's home movie aesthetic posits memory as the interpretive faculty of his films. Memory restores the possibility of community and inscribes the individual in history, reforming the ties that bind groups together. (Jeffrey K. Ruoff in, James 1992)[6]

Many other influential experimental U.S. filmmakers of the time, such as Bruce Conner, Stan Brakhage and Ken Jacobs, were also working in a home movie style. More recently in Britain David Larcher, Derek Jarman, Andrew Kotting, Paul Tarrago and Mark Saunders come to mind although there has been no Maya Deren or Jonas Mekas to theorise their relation to amateur film practice.[7]

Unfortunately Patricia Zimmerman's pioneering book stops short in the early Sixties before amateur filmmaking became most widely available. This period, which started with the first use of 8mm in the 1930s, reached a high point with the introduction of the superior quality 'Super 8' format in 1965. By this time many second-hand cameras were becoming available, so filmmaking had become accessible even to those on low incomes. By the early Eighties home movies were being made with video camcorders and shown on television sets. Movie making on 8mm film and shows projected in the home were in decline although Super 8 continues to be used by artists and enthusiasts.

The ritual of projection in the darkened living room within a familial gathering was an important part of the whole process. Although this event had a sense of occasion marked by its association with the cinema show, the audience was likely to be much more active providing a running commentary on the footage shown and reinforcing its communality through vocalised recognitions of those on screen.

What did 'ordinary' people record on film in this period? Material is being collected in the British Regional Film Archives but the study of this material has hardly begun.

British Regional Film Archives value amateur footage highly - we have two thirds amateur and one third professional in our holdings. Maryann Gomes, curator, N.W. Film Archive (memo 21-6-99)[8]

It is commonly assumed that home movies consist solely of poorly framed images of children and animals in suburban domestic settings or sandcastles being washed away by the tide, intercut with over-exposed bodies. These subjects are common but there is much more besides.

The Home Front through Home Movies was a series of five 20 minute programmes made for Channel Four Learning and available as a video. 'It shows the ways in which ordinary people filmed everyday life in Britain and Germany during the years 1939 - 1945'.[9] Thirty nine subjects are covered by the amateur footage of which only three are the domestic, holiday or wedding footage that had been associated with 'home movies'. The rest are of public scenes of children's activity, the Blitz, resistance, work and recreation, victory celebrations and defeat. Apart from being a model of how home movies footage can be used to construct history it also shows the diversity of material that was being filmed at this time. As a detailed case study of the later Super 8 period I went to a showing at the Museum of the Moving Image in London on 10th March 1999 entitled Home Truths.[10]

The lack of critical discourse on amateur film means that many of the images can easily be dismissed as having little value once they have left the localised context in which they were made. The connections to their historical significance are difficult to draw spontaneously, even if you are knowledgeable about the relevant history and culture.

My own brief study suggests not a poverty of aesthetics but of economic resource and of critical support for working class culture.

From the viewpoint of the professional film standards, home movies can seem discordant and stark. But they also evidence a truth and emotive insight which is unique to this genre. As Dan Sipe has pointed out the presentation of history on video as a documentary genre has the advantage of being closer to subject it represents.[11] But it should be remembered that home movies can also be an artform in their own right, even if it has been a neglected one. They should not be seen simply as a convenient source of illustration to be plundered for clips. This would miss much of their value.

I have noted that home movies exist in public archives and that much more research needs to be done to explicate their significances and aesthetic value. It seems that they may not be just about the suburban nuclear family, as has been commonly assumed, but could also contain a much wider range of subject matter. They also need to be made more easily accessible through digitisation. If these things could be seen as a legitimate part of film history and theory with unique significations and aesthetic values.

Exploding Cinema do not show many 'home movies' as such - it is just that the films shown could often be understood better as an extension of the amateur idiom rather than being compared unfavourably with professional films.

The references made to the amateur idiom in the programme images and the references in the oral history interviews make it clear that these connections are not simply being imposed.[12]

In short we can see that the Exploding Cinema is a product of Mekas' inclusive model of a film collective but remodelled by the cultural and technological forces of the late Seventies and Eighties alongside quite British traditions of 'underground' and live culture which can be traced back through music hall to the medieval fairs. The vector I have traced from the new comedy circuit through Leister's Kino clubs to Exploding Cinema is not meant to suggest a unicursal determination. Cultural developments are complex and rhizomic.[13]

The critical reframing of Exploding Cinema as relating to the field of amateur production as much as literary or academic or professional definition of film will allow its value to be seen more clearly. The application of conventional 'film theory' could reveal little of such phenomena which exists largely outside of such frames.




[1] An article based on this chapter was published in the Oral History Society Journal in autumn 2000 (vol 28 No 2 pp94/98).


[2] A recent book covering a variety of issues around the amateur film field is Jubilee Book: essays on amateur film, ed. Anon (AEI, Belgium 1997)


[3] Dogme's 'Vow of Chastity' manifesto signed by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg can be downloaded from


[4] Lovely Movies were a filmmaking trio that showed Super 8 film at Exploding Cinema throughout the Nineties. Their films show a close affinity with these amateur 'production values'. See an interview with them, 'The DIY Movie Industry Talks' by Anthony Kopiecki in Kinokaze (Issue 2 1993 pp31-35)


[5] Maya Deren, 'Amateur Versus Professional', Film Culture 39, Winter 1965, p45. For a recent survey of this area see Al Rees, A History of Experimental Film & Video (BFI 1999).

[6] Jeffery K. Ruoff was quoted from 'Home Movies of the Avant Gard', Cinema Journal v30:3 1991 p16. A revised version of this important article is included in To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground, ed. David E James, (Princeton UP, 1992).


[7] Paul Tarrago, of the Exploding Cinema collective, explains how he obtained the amateur footage he has incorporated into his work: "The films were sold and advertised as useful Super 8 spacingâ old home movies are cheaper than buying the usual white or black leader material available commercially." Oral History Journal, Autumn 2000 (Vol 28 No2 p96). A poignant indicator of the way such footage and its content is undervalued.


[8] Archived home movies in Britain are scattered between the Regional Film Archives, local history archives, oral history archives, folk custom archives and so on. Early amateur filmmaking was rarely affordable to working class people. Going by the holdings of the NorthWest Film Archives it was only in the 1950's that working class people could begin to afford to make home movies. 'The Past As Present: the home movie as cinema of record', Maryann Gomes, m/s NorthWest Film Archive, Manchester, 1998.

[9] History in Action: The Home Front through Home Movies (video) CH4 Schools, 1998


[10] The films shown were mostly from the later 'democratic' period of 8mm filmmaking and included a few movies of families and holidays but also more diverse material. Home Truths was the seventh annual showing of home movies at the Museum of the Moving Image on London's South Bank. Stephen Herbert selected the programme from the archives of a network of amateur filmmakers and their descendants. He had decided to mainly show work made before 1975. The 8mm and Super 8 films shown at MOMI depicted important aspects of working class life and culture during this period. My detailed report on these films is included in my article 'The Value of Home Movies', Oral History Society Journal, Autumn 2000 (Vol 28 No 2 pp94/98).

David Leister subsequently had a show at the MOMI theatre of 19 amateur films on 16mm, selected from his own archive. The Kino Club Presents: A Brief History of Home Cinema, 26th May 1999. A more detailed report was made in my Logbook (L3 p295).


[11] Dan Snipe, 'The Future of Oral History and Moving Images', Oral History Review (Spring/fall 1991 vol. 19 nos. 1/2 pp75 ▄ 87)

[12] See also the Oral History interview section, particularly Caroline Kennedy's account of home movies in her childhood.


[13] 'Rhizome' is a concept from the theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. The most widely influential form of their text on the Rhizome concept may be On the Line translated by John Johnston (Semiotext(e) 1983).