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The Home Movie: A Veil of Poetry

By Karen Ishizuka

A blurry black-and-white family photo from 'Moving Memories.'

You know what? It is the 8mm movie that will save us. Blind as we are, it will take us a few more years to see it, but some people see it already.... They see the beauty of the sunsets taken by a Bronx woman when she passed through the Arizona desert; travelogue footage, awkward footage that will suddenly sing with an unexpected rapture; the Brooklyn Bridge footage... the Orchard Street footage—time is laying a veil of poverty over them.

Jonas Mekas,
April 18, 1963

The big screen or mainstream media has created a center outside of which persevere other forms of filmic art and expression. Documentary filmmakers such as ourselves give voice and representation to topics considered too small, perspectives thought to be alternative and styles that are not market-driven. The realm of home movies and amateur film takes this perspective one step further by being self-representations by ordinary people of ordinary life. In short they are about us and what gives our lives meaning.

Except for visionaries such as Jonas Mekas, most people don't take home movies seriously. Rather, they conjure up images of endless kids' birthday parties and tedious vacation footage. For many, this footage is perceived as an irrelevant pastime or as simply nostalgia. Home movies are too often dismissed as inconsequential by-products of consumer technology and prosaic attempts at movie making. And yet home movies are in fact historical artifacts-man-made objects that reflect not only the culture of a given moment but the sociological, aesthetic and economic status of the person, place and time that they document.

They're visual statements that comprise a distinctive film genre of style and authorship that is uniquely intimate; they offer hints about the depth of collective memory. While the camera still "tends to lie" and we are beyond the illusion of capturing objec­tive reality, home movies are intensely reflexive images. Influenced by both deliberate and unconscious social and psychological forces, they reveal emotional and symbolic insights into personal and popular culture.

Now, you might say, those are pretty elevated claims for a form of expression that seems so functional and—yes—pedestrian. However, the very factors that make the home movie seem unre­ fined and inconsequential (in relationship to conventional media forms) are the key to their significance. Their naivete, immediacy and reflexivity are the very qualities that provide the "veil of poetry" over ordinary events.

Within home movies—unmotivated by commerce or propaganda—lie hidden histories of the world. In fact, in many cases, home movies comprise the sole motion picture documentation of specific ethnic/cultural/regional life from the perspective of those who lived it. This is especially true for racial, ethnic and cultural minorities who have long been marginalized by official versions of history. While the majority society was (and continues to be) routinely reflected in the mass media of a nation, minority points of view are usually ignored. When they do gain media coverage,the perspective is often filtered through the lens of the dominant society. Visual images of the early part of the century, as lived by ethnic minorities and other underrepresented groups, rema in concealed in family albums and home movies.

By way of example, I want to concentrate here on some of the home movies I've collected over the years for the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. With a background in anthropology, media and Asian American Studies, I started working with home movies in 1989 when, as a curator at the Museum, I accidentally found the first of what is now over 200,000 feet of 16mm, 8mm and Super 8mm, B&W and color film footage containing never-before-seen, one-of-a kind visual documentation of Japanese American history and culture. From this footage, director Robert A. Nakamura (often called the "godfather" of Asian American media) and I have produced video productions and exhibition components using home movies. The first was a three-screen laser disc installation called Through Our Own Eyes in 1991. Moving Memories (1992) presents collections of home movies taken by Japanese pioneer immigrants as they made America their home in the 1920s and 1930s. The experimental documentary, Something Strong Within (1994), features home movies that reflect the deter­mination to maintain a sense of normalcy and community within what has become known as America's concentration camps of World War II. In The Brighter Side of Dark: Toyo Miyatake, 1895- 1979 (1996), we used photographer Miyatake own home movies to illustrate historical time periods through the images of the one who lived it. In each case,we made the decision to iden­tify the amateur footage as such, and the filmmakers by name, to maintain the integrity of their original vision.

The trajectories of amateur filmmaking and Japanese American history and culture coincide—the home movie emerg­ing at the turn of the century at the same time Japanese immigrated to the United States. Recruited as a source of cheap labor in a two-century history of racism, genocide and exploitation, Japanese workers replaced the Chinese on the West Coast after the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1880. Anti-Japanese sentiment was widespread despite their relatively small numbers. Besides extra-legal acts of violence, institutionalized discrimination was best epitomized in the law that singled out Japanese and other Asians from being able to become naturalized citizens like other immigrants.

After numerous inventors from different countries simultaneously devised mechanisms to capture moving pictures, 16 mm in the U.S. was standardized around the same time that the Asian Exclusion Act of 1 924 stopped all further immigration from Japan. Home movie-making became widely practiced as Japanese made America their new home. Besides containing some of the earliest home movies taken in the U.S.,the Museum's collection continues to reflect the medium with color film introduced in 1928 and 8mm film which was introduced in the 1930s. The collection continues through the post-war 1950s and 1960s reflecting the popularity of Super 8.

Now, after over 100 years in the U.S., we are five and six generations old and there has evolved—and continues to evolve—a distinctly Japanese American culture that has created an ethos of its own style and making that is uniquely reflected in home movies and now home videos.

It's important to understand Japanese American culture as having its own integrity. Too often we are defined or analyzed between the coordinates of America on one hand and Japan on the other. Because we are neither white nor black, we are perceived as forever foreign in our own country. And as long as we are compared between the hegemony of either Japan or the U.S., we are stigmatized as deficient. Between those centers we are either assimilationists striving to be American or ethnic delinquents who are losing our culture. In either case, not only are we marginalized, there is a positing of inadequacy—against the standards of white superiority on one hand and exoticism on the other—and we are consigned to the realm of the deviant. And yet Japanese immigrants adapted to the social, historical, economic realities in the United States, created new cultural forms in their new country and now. five generations later—along with other groups of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation—have created the richly diverse society that distinguishes the nation.

Against this broadened social discourse, home movies reveal never-before examined intersection of film, history and culture. Despite the fact that for most issei (first generation Japanese in America) movie cameras were a luxury they could barely afford, they seemed to adopt the new photographic technology with ease. (Other research confirms that home movie practice was embraced by economic groups lower than the audience originally targeted.) I think they gravitated toward the moving image because they already had experience with and were so familiar with photography in general. Photography had already been commonplace in Japan when they left and they arrived with treasured family photos. In the U.S., compounded by the "picture bride" system of arranged marriage, they readily used photographs to communicate their new lives to friends and family in Japan. Their home movies reveal images and relationships that break stereotypes of early Japanese on many levels. For non­ Japanese Americans, what is immediately striking is the decentralized vision of Asian faces in period American clothing engaged in typically American lifestyles of the times. But even for Japanese Americans, images such as issei lumberjacks, women playing golf and racially mixed social and business scenes, expanded heretofore unexplored issues of gender, class, ethnicity and race.

From a traditionally ethnographic viewpoint, the depictions of activities and behavior usually thought of as distinctly "American" and traditionally "Japanese" are noticeable. On closer examination, however, analysis that transcends conventional classification reveals the integration of these seemingly distinct cultural activities, the naturalness with which both are engaged. These home movies provide a vantage point from which to view the ease with which Japanese and American activ­ities are seamlessly blended in witness to a Japanese American culture as a consolidated whole rather than as bifurcated margins.

For example, in one film, two young girls are seen dancing around a record player in a living room—one in a Japanese kimono, the other in a western dress. The father, in a typical domestic setting, is seen sitting on a couch reading a newspaper in the living room but, upon closer look, instead of The Los Angeles Times, we see it is a Japanese American paper written in English and Japanese. The children are seen eating with Japanese hashis (chopsticks) while the parents eat with fork and knife. In another film, resonant of the synthesis of cultures, the ancient Japanese art of sumo-traditionally played out by impressively oversized men wearing only loincloths, in a staged ring—is almost unrecognizable as such when enacted by young Japanese American boys in their overalls and Mickey Finn hats on the dirt streets of a rural town. While purists might argue that it is no longer really sumo without the accoutrements of correct costume, and adherence to its long tradition and intricate ruling, it is undoubtedly significant as an example of a cultural transformation that reflects its bicultural time and space.

As with the first discovery of home movies from the 1920s, the discovery of home movies taken by inmates in what has come to be known as America's concentration camps was an astonishing finding. During World War II, the U.S. government uprooted and incarcerated over 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry for the duration of the war. Ultimately, no acts of sabotage or espionage were charged or found: even at the time, a 1941 governmental report concluded that Japanese Americans would be loyal to the U.S. in the event of war. Yet, with only two weeks notice, Japanese Americans we re forced to sell or abandon their homes and businesses, and men, women and children—two­ thirds of whom were American citizens by birth—were shipped to inland camps in some of the most isolated areas of the country.

Cameras and other items, such as radios, were initially con­sidered contraband and were confiscated. Over time, some cameras were smuggled in—Toyo Miyatake, a well-known pictorialist photographer and community cloc umentarian, sneaked a lens into camp and built a camera from scrap lumber—and when restrictions were lifted in some of the camps, cameras and film were more readily brought in by visitors or mail-ordered through catalogues. At the Museum, we now have 17 different collections from six of the eleven permanent camps. Besides views from within,these home movies stand in marked defiance to the sanc­tioned visions of camp taken by the U.S. government and the newsreel companies. Augmented by booming voice-overs,these "official" views were used overtly by the government to rationalize the incarceration and indirectly as media mouthpieces that fanned the prevailing anti-Japanese sentiment of the times.

In these home-made movies, there is an irony of imagery ­ such as smiling faces and playful children against rows of tarpaper barracks and communal mess-halls; oddly American activities such as Boy Scouts and baton-twirlers-within an obviously un-American environment. From an external point of view, these contradictions are difficult to comprehend. How can a people, so unjustly confined, be smiling? How can life in such abnormal conditions appear so normal? Yet from an internal point of view, after decades of being silenced by the perceived shame of having their loyalty questioned and hav ing been imprisoned by their own government, these home movies help illuminate the complexity of the experience. For example, at one level these home movies reflect the inmates' attempt to make life as normal as possible. While there were tragedies and casualties of incarcerated on, for the most part the inmates were determined to make the best of a bad situation. On another level, the home movies reflect the dialectics of a community reinventing itself with an uniquely colonized socio-political environment. In many ways these home movies are reminiscent of many others that capture growing children and a community of friends anywhere. The critical difference, however, is that all of the activity takes place against an ever-present backdrop of tar-papered barracks that permeates each frame.

As cultural artifacts, visual interpretations, symbolic activity and historical texts, home movies provide new primary data for the documentation of history and culture. There are many formal and innovative methods in a variety of disciplines with which home movies can be studied. Yet what is even more exciting about home movies is their challenge to old ways of thinking and their potential to open up the discourse, to expand the canon, to revision history. They offer new and alternative insights that can reshape representation s of the past. They bridge the division between the private and the public; they focus on the specific rather than the general. They remind us that we are all poets in that we live at all.

KAREN L. ISHIZUKA is a documentary media producer and writer. Senior curator at the Japanese American National Museum, she is currently on leave as a Visiting Scholar at the Getty Research Institute for the Study of Art and the Humanities, conducting research on home movies. Her productions featuring home movies have won numerous awards and have been featured in film festivals and seminars around the world.