Remaking Home Movies (2009)

(This is an excerpt from an essay in the forthcoming Mining the Home Movie: Excavations into Historical and Cultural Memories, edited by Karen I. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmerman.)

After I left Trinidad to go to school, my mother would send me packages entrusted with relatives or family friends. Sometime in the 1980s, I received such a parcel, but instead of the usual guava jelly and mangoes, I was handed a plastic bag containing two dozen reels of 8mm film. In a note, my mother explained that she had placed the film in an iron safe that sat in the back of our house, one of several ancient appliances she just couldn’t bring herself to discard. In time, bees had colonized the safe and sealed the lock with wax. After many years Mom had managed to pry it open. Did I want these pictures?

Alone one night I ran the film through a super-8 viewer borrowed from filmmaker Midi Onodera. The screen was tiny, the image was almost abstract. Yet each luminous frame opened a successive drawer in an archive of memories. From my gay leftist commune in downtown Toronto I was sucked back into the sixties to a Chinese Catholic home in Port of Spain. Even more unsettling than the time travel was the fact that the images on the screen didn’t sync up with the recollections in my head. These films contradicted everything I remembered of the tone and texture of my childhood.

The introduction of home movies, like the family snap before it, is associated with the mid-century rise of consumerism, suburbia and the nuclear family. As Don Slater describes, “Your family photographed, the advertising promised, would be the ideal advertised family, the site of modern consumption and domesticity. Simply and reliably, the snapshot camera would reproduce the right family.” (‘Consuming Kodak,’ by Don Slater in Family Snaps: The Meaning of Domestic Photography Jo Spence and Patricia Holland eds. London: Virago, 1991, p. 49)

These images of the right family were precisely what unsettled me when I first re-encountered my family’s home movies. I was taken aback by the extent to which the movies cast our Chinese Trinidadian family according to the template of suburban America – many of the images looked like they could have been shot in Southern California.

The shock of that initial encounter, the disjuncture between remembrance and apparent evidence, led me to question both my memory and the camera’s version of my childhood. Out of these reflections I produced three videotapes: The Way to My Father’s Village (1988), My Mother’s Place (1990) and Sea in the Blood (2000). Each tape has a different conceptual focus and aesthetic approach, and a different use of the home movies. The Way to My Father’s Village is a contemplation of the dual commanding absences of a father who had recently died and a China I had never visited. I used the home movies to suggest the capriciousness of memory, splicing them with inter-titles which at time reproduce, at other alter or even contradict, the voice-over description of the past. This relationship of narration and image is reversed in My Mother’s Place, an exploration of consciousness about race, gender, class and sexuality in colonial and post-colonial Trinidad. Here narration and on-screen text draw out the ideology embedded in the footage. For example, in a shot of my sister and me playing in a homemade tent, the viewer’s attention is drawn away from the intended subjects towards the old African-Chinese woman who took care of us, standing at the side and in the background. The sequence deconstructs the geography of power in the frame. Finally, in Sea in the Blood, a digital poem about love and loss produced a decade after the parental diptych, the narration also rubs against the grain of the image, but the purpose is less analytical and political, more for emotional and dramatic effect. At the centre of this tape is footage of my family in England while seeking treatment for my sister’s fatal illness. Over the image of tourist sighs and snowball fights are audio taped reactions of my mother and surviving sister watching the footage for the first time since the sixties.

Home movie images offer a rich archive of everyday life, but they do not speak for themselves. If they are to be anything more than triggers for nostalgia, or in the case of my family’s footage – quaint and exotic objects or fascination – they require context. Their hidden meanings must be coaxed from the grainy images and washes of colour.