Because the private is public: Turning home movies into documentaries

Scene from "Bare" (2006) by Santana Issar. Please click on this image to watch the full film.

Two little girls, sisters, are seated side by side and are prompted by their dad to sing “Happy Birthday” for him, while he films them for a home movie. The sisters happily oblige. The scene changes and we see footage of the two sisters and their parents at picnics, other birthdays, on a ship (the father is in the merchant navy), etc. Watching the scenes unfold, one after the other, the viewer is led to think that these are glimpses from the life of a happy family.

This perception changes when the conversations begin—telephone conversations recorded in 2006, which are played out against the backdrop of the 20-year old footage of “happy” family memories. These are telephone conversations between the sisters, Santana and Simran; between the mother and Santana; and between Santana and the father. These conversations reveal something totally contrary to what the images convey—that this is not a happy family unit. The parents have separated and the mother does not speak to the father, and Simran also does not speak to her father and wants to have nothing to do with him. Only Santana talks to her father. Sometimes. The reason for all this is the father’s alcoholism.

The above synopsis is of a film called Bare (2006, 11 minutes), directed by Santana Issar. I watched this powerful film as part of a screening of 9 films “of family footage and home movies” curated by Pankaj Kumar on 23 February 2011. These films were part of Cinema Satsang: The Curatorial Project Film Festival organised by the Katha Centre for Film Studies, in collaboration with the India Foundation for the Arts and Alliance Francaise de Bombay.

As curator, Pankaj divided these 9 films into 4 sections: (i) Home movies as genesis of explorations (Straight 8, The Dust, These Old Frames, and Grandad with a Movie Camera; (ii) Politics of home movies (Khoob Asti Afghanistan and I for India); (iii) “Happy” home movies and strange truths (Bare and Tarnation); and (iv) Conclusion: the way ahead (Phantom Limb). The films were screened in this order and the complexity of the use of family footage in the larger narrative of the documentary film increased as we progressed from film to film, and section to section to experience a range of amazingly simple to multi-layered, complex films. Bare was the 7th film to be screened that day, and the disturbing contrast and disjunct between the visual moving image and the audio track has ensured that this film has imprinted itself on my mind. That is the reason why I began my post with that film.

Before the screening began, Pankaj introduced the audience to the concept of home movies and how the trend of family footage being used in documentaries was being recognised as a separate genre of films. Home movies are important as they are not only “a bank of family memories”, but also “a reference point to history”. Speaking about his own fascination with this genre, Pankaj shared how the discovery of footage of Kalpi town shot by his aunt changed the way his first documentary film, Kumar Talkies, was made. He screened a few minutes of that film to give the audience an idea of how the footage of Kalpi town was used in Kumar Talkies.

"Straight 8" (2005) by Ayisha Abraham. Please click on this image to view the full film

Ayisha Abraham’s Straight 8 (2005, 17 minutes) was the first film screened. Ayisha uses Tom D’aguair’s sepia-toned footage of his family, picnics, dances, parties and even attempts at making silent films, à la Charlie Chaplin, to recreate memories of another day and age ! These are memories of living in Bangalore in the 1940s.

To be honest, there is no coherent narrative here, as the “film” is only a string of memories woven together into the larger fabric of a single film with some present day footage of Tom D’aguair. And, yet, it is an endearing film because of that very simplicity and nostalgia inducing feelings.

The Dust (1994, 16 minutes), directed by Ashim Ahluwalia, uses footage from home movie travelogues of the 1950s. According to the handout, the film has been “optically manipulated, chopped, and merged…to depict ambient images of ordinary life that linger on as extensions of our personal memories”. Umm… Right. I mean, this was the only film in the selection that I couldn’t understand at all, and if there was a narrative I didn’t see it.

In These Old Frames (2008, 15 minutes), Tahireh Lal, the director of the film, resurrects footage of films shot by her maternal grandfather Vijaykumar, to create a story about him. According to the handout, these films were originally silent and sound was added later as dialogues or a narration of events. Vijaykumar must have been in a very senior position in the Indian Government as he has footage of political leaders at very close quarters. Plus, his family’s lifestyle, as captured by the footage and as used by the director, is clearly upper class. Using such footage, Tahireh builds a grand picture of her grandfather only to demolish it towards the end when she reveals her grandfather’s anger management issues and the family’s financial problems leading to the 8mm camera which her grandfather used for filming to be sold. Vijaykumar’s upbringing in an orthodox brahmin household and his subsequent conversion to Catholicism is brought in casually, almost as if to explain his rebellious streak and his adoption of a Westernised lifestyle. Though These Old Frames was neither abstract nor lacking a narrative, like the first two films, I had problems with it. There were gaps in the information about Vijaykumar, almost deliberately so, leading to an 9incomplete picture of the subject of the film.

"Grandad with a Movie Camera" (2005) by Neuss Ballus

What do you think will happen if your grandfather gets a movie camera? Well, when Neuss Ballus’ grandfather, Jaume, gets a movie camera, he decides to record things that mean a lot to him—the house he was born in, the house he lived in for many years, the farm he once worked in, trains, etc. While Jaume is recording his memories on film, Neuss is filming Jaume making these memories. This is the premise of Grandad with a Movie Camera or L’avi de la Camera (2005, 28 minutes), a throroughly delightful film, directed by Neuss Ballus. A key thread in this film is Jaume and Cisqueta, Neuss’ grandmother, watching the footage shot by Jaume and discussing it, while Neuss films this discussion. I loved this particular section the most as the banter between the two reminded me of my own parents 🙂

A scene from "Khoob Asti Afghanistan" (2007) by Soumitra Ranade

The next film screened was Khoob Asti Afghanistan (2007, 58 minutes), which means “Are you all right, Afghanistan?”, directed by Soumitra Ranade. The director and his family had lived in Kabul from 1976 to 1980, when he was a teenager and when it was another place. According to Soumitra, who was present at the screening, this film had to be made as he wanted to present a side of Afghanistan not portrayed by the media. Using some footage from the years he lived in Kabul as well as fresh footage when he visited Kabul 26 years after he left the country, Soumitra tries to tell a story. And fails. The narrative is terribly flawed, boring and pedantic with lot of unnecessary explanations about Afghanistan. And yet, because it is an emotional film, it needs to be watched. As Soumitra said, “This was an emotional response to what was happening in Afghanistan. I had to make this film first, before I make other films on Afghanistan.”

Yash Suri (R) in a scene from "I for India" (2005) by Sandhya Suri

I for India (2005, 75 minutes), directed by Sandhya Suri, would never have been made if it had not been for her father’s foresight. Let me elaborate. Yash Suri and his wife Sheel (Sandhya’s parents) and infant daughter Neeraj emigrated to England in 1965, with the hope of returning to India soon. The film chronicles the life of the Suri family in England and their attempts to keep in touch with their family in India, as well as to record their life in England. And how did they do this? The far-sighted  Yash purchased two cameras and two projectors and sent one of each to his family in Meerut, India, so that they could send and receive these visual letters. In addition, audio letters were also exchanged. The initial exchanges begin simply enough with families on both sides sharing news and views. And slowly, as the years pass, the tone in these exchanges change so subtly that one can almost miss it. Yash Suri’s audio letters communicates the reasons to continue staying in England for some more time, while the audio letters from Meerut request the family to return. In one letter, Yash Suri’s father beseeches them to return to India all the while crying into the tape. It is a heartbreaking moment. And in another audio letter, Yash Suri’s younger brother coldly reminds him of his responsibility as the eldest son of their parents, which he (the brother) has been forced to carry out. The Suri family finally return to India (Meerut) 17 years after they left and return to England 9 months later, unable to adjust to Indian realities. If there were any films or audio letters exchanged between England and Meerut after this return, they are not shared in the film.

The film is not chronologically narrated and swings back and forth between the time the film was being readied and the past, with Yash Suri performing the role of the film’s “hero”. After the Suri family’s return from Meerut, no mention is made of their Indian ties and the film focuses only on the family’s life in England, the eldest daughter’s wedding, and the middle daughter’s move to Australia. Towards the end of the film, Yash Suri says, “Don’t question my love for India, or my patriotism.” That, for me, was Yash Suri’s attempt to reconcile with his guilt of not returning to India.

Scene from "Tarnation" (2003) by Jonathan Caouette. (R) Renée and (L) Jonathan

Where do I even begin talking about Tarnation (2003, 90 minutes), directed by Jonathan Caouette? It is a depressing, sad, disturbing and brilliant movie made by Jonathan out of “20 years of hundreds of hours of Super 8 footage, VHS videotape, photographs, and answering machine messages to tell the story of his life and his relationship with his mentally ill mother Renée.” This film has a strong narrative, which is enhanced by the chronological sequencing of events. It is an intensely personal film and Jonathan is very brave to expose his full family history as well as his personal demons to the whole world.

Jonathan is born into a dysfunctional family. His father abandoned his mentally ill mother, Renée, before he was born. His first two years are spent with his mother and his maternal grandparents. One fine day, Renée just leaves home with Jonathan and goes to Chicago where she is raped in front of Jonathan. While she is sent to an institution for the mentally ill, Jonathan enters the foster care system. Thus begins some years of abuse for Jonathan till he is “rescued” by his grandparents, who raise him, while Renée moves in and out of institutions. Jonathan also deals with his (homo)sexuality in the film. When he is 25, he moves to New York and Renée visits whenever she can resulting in the two developing a close relationship. Five years later, when Renée suffers from irreversible brain damage due to a lithium overdose, Jonathan brings her to be with him in New York.

By the time these 8 films were screened, with suitable lunch and tea breaks, it was quite late and I had to make the long trek back home. This meant that I could not watch the last film on offer, Phantom Limb (2005, 28 minutes) directed by Jay Rosenblatt, or listen to Pankaj wrapping up the day’s screenings.

As I walked out of the Alliance auditorium to begin the long trek home, some of the scenes from the films kept playing over and over.

  • The swirling motes of dust in The Dust.
  • The exchange between Jaume and Cesquita, in Grandad with a Movie Camera, where the former asks the latter, “Do you love me?” and she replies, “Sometimes”.
  • The Hindi/Urdu spoken by the people of Kabul in Khoob asti Afghanistan, thanks to Bollywood!
  • When first Sheel and then Yash Suri break down after their second daughter leaves for Australia, in I for India, perhaps realising for the first time that their daughter may not come back to england. Also realising, perhaps also for the first time, how their parents and family in India would have felt when they left.
  • The scene in Tarnation, where Jonathan looks towards the camera and nearly breaks down when he wonders if he will become like his mother.

While all these films may belong to the larger genre of films using family footage or home movies, the sheer variety makes it difficult to slot them into only that category. For instance, I could see at least three of the films fitting into other categories as well—Bare in films on substance abuse, I for India in diaspora studies, and Tarnation in the 2 categories of mental illness and family. Pankaj very rightly says that the theme of home movies is self-limiting. This is more so when you see that the films have been made for various reasons: resurrecting memories, emotional need, catharsis, guilt, understanding and coping.

When I arrived that morning at the Alliance, I had no idea what to expect as part of the screening of “family footage films and home movies”. In retrospect, this was a very good thing as I went with no expectations and came away richer with a nuanced and, I hope, a balanced understanding of this genre of films. The entire credit for this goes to Pankaj for the kind of films he selected for the screening, walking the audience through the entire range of films, and sharing his insight.

One issue, however, disturbed me a lot—the ethical issue of using such footage from family films/home movies. This is particularly so in the case of both Bare and I for India. In the former film, Pankaj who had mentored the director in the making of the film said that Santana’s mother and sister, though not aware that the telephone conversations were being recorded, gave their consent to the film when they saw the initial rough cut. Santana’s father also did not know that the conversations were being recorded. Neither was he shown the rough cut. But when he saw the film after its release, he reportedly told Santana, “You wouldn’t have had the film without me.” In the case of the latter film, the question of ethics becomes even more pertinent. While Sandhya Suri has used footage shot by her father or mother and their audio letters, she has also used material generated by family members in Meerut. Did she take permission from them to use this material? I don’t know and the credits don’t say anything. It is not as if one can put out a disclaimer saying “This is a work of fiction. All characters in this film are imaginary and resemblence to any person, dead or alive, is purely coincidental”.

A theme that keeps recurring in all the movies (except Tarnation) is the fact that the home movies only record “happy memories” and any discord is either not recorded or edited out. But these same memories can convey something totally different, as in the case of Bare, leaving me wondering whether I should ever believe anything that I see or read or hear !

I think about my family on the train ride home. What would my father do if he were given a movie camera? Probably return it back and ask instead for a still camera ! Do I want to make a film using family footage? Definitely. What would the theme of the movie be if either of my two brothers or I were to make a film? Hmm… maybe trace our family’s history of migration. But, like any another family, we too have our share of family skeletons in the cupboard. And I am not brave enough to open it and share it with the world. Yet.

6 thoughts on “Because the private is public: Turning home movies into documentaries

  1. This particular blog is an eye-opener for me. It makes me wonder how home movies can be used and misused. While all the movies written about had a certain point to make, I am not sure if I could use any home movies to expose the skeletons in my family. How ethical is it even if one got permission from every member of the family. Relationships go beyond family interactions – mired in a web of friends, neighbours, help at home, doctors, educational institutions etc.

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  2. It was such an amazing trip, a surreal memory lane, where the memories where not really mine but seemed so close that one laughed, cried and forgot time.
    Pankaj is a wizard at his chosen craft, as you are a gifted fairy with words..
    The moving images swirl and swoop, threatening to loop me into their magic world, which is most heartrending because, all academic dialogue apart, they are stories of those who dared, to lay bare their deepest feelings, part by (sometimes painful) part.
    Cherish the experience.

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  3. What an amazing write-up. I didn’t even know that such a genre existed, much less that such footage could be converted into something so complexed and nuanced and simple.

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