One of the very first video projects I worked on deal with the changing working conditions on the Fremantle docks from the early 1950s through to the 1980s. That project led me to research the relevant archival footage available in the State Film Archive. In doing so I came across one of the earliest known pieces of footage shot in Western Australia, sometime in the first decade of this century. It was a tracking shot, mounted on a boat, as it approached and went under the Fremantle Traffic Bridge, which is still standing today. You may be familiar with similar images from elsewhere: the unstable frame looking at a wide shot of a bridge, and as the boat goes under (or is it through the bridge?), there is the continuing unstable pan up to reveal the underbelly of the structure. The shot holds your fascination, the reasons for which are not altogether clear.
Equally as fascinating, though, is some home movie footage that was my good fortune to get hold of. Amongst this two hours of regular 8 footage, all of which was shot in the period between 1950 and 1955, was an almost exact replica of the shot I described above. The only difference was an added pan along the riverbank which precedes the bridge somewhere where the Oyster Beds Restaurant now stands. This coincidence struck me. Why did that so called primitive image have so much in common with home movie footage shot by a Quairading farming family almost 50 years later? That question will not be answered easily.
But trying to answer it may connect home movie footage into the flow of history. What follows is a preliminary investigation into my own fascination with home movie footage.
Before doing so I will outline the background of the specific footage I'm referring to. About twelve months ago I was over at a friend's place when she remarked that "I think there is a bag of old film lying around the place somewhere". She showed me an ageing QANTAS bag which was packed tightly but haphazardly with regular 8 footage, in their original cartons. The footage was shot by her uncle who had a farm in the wheat belt town of Quairading about 200 miles east of Perth.
The first quality of this home footage that struck me was the farming, land orientated nature of the content. There were images of bullocks being killed, paddocks being farmed, cattle being driven up north and children playing with the farm animals. As we are all aware, filmmakers aren't all self-less creatures bent on bringing out the humanity in us all. They seek to tell, sometimes lecture people on how they feel and see themselves. For some time now I have been seeking a vehicle through which to echo some childhood concerns of mine. As an oversensitive kid, in and out of tune with too many things, I was sent away to my uncle's farm during virtually every school holiday. That soldier settlement farm was a spatial paradise. Walking through the wheat fields, driving the Toyota, feeding the pigs, setting fire to the haystack, shooting the rabbits and foxes et. al., combined to form a geography of space that didn't and couldn't exist anywhere else. Space and time took on a seasonal aspect which the education dominated world of my home town couldn't even come second to. Rhythm not rhetoric occupied the dominant part of my mental topography. The 'primitive' images of the Stacey family communicated instantly with these memories.
In conjunction with getting to know these images I was also getting to know the extended Stacey family. I looked at footage of special family occasions like weddings and birthdays - of holiday trips to New Zealand, to Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide; and of the family at leisure activities like boat races at Busselton and go-carts at Mandurah. The more this familiarity with the family grew the more I became aware of the social status. The family control nearly 20,000 acres of farm land and have been in the district for three generations. On top of this the local community treats the Stacey's with the familiarity of a family member, which is overlaid with respect. An instance of this is the 'Lamb Train', an annual event which up until a couple of years ago the family organised and ran. Every spring Westrail used to congregate some 40 carriages at the local siding just so the Stacey family could ship their lambs down to Perth. On the day this 'Lamb Train' occurred virtually everyone in the district downed what they were doing and came to the siding to help load the lambs onto the carriages. Apparently the family has a record for producing the most amount of lambs per farm in the state. Curiously this most public of phenomena in a rural community was largely unrepresented in the Stacey films. Perhaps it was too much of an activity that was already all too well covered in documentaries and raw stories; maybe it was just something you did rather than represented. This annual incident was and remains an example of the surface classlessness and the underlying class structure that goes with a wealthy rural family. These questions of class and wealth kept raising their head the more I-learnt about the family and the more I watched the footage.
Home movie footage almost always has a distinct 'feel' to it. Pin-pointing this 'feel', though, is not always that simple. In fact it is almost impossible. To alleviate this problem, or rather to put it on the back burner, we could look at what home movie footage is not. Home movies are ungarnished by professionalism, i.e. the unwritten assumptions of paid and/or trained individuals and groups working within the film and television institution, whether their role be creative, economic, educational, independent or dominant. Home movies are a genre set off on their own with their own separate set of assumptions. The very dichotomy amateur/professional is intended to keep the assumptions of each category at arm's length from one another. Under these circumstances professional meaning can be contained, 'understood' by the widest number of people. Meaning in home movies contains different formal constructs. In the formal qualities of home movies we can glimpse the rationale behind this dichotomy. The diegetic flow of home movies is discontinuous. Instead of narrative linearity there is spaghetti footage winding its way all over the place, exposure that doesn't always find the 'right' parking space, a kinetic cycle that goes on and off according to some invisible dynamics and there are actors who actually look into the camera. Reinforcing this discontinuity is the closed space of the content. Only those with specialist knowledge can 'know' the narrative. This restricts meaning to a small audience which usually involves the family. The result of this formal discontinuity and narrative exclusion is a fusion of memory and technology, in which the privileged members are the final arbiters of that knowledge: 'that's Johnny when he was 16', 'Shirley and Geoff's wedding', 'our holiday in Busselton'. Unlike the objective political world this knowledge is irrefutable.
Home movie footage serves as a filmic example of how the self separates itself from the collective enterprise. But by marking themselves off so idiosyncratically home movies also utilise the binding agent of culture to convey their meaning. Memory is the glue that history adheres to. Memories, like history, are constantly re-lived. We are forever keen to be nostalgic about what we already know, often forgetting that the raw material of memory/history is the source of what we could know. Underlying every film project is the potential of what we could know. Working with home movies provides an ideal site for this potential. In essence you would become an adjudicator between acute subjective memory and the material memory of the collective expressed through the film form. The corresponding risks and satisfactions are enough to attract a foolhardy film adventurer like myself.