BAFTSS conference panel ‘Amateur cinema and social networks of screen culture’, 18 April 2020

The Amateur Cinema Studies Network (ACSN) is co-organising the ‘Amateur cinema and social networks of screen culture’ panel for the 8th annual BAFTSS Conference – “Rethinking Screen Cultures” –  to be held at the University of St Andrews, 16-18 April 2020.

Panel Overview: While amateur cinema is now considered within humanities and social sciences studies as the benchmark for genuine visual testimonials, it is yet often assessed against professional media- making standards and conventions rather than within its specific means of production and distribution. The three papers proposed for the Amateur Cinema SIG conference panel explore several interdisciplinary perspectives on recent developments in amateur cinema practice and studies, from considering amateur cameras as ‘apparatus’ in a Foucauldian framework, to ways in which normative conceptualisations of media amateurism could often misguide the variety of intent among media practitioners, and to non-ephemeral amateur media as constructions of a new Self. The overall aim of this SIG panel is to raise several questions about how amateur cinema can contribute to global debates about social, ethical and media- citizen activism.

Dr Tom Slootweg (University of Groningen), Challenging amateur modes: Or how to deal with the variety of intent among amateur media practitioners? Moments of media technological change have often been seen as important junctures at which processes occur of democratisation and participation in media culture. Whether it was the domestication of photography, film, video, or the Internet, much media scholarship preferred to theorise the appropriation of amateur media from the perspective of emancipatory “practice-politics” (Benjamin 2007 [1968]), or resulting in the aesthetic of “access” and “liberation” (Moran 2002). In other words, media amateurism was thus understood to hold great promise for individual creativity and as means to counter intuitional media power in capitalist society. In this paper, I will argue that such normative conceptualisations of media amateurism obfuscate the variety of intent among those media practitioners who self-identify as amateurs or have been labelled as such by scholars. Elsewhere (Slootweg 2018), I have argued to instead adopt a more inclusive theoretical perspective, which takes into account three co-existing, sometimes overlapping, amateur modes of practice and functioning: the home mode, community mode and counter mode. I will return to these three modes and discuss their characteristics and interrelationships. In particular, I will re-evaluate my notion of “counter mode” and point at the influence of progressive media theoretical and activist traditions on its coinage. As it currently stands, it becomes more and more clear that discourses on the role of amateur media in terms of “emancipation”, “liberation” and “access” are not only the purview of progressive ideologies, but also characterise those tied to worldviews coming from the other end of the political spectrum. I will argue that the latter is a blind spot in our current understanding of media amateurism. Lastly, I will offer a theoretical solution and highlight the implications for media historical research in particular.

Dr Giuseppina Sapio (Université Jean Jaurès/LERASS, Paris), A middlebrow eye: home movies between ideological subjection and profanation
We develop a theoretical-political reflection of the practice of home movies. By conceiving amateur cameras as “apparatus”, understood in their Foucauldian sense, we point out how families constantly negotiate the principles guiding their representations: on the one hand, by appropriating and reproducing the ideological injunctions of society in which they live; on the other hand, trying to “profane” them in the sense of Agamben. In this perspective, the study of the practice of home movies makes it possible to trace a history of the “ways” of seeing and representing the world, insisting on the subjectivation potential of private images, since these audiovisual productions do not simply reflect societal models but actively contribute to founding or subverting them.

Dr Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes (University of Cambridge), Non-ephemeral amateur cinema / media and constructions of Self. 
This paper is concerned with several theoretical approaches that position ephemeral (new and amateur) cinema /media as a functional social tool as well as a deceptive theoretical construct. Issues of amateur media-makers opting for anonymity and the ephemerality, or time-restricted distribution of their records indicate a choice for a renewable, non-punishable freedom of expression. This leads to cases of political, sexual and racial abuse, to name just a few strands, often reaching high levels of (involuntary) online archivability, whether due to active legal frameworks or to pervasive cultural and visual priming processes that preserve the original media records – from home movies to selfies translating impudence and narcissism, to scenes documenting acts of terrorism or domestic abuse. The paper also explores the ways in which several pervasive cultural frameworks often allow for the current amateur new media- ‘periscoping’ behaviour. In this context, it is argued that old and new amateur media can function as para-texts, which are highly- ‘recyclable’ across geo-political specific visual priming process, and the respective subsequent visual literacies – a process that leads to renewed acts of self-referential memory-building and interpretations of a private and/or collective past.

The Amateur Cinema Studies Network (ACSN) is organising the first two international panels on ‘New Visual Networks and Amateur Cinema Studies’ at the annual British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies (BAFTSS) Conference, University of Lincoln, 19-21 April 2013. The theme of the conference is “Critics and Criticism: Writing on Audiovisual Media”. The conference will address issues pertaining to audiovisual criticism and critical schools that are particularly relevant in the context of new digital cultures, including social networking and blogging. The conference will also focus on the role of the critic, including the academic, the journalist and the amateur. The conference preliminary programme is available here.

Below are the abstracts and bios of the ACSN panelists:

  • Dr Caroline Frick, University of Texas at Austin, US: Teach Texas with amateur films

Abstract: This presentation centers on the outstanding educational projects organized by the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI) to encourage the use of amateur films of Texas in the social studies curriculum. Founded in 2002 by film archivist and University of Texas at Austin professor Dr. Caroline Frick, the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI) is a non-profitorganization working to discover, preserve, provide access to, and educate the community about Texas’ film heritage. TAMI’s ever-growing online collection includes a large collection of home movies and amateur films of Texas and bypartnering with institutions and individuals across the state, it digitizes and provides web access to several key amateur film collections that offer insight to Texas’ history and culture. TAMI encourages the use of such collections inelementary and secondary schools through Teach Texas project, an online collection of educational resources addressing Texas teaching standards through a growing collection of lesson plans and activities that target a range of topics including the oil industry, politics, commerce, geography, and culture. Amateur films discussed in this presentation include the earliest existing footage of Houston, a 1915 Shriners parade through town (Sloane Collection), life on a working farm and ranch on the Texas-New Mexico border in the 1940s (Hunt Family Film Collection), and large- scale oil drilling operation in Texas in the 1950s (Jelinek Collection.

Bio: Caroline Frick is an Assistant Professor in the Radio-TV-Film Department at The University of Texas at Austin and the founder and Executive Director of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. Prior to her work in Texas, Dr. Frick worked in film preservation at Warner Bros., the Library of Congress, and the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Dr. Frick also programmed films for the American Movie Classics cable channel in New York and currently serves as the President of the Board for the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Her book, “Saving Cinema,” was published in 2011 by Oxford University Press.

  • Daniel Mauro, University of Texas at Austin, US: Homeland Mobilized: Politicizing the Home Movies of the US National Film Registry

Abstract: Amongst archived collections of motion picture materials, home movies occupy an enigmatic position. The National Film Registry of the United States is a high-profile collection which includes home movies and, in the act of collecting, radically reframes the perceived cultural value and politics of the films. Established by the National Film Preservation Act of 1988, the National Film Registry aims to collect films that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and preserve them in service of maintaining a US film heritage. Yet do the home movies selected represent a “significantly” national symbol? This paper examines the private and public trajectories of the home movies selected for the Registry, arguing that the films are selected with the primary goal of mobilizing particular political narratives according to the ideologies and biases of the National Film Preservation Board and Librarian of Congress. Furthermore, this paper examines the ramifications of such political selections upon the shaping of a US national film heritage. These issues are discussed through three key analyses: 1) an examination of the politics of collecting and canonization in regard to the goals and operations of the Registry as evidenced through publications and accounts of key figures involved in the selection of the home movies; 2) tracings of the trajectories of the individual home movies as they developed from private films into pieces of public history; and 3) a consideration of how the selection of these home movies more broadly affects the construction and consumption of a US national film heritage.

Bio: Daniel Mauro is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently preparing his doctoral dissertation focused on the politics of amateur media. Other research interests include cultural historiography, media archives, digital privacy, and democratic communication. He earned an MA in film and media studies from the University of Kansas and BAs in both English and film and media studies from the University of Rochester. He currently serves as a part of the editorial collective for “The Velvet Light Trap.”

  • Dr Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes, University of Cambridge, UK: Amateur films and digital histories of South Asia

Abstract: Many argue that the South Asian national memory remains a site of repression within modern history, and that the failure to systematically explore inter-disciplinarily research sources has significantly contributed to current traumas around race, identity and religion. Consequently, researching South Asian history has gradually become the prerogative of visual theorists as much as that of historians: images are now being recognized as historic documents. This paper will explore how current scholarship of modern South Asian history can by supported and advanced by the study of amateur films as primary resources. The case study selected for this paper is India’s Partition in 1947, and the research corpus relies on several amateur films held by the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge. These films had been recently made available online and, while they function successfully as research topics for digital crowd-sourcing activities and South Asian community networks, they are most valuable when studied as counter-narratives to commercial and governmental visual records of Partition. Made between August and September 1947 these amateur films contain unedited, accidental records of refugee rescue operations and reveal particular policies and traumas informing India’s Partition. Their connotative richness and historic significance as records of public, national and imperial memory makes them germane to the understanding, research and teaching of today’s British and South Asian identities. It is from this perspective that this paper will comment on how new methodologies in film and digital media are able to connect theories of visual culture to traditional historiographical practices.

Bio: Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes is an Affiliate Lecturer at the University of Cambridge and a Research Associate at the Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge. She uses her research, publications and graduate teaching to contribute to the field of visual rhetoric and historical studies. She teaches a course on ‘Visual rhetoric and modern South Asian history’ and currently collaborates on several research programmes with British and South Asian scholars of film, visual anthropology and historical studies. She is the founder of the Amateur Cinema Studies Network (ACSN).

  • Dr Frank Gray, Director, Screen Archive South East, University of Brighton, UK: Family Films

Abstract: A little researched and little known aspect of screen history is that of the family film. Also referred to as the home movie, it is a very particular mode of representation. It sits within the wider realm of the amateur film and is defined by its origins (produced within a family setting) and content (familiar family rituals and activities such as weddings, parties, holidays and domestic life). First produced on film from the late 1890s and subsequently on video and digital technology, the family film is determined by the domestic use of moving image technology. How should we investigate work of this kind? This paper considers a number of perspectives. The first is an understanding that the family film represents a visualization of a ‘performance’ of the everyday world that it is underpinned by the parameters of the technology and by particular and recurring subjects, gestures and forms. There is also an understanding that this genre represents an idealized representation of the private, domestic world. Its ideology, as embedded within its modes production and exhibition, works to celebrates life and wellbeing. It avoids the difficult and traumatic aspects of our lives (e.g. death, disease and divorce). Family films are found in all of our public film archives. How do their meanings change by becoming part of an archive collection? Do they start to serve the needs of both specific and generic memory (from a family to the nation’s) and as such function as a form of commemoration?

Bio: Dr Frank Gray is the Director of Screen Archive South East (SASE) at the University of Brighton. His research is generally related to the screen collection developed by SASE over the last two decades and particularly focused on Victorian and Edwardian screen culture. The latter engages with popular spectacles and projections of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the uses of the magic lantern, the development of narrative film fiction, the emergence of ‘news’ on film and the introduction of the concept of cinema. The curation of museum exhibitions on these subjects has provided a popular focus for his research.

  • Dr Toby Haggith, Imperial War Museum, UK: Movie Diaries from the Front

Abstract: During the Second World War a small number of men, usually of officer rank, filmed their experiences while on active service. The obvious attraction of this record is that it occasionally included scenes- such as burials at sea- which gave a candid perspective on warfare that would have been censored by the official military or newsreel cameramen. Just as important is the fact that most amateur reels shot by soldiers, airmen and sailors are a spontaneous, even whimsical account of the cameramen’s experiences, much more akin to a personal diary than an official dispatch or newsreel account. Drawing on examples from the film collection of IWM (Imperial War Museums), this presentation will be focussed around these questions: What are the characteristics of amateur film accounts of warfare? How does amateur film differ from the official, professionally shot record of warfare? And, how is the amateur film record of warfare and armed combat of value to the historian?

Bio: Toby Haggith is a historian who joined the Imperial War Museum’s Film Department in 1988. He has a PhD in Social History from the University of Warwick and has published various essays on film and history. In 2000 he became head of non-commercial access to the film and video collection and responsible for devising the daily Public Film Show programme. In 2001 he started the IWM Film Festival and was closely involved in the creation and recording of the musical tracks on the Museum’s DVD release of the digitally restored 1916 film, The Battle of the Somme. He is now a Senior Curator in the Department of Research, and is in overall charge of the Film Festival and associated Student Documentary Master Class. He is currently leading the Museum’s project to restore and complete the British concentration camp documentary, retrospectively titled, Memory of the Camps.

  • Dr Susan Aasman, University of Groningen, NL: (Re-)writing the history of the home movie in the age of user-generated content

Abstract: How to write the history of home movies? Taking the familiar route of traditional film history writings would only result in a succinct survey of the best films in terms of, for example, unique footage (i.e. moving images of Anne Frank), the best viewed (YouTube video Charlie bit my finger/ 500.000.000 viewers), or political controversial records (Rodney King tapes). Of course that wouldn’t work. However, some serious attempts have been made, like the landmark study Reel Families (1995) by Patricia Zimmermann who launched the social history of home movies, or like other written cultural histories concerning the practice of home movie making (Aasman, Schneider, Roepke). All these works are inevitably restricted in their historical periodization owing to their focus on the first half of the twentieth century and on small gauge film formats. Importantly, with the arrival of VHS video, camcorders and new media technologies from the 1970s onwards there has been a strong dynamic in the use, users and technologies of home movie making. These developments remained for a long time absent from the amateur film historiography. Recently though, they are gaining momentum among media scholars particularly because amateur film making has been transformed from a rather marginal practice (in terms of its visible impact on the film culture) to a much more dominant form of popular culture, especially since the web 2.0 enabled millions of people to upload their home movies on the web. In my presentation, I would like to sketch out a possible scenario for such a home movie history that starts from the premise that we need a much more decentered media definition, one that is able to capture changes in the whole media ensemble of generations of users, uses and technologies of home movie making.

Bio: Dr Susan Aasman works as a Senior Lecturer and researcher for the History Department and the Department Arts, Culture and Media at the University of Groningen (the Netherlands). She wrote her PhD-thesis about the cultural history of home movies and is currently working on a new NWO-funded project “Changing platforms of ritualized memory practices: the cultural dynamics of home movies”. She has written numerous articles and books on media historical topics that include amateur film, home movie making, cultural memory, mediatization of politics, autobiographical documentary and first person cinema.

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