'It's a history of all of us': UWM project preserves Milwaukee's home movie history

NOW: ’It’s a history of all of us’: UWM project preserves Milwaukee’s home movie history


MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Home movie night is often a big part of getting together with families for the holidays.

Recently, the Milwaukee community came together at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee to have a community home movie night.

Sue Schwaby says she had no idea what she would see when brought several reels of 8 mm and Super 8 film to the University Of Milwaukee

"What we're just seeing right now was from the 1970s. And it was just it was kind of fun to see it was family, mostly the family of my brothers and myself and just, you know, doing the typical things in the 70s," said Schwaby.

"The Moving Image is really one of the most powerful forms of history right it captures a moment in time in real time. So you're seeing and hearing things as they happened in the window of a camera," said UW-Milwaukee Digital Archivist Shiraz Bhathena talking about the art of the home movie, "it's a great way for people to share memories of their community and then also for people to just share their own histories and their family histories"

The first-ever home movie day at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee was organized by archivists like Shiraz Bhathena and Tami Williams, director of the film studies archive at the university.

We got a first hand look at the archive they maintain there, filled wall-to-wall with tapes, film, still pictures audio recordings and more.

Williams says their event, inspired by the South Side Movie Project at the University of Chicago documenting the visual history of black families in the city, comes at an exciting time.

"The whole movie as a moving image format actually, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year," said Williams.

The anniversary of 9 and a half millimeter films available for consumers to document their lives with and share with others.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to bring together people from different parts of the community and to share movies and to learn more about each other," said Williams talking about the event.

"I don't think I've ever seen two home movies that were exactly the same," said Bhathena who has helped organize similar events in other cities, "as archivists' [we're] kind of facing a real ticking clock to try and get as much video as we can digitize before there aren't any more machines available to do so."

He says that's why there's a rush right now to preserve films, VHS, and Betamax tapes like the ones shown at home movie day before it's too late.

"We just don't know how long we will have in order to play a lot of this stuff back," said Bhathena, "if we lose it, you think about how much of our history has been recorded on videotape that's going to be irretrievable. Nobody really knows how to make a lot of these parts anymore. So we want to make sure that that's safe."

When media is brought in for Home Movie Day, they examined the tapes and other media formats.

"Checking to see if there's any cracks in the tape. Does the tape seem to have any mold growing on the inside does when you look at the actual top of the tape Is there any wrinkles and it doesn't look like it's folded over. If you say yes to any of these things, the first thing you want to do is not play it back," said Bhathena.

He says film is a little different.

"Film is organic. So a lot of people don't understand that. There's two parts of film. There's the plastic and then the recorded images on the emulsion."

If you see signs of those issues, and with film, a vinaigrette smell or pinkish hue developing, it needs to be stored away from other media so it can be handled by a professional to preserve it.

"It's kind of like apples in the bag where if you have one bad apple but you have 8 good apples in the bag, pretty soon the other eight good apples can turn bad if they're next that bad one," said Bhathena.

We had Bhathena take a look at some VHS tapes from our CBS 58 family, he noticed damage that he quickly repaired.

"The one thing that we noticed is that like the tape has a crack shell and when you have a tape that's cracked, a lot of times this can jam inside the VCR, parts of the brain or because you have all sorts of robotics coming down and pressing against the tape, so it's a good idea to try and re-shell the tape like this," said Bhathena while re-shelling a tape.

At Home Movie Day, they also stressed the importance of digitization to preserve films for the future.

Williams says it's something many people haven't put much thought to, meaning family moments from years-past are at-risk of being lost forever.

"Those movies have as much value in many cases as what is projected and preserved by Hollywood or corporate archives," said Williams.

"Home Movie Day is a wonderful opportunity for us at UW-M and a relatively small program, the film studies program for us to demonstrate our deep connections to the community," said Director of The Film Studies Program Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece.

She says Williams and her are now teaching film preservation and archival to students, who also helped out on home movie day.

"We're kind of partially teaching them not only about the history of these technologies, but also their aesthetic values. And when we can introduce students to the to the aesthetic values of obsolete technologies or so-called obsolete technologies," said Szczepaniak-Gillece, "I think we can then introduce them to having a critical eye about history and visual culture in general."

They hope to continue the event in the future to continue to preserve that history and culture.

"It's a history of how people represent themselves and understand their families and their own identities fitting into a larger socio-cultural sphere. So I find this very, very valuable as a way to demonstrate how film history is a shared history," said Szczepaniak-Gillece, "It's a history of all of us, and it's a history that all of us should have access to."

Terry Bruss brought films he and his uncle shot.

"The main theme is this, you know, take care of your family history. Make sure the next generation gets to enjoy it too," said Bruss explaining why he came out to the event.

Schwaby says she plans to take their advice and look for a place to digitize the film she brought, making sure to ask for a sample from the digitizer before choosing who to go with.

"They answered some of my questions and I took some notes and I'm definitely going to pursue that it's going to be a big task, but I'm hoping I can do it," said Schwaby.

To preserve history like of first communions, family holidays, kids playing in the yard, or the Circus Parade, a Milwaukee staple for decades that ended in 2009 that Schwaby had film of from the 70's.

"I love emanating information to Milwaukeeans, because I love Milwaukee. And it's like this is our history," said Schwaby.

"It gives us an idea not just about historically, what was at a location when it was recorded, but then also how do people behave? What kind of clothing do they wear? How do they interact with one another? It's a real testament to what we were like as humans," said Bhathena.

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