Author: Elspeth kydd 1966-2013
Format: Digital Video and Super 8
Published: November 2013
(This chapter was originally published in Alisa Lebow (2012) (ed.) The Cinema of Me: Self and Subjectivity in First Person Documentary. Wallflower Press/Colombia, reprinted here in lieu of a research statement, by the kind permission of Wallflower Press).
Looking for Home in Home Movies: The Home Mode in Caribbean Diaspora First Person Film and Video Practice
‘SIFTING SAND’: FRAGMENTS OF A FAMILY HISTORY
1946: A photograph taken of two family groups, separated by a short distance. There is a corrugated iron wall to one side and a large opening to the other. Both groups are dwarfed by the surroundings. The family on the left includes my mother, grandparents, uncles and aunts. They are at the pier as my Uncle Harold prepares to either arrive from or return to the US on one of his occasional visits to Trinidad. It is the post-World War II period, people are coming and going; the US army presence is decreasing and Trinidadian servicemen are returning from the war. As far as I can tell, my Uncle Harold is taking the picture. He came back to visit his family in Trinidad after serving in the US army. But is he on the boat or is he standing on the shore? Is he arriving or is he leaving?
Talking to my mother about this photograph I find that, although she doesn’t remember seeing it before, she remembers my uncle’s visit. She is 22, standing in the front row in a patterned dress. I found this picture in my uncle’s collection of photos and films. His collection was large as he was the first son to leave; the family kept in touch using photographs. Many appear with inscriptions and dates written on the back. Later in my research I come across another copy in my grandmother’s album in the family home in Trinidad; it was probably sent to her by her son. This exchange of photographs becomes an act of mediated communication, a visual extension to the letters and cards that link a family separated by the process of diaspora. As John DiStefano claims: ‘Transnational kinship is often characterised by the physically absent members of one’s family made present through mediated forms […] More often than not, it is the displaced person who attempts to make tangible what is missing and absent’ (2002: 39).
Among my uncle’s other photographs from that time, there is one that could be the reverse-shot; he is looking out from the boat at the shore. This picture has an inscription on the back: ‘SS Athos II, July 17, 1946.’ It is shot with an evocative over-exposure; Harold gazes on a bright, sunlit world that we cannot fully see. Placing these pictures together I can start to construct a story from my family’s past: a story of going away and coming back, of separations and reunions, of spaces and locations, not only of homes, but of transitions. This is only a moment, a fragment, from which this story can emerge, fractions of time captured, secured in a past that can be remoulded into a story, or, better yet, left fragmented, incoherent and partial. This is not a record of the past but an echo from it.
As I look through old family photographs – my uncle’s collection, those from my parents, photographs from the family home in Trinidad – the attempt to construct a coherent story or a clear picture of the family through its movements and shifts, reminds me of the words of an old calypso song I learned as a child: ‘All day, all night Miss Mary Ann/Down by the seaside sifting sand.’ The song comes from that same era, from the calypsonian Roaring Lion (Rafael de Leon), a song for the carnival celebrations of 1945 at the end of the war. I have always been struck by the lyric of this song and the strangeness of what Miss Mary Ann is doing; what, after all, is the purpose of sifting sand? It is a futile activity. Yet sand sifting has become for me a metaphor for the dual processes of theorising and practicing Caribbean family autobiography, a deceptive process, difficult and with no hope of the ultimate goal; there will be no clean beach of sand, and no clear story to recount. But in the best traditions of structural-materialism, the process is the goal. Can you sift sand without feeling the joy of the beach and the pleasure/frustration of sand falling between your fingers? Can you search through the images of family history, listen to the memories recounted, and revisit the sites of past lives without experiencing the joy of the search or the pleasure of acknowledging the incoherent, fragmented and unstable narrative that emerges?
I have looked through my uncle’s images many times and I often find the photography ‘amateur’ in style as well as fact; poor exposure and focus, with the clumsy framing capturing action to the side of what I want to see. When I look at my uncle’s photographs with an eye for the rules of composition I see failings – a lack of ‘professional standards’. But with this image, I do not care. I like this photograph. It is a portrait of family in the process of dispersion at a crisis point for the narrative of arrival and departure, on the pier, waiting to go out, and holding the promise of return. Here, I see the context in which this family moment is captured: one small family on a small island of families on the move. (There is another family adjacent in the picture; what is their story? Who are they waiting to meet or waving goodbye? Is there another family album, commemorating their moment of transition?) Many of the young people pictured here will leave; my mother and uncle will move to Britain in the years that follow and another uncle and aunt to Canada later in their lives. Other family members are missing from the photo, either absent that day or already living abroad. Still others will choose to stay and some will leave to return later. We are a diaspora family; linked visually by these fragments, these images, these memories.
My family photographs are not unlike many others, often documenting ritualistic moments of clan unity: weddings, births and baptisms, birthdays, anniversaries, parties, reunions, holidays, Christmases. They are located in the spaces of these celebrations; homes, churches, tourist sights. Yet this image captures another moment: travel towards and away from a home. It is located on the pier; a liminal space of mobility. The family is surrounded and dwarfed by the context; an image that captures, for me, the ambiguities of departure and return that characterise a Caribbean diaspora experience. There are many images of travel in my uncle’s collection, pictures of and from ships in the 1940s and 1950s, planes and airports from the 1960s onward. The only film he has of my immediate family catches us with an unstable shaky camera in the airport in Trinidad, preparing to leave after a holiday in 1973. We are a diaspora family; frozen in still images that evoke mobility.
This photograph was taken twenty years before I was born. I have no memory of the events it presents. For me, this image perhaps marks a ‘postmemory’, a term that Marianne Hirsch has used to describe this connection with a family past:
Postmemory is a powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation. […] It characterises the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events that can be neither understood nor recreated. (1997: 22)
The mobility and transition evident in my uncle’s photograph is not the ultimate collective trauma of my family history. Nevertheless, the image of the shore, the ship and the pier in 1946 is reminiscent of traumas from generations earlier than my mother’s: of other ships, other landing points, and other (non-voluntary) crossings from ancestors whose memory has faded from our recountings and from whom no images remain. The ship and the journey are a fragment of a family story that reminds us of lives lived before our own and arrivals to a Caribbean destination not greeted by a welcoming family. As Paul Gilroy describes it, the ‘images of ships in motion across the spaces between Europe, America, Africa and the Caribbean’ is a ‘central organising symbol’ for the discussion of the ‘Black Atlantic’; ‘ships immediately focus attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland, on the circulation of ideas, activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artefacts’ (1993: 4).
I encounter this photograph, and many others like it, as I go through the research process of creating a documentary based on my family’s experience. As I work through the images of the past and elicit recollections from family members of our experiences of home and away, of fixity and dispersion, I also work through the creative and theoretical process of creating a first person film. Here, part of the plurality of the experience is drawn from the nature of my family; they represent a wide range of connections and experiences that cross class, gender, race, generational and cultural lines. This essay forms a part of the critical practice process of creating this film and as such, explores a range of influences that inform first person filmmaking in the context of the Caribbean diaspora.
The culture of the Caribbean as a whole is fragmented on a number of levels. Geographically it is a group of small islands, most of which are now individual nation states, with national identities constituted through their separation from their former colonial powers. This former colonial affiliation does, however, provide another level of identification, one that is based on common languages and shared histories of oppression across the islands and nations. With several languages spoken in the diverse islands, the fragmentation of Caribbean identity is also a function of these linguistic differences as well as the size of the various islands, and the combination of migrant populations. Historically, national identity formation has also depended on the economic structures; the combination of the plantation economy and absentee ownership contributed to a fragmented consciousness. This fragmentation is further compounded by the diversity of cultures brought together through the experience of diaspora, as explained by Sandra Pouchet Paquet in Caribbean Autobiography:
The themes of diaspora in the Caribbean are complicated because the Caribbean writers and scholars have been at great pains to represent the region, historically and culturally, as diasporic space – more commonly in terms of the competing claims of African, Asian and European ethnicities. Diasporic space represents the Caribbean in specific histories of conquest and settlement, population movements, exile and migration. It exists in tension with the concept of community that is inscribed within sites of ancestral dwelling. (2002: 6)
Paquet further explores how this diversity of culture and fragmentation of Caribbean identity is expressed through the process of autobiography: ‘the radical instability of the Caribbean as a cultural domain coincides with the radical instability of autobiography as a genre’ (2002: 8). The process of written autobiography for the Caribbean subject is part of a tradition of storytelling and of history-making. While this autobiographical writing reclaims a voice for a silenced people – individual voices that enunciate counter narratives to the official versions of history and of fantasy – it also presents a fragmented and disaggregated sense of self and an identity forged through the intricacies of difference and displacement.
On the other hand, Caribbean filmmaking has been limited by cultural, economic and political obstacles that have only rarely been overcome enough to bring fresh perspectives of West Indian experience to different audiences. Often the limited resources available for making films in the Caribbean are deployed to document the immediate social and political problems or the contextual history of the developing nations. As some have argued, autobiography holds a marginalised place in film in general (see Hampl 1996: 54) and in the context of the limited production of film in the Caribbean it has not yet found full expression.
These challenges presented by the dearth of first person visual representation in Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora filmmaking have led me to look at the neglected area of home movies as a key part of first person filmmaking. Home movies are autobiographical films, limited by genre, technology, their status as amateur work and the heavily coded expectations that surround their viewing. They have long been overlooked as an object of study due to their form, style, authorship and limited access for systematic analysis. Yet these films can articulate as well as any a narrative of familial experience of diaspora and displacement. The films I will be looking at are family films created by my father and uncles. They do not constitute a systematic study so much as a creative reflection on this form.
‘WILLED TO ME BY MY FATHER’S HAND’: HOME MOVIES AT HOME
I am looking at a sequence from one of my family’s films. It is the first reel my parents took of my sister Angela and brother Sandy. It starts with the family life in our home in Leyland, England. Conventional childhood images unfold: Angela and Sandy eating and playing outside in the garden. The images of happy children are balanced with my brother crying and walking towards the camera. Then, there is a time shift, we see the end of the street in Aberdeen, Scotland, where we live a year later, cutting to a shot of our new house. My brother and sister run out toward the camera, talking and laughing. A Scottish-Caribbean family, burdened with over-determined cultural symbols, Angela wears a tartan dress and Sandy carries a ‘gollywog’. I have now arrived in the family; the next shot shows my mother, Nora, carrying me out of the house to join the group. She tickles me to make me the laughing baby required of the moment. We are pictured together, the standard happy family at home, captured by the camera in my father’s hand, the staple of the home movie genre. The final shot of this sequence, reverses the gaze briefly, as my mother films my father cycling into the driveway, fulfilling the role of the patriarch returning home from the imagined work place. In constructing family life in the simple frozen image of the home movie, what is left out? What don’t these flickering frames show? No family film documents the fights these cute little children got into when their Scottish peers and compatriots called them by the ‘N’ word or any of its unpleasant synonyms. Only a few of the contradictions of mixed heritage are left in the silent film of children wearing tartan and clutching a symbolically ambiguous doll.
The visual style of the images that we do see form part of what Richard Chalfen calls the ‘home mode’, in some sense easily interchangeable with many other middle-class families in their construction of the imagined ideal of the family (1982: 8–9). I see this idealised middle-class life and recognise in it at least a fragment of my past. I am not ‘unsettled’ by these images, as Richard Fung is when he finds himself confronting the home movies from his family past, which ‘contradicted what [he] remembered’ (2008: 32). I acknowledge, as he points out, the similarity of my family films to the others from ‘the template of suburban America’ (2008: 33) (or Britain, even), but there is a specificity here as well, one to do with not only what we see in family memorabilia but how we see the images of our family: what Hirsch calls the ‘affiliative look’; ‘recognising an image as familialelicits […] a specific kind of readerly or spectatorial look, an affiliative look through which we are sutured into the image and through which we adopt the image into our own familial narrative […] it is idiosyncratic, untheorisable: it is what moves us because of our memories and our histories, and because of the ways in which we structure our own sense of particularity’ (1997: 93). Fung’s response to his family movies is no less valid than mine, both are grounded in an experience of family that is on one level universal (our films are similar to other middle-class home mode representations) and specific (they are our films). As Hirsch explains: ‘What I see when I look at my family pictures is not what you see when you look at them; only my look is affiliative, only my look enters and extends the network of looks and gazes that have constructed the image in the first place’ (ibid.).
Thus, home movies are a specific experience for the in-group viewer and a different experience for the guest or the outside observer. There is a narrative already written into the viewing: through memory, recognition, repetition and ritual. Watching the old films again on a DVD transfer with my brother and sister, we laugh at different scenes, cringe at our moments of youthful nakedness, get nostalgic for favoured bits of clothing, and recount fragments of memory from outside the frame. My clearest memories of childhood may not be in the films, but the films infiltrate my memories of all other parts of my childhood. When others watch this film it is in the company of a family member who projects it and contextualises the images. The last time I showed a friend my family films, we sat on the floor with the projector trained against the wall. She had once met Sandy, but knew no one else in my family. Through the films she encountered the rest of my kin, frozen in the idyllic and idealised scenes of childhood. She laughed hardest at the images of me as a baby, but ultimately shared the projected nostalgia of a happy family past/passed. By the ritual of viewing and the context of my screening, she was sutured temporarily into my familial, affiliative look. Watching these films with the family member present, the guest viewer is given momentary access to another’s family and allowed space to project their own memories, stories and fantasies onto the film. Home movies are designed to be viewed by the specific audience that anchors their meaning in the now and the shared experience of viewing. They can be devoid of fictional narrative or documentary factual conventions because they are meant to be seen differently as part of the process of creating and sustaining familial memory, and by extension community ritual formation.
Home movies are conventionally created, ritualistically viewed and simplistic in style; nevertheless they are important cultural documents. The recent interest in the scholarly field attests to this and the incorporation of examples of this form into archives and collections develops this interest. So before I say more about my collection of films, I will explain clearly what they are and how I came by them. My uncle’s films came to me first when he moved into a nursing home in Florida in 1994. He had lost his wife, was suffering from dementia and was no longer able to cope with living alone. My parents travelled to Florida to help him with the sale of his house and possessions. My mother put his films and photographs in an old red suitcase and had it shipped to me where I lived in Ohio, with some furniture that I bought from his estate. Looking through this old collection I was fascinated, but did not take the time to sort through or explore the collection for a number of years, until after my uncle had died. There were many boxes, envelopes and albums of photographs. The films were a mixed collection: some edited compilation reels (‘My WI trip 1965’, ‘Our Trip to Canada 1967’) of ten minutes or more, mixed in with thirty or so 100ft reels, with occasional information and dates. Attempting to catalogue this work, I combined the written information with edge letter processing dates, and what I can recognise and reconstruct from conversations with various others.
The second part of the collection came to me in 2002. My father, Robbie, asked me to take his old home movies to transfer to video, but it was yet again something I did not accomplish until later, again after his death. Robbie’s films were more systematically preserved. With the exception of a few 100ft reels of miscellaneous family visits and outtakes, each reel is a 10–12-minute compilation of an event, holiday or designated time period; with holiday films making up the majority. Among them are one or two reels of short film that my brother or I shot during our teen years (after Dad got the Super 8 camera when we were allowed to mess with the old regular 8). When I was 18, I borrowed the Super 8 camera and made my first full film. Both parts of the collection are visual legacies and come with a responsibility to preserve and share a collective family past. It is out of this that my documentary emerged with the accompanying interest in the role of home movies in the creation and preservation of cultural memory.
‘AN EQUAL PLACE’: HOME MOVIES IN THE HOMELAND
If home movies exist within the frame of familial consciousness, they are also reflective of other, larger ideological functions in articulating social groupings and a further affiliation to the ‘imagined community’ of the nation. In her study of memory, culture and the domestic photograph, Annette Kuhn analyses an image of herself, dressed up in a special ceremonial dress for the Coronation in 1953. The photograph, taken in the familial context, becomes part of a larger discourse about national identity (see Kuhn 1995: 59–67). In the ritual of the Coronation the participation of the everyday families binds a complex set of meanings around nationality. Thus, there are records, not only of the official activities of royalty and guests, but families participating in the Coronation as a form of community bonding around a national symbol. In this way we can see how domestic photography and the home movie can be reflective of larger ideas about the imaginings of a nation.
Another example of this relationship between amateur photography/filmmaking and larger social constructs is Heather Nicholson’s exploration of the films of amateur filmmaker Charles Chislett. His domestic holiday films reproduce the discourses of national identity and the construction of ‘Englishness’ prevalent in the 1930s and 1940s:
The ideological context within which domestic travelogues were made and shown may be set against much better known voices engaged in diverse attempts to re-imagine national identity. In its own way, showing home movies also helped to construct notions of national unity. Their domestic and unofficial disclosures of the everyday reinforced the more explicit messages, which … came from J. B. Priestley’s radio chat shows, Humphrey Jennings’ documentaries, and a stream of broadcasts from the British Broadcasting Corporation and Ministry of Information. (2002: 57)
This idea that home movies contribute to an everyday construction and reinforcement of nationalism can be seen in the evidence of my family films. The most well-worn film in my father’s collection is of a family holiday on the Scottish island of Colonsay. The film projects an idyllic rural Scottishness: bucolic and pastoral. The highland holiday is a part of my upbringing that is visualised in these images of walking in hills, playing on the beach and participating in the local community sports day. One sequence shows my family out fishing with a local father and son whose labour is framed as rustic spectacle. The film’s mise-en-scène places the family grouping in woolly jumpers and wellies; it is an imagining of postcard Scottishness, personalised through the family’s participation.
In contrast, the first among my parent’s films is an unusual home movie, made shortly after their marriage. It looks at their life in the New Heys reception centre for children where my father worked as warden and where both my parents also lived. In this large Victorian house with a group of about thirty children in care, the notion of ‘home’ in home movies becomes destabilised. On the one hand, for my father the boundaries between home and work are blurred and on the other, it documents the life of children whose experience of conventional home life has been disrupted and undermined. This film also disrupts the national imagining that is part of the home movie project, through its focus on the racial diversity of the home and the tensions of the surrounding community of Liverpool. Early in the film a sequence of shots introduce the location of Liverpool, including a wall with the graffiti ‘Keep Britain White’ – a shot which is also intercut into a later sequence when a diverse group of children and adults in the home dance the twist together. As a home movie this is an interesting and unconventional example. It is edited into a ten-minute reel, with a type-written commentary included in the box. Structured both narratively and rhetorically, it is more like an amateur documentary than a standard home movie, addressing the intersecting issues of home, community, city and national identity. The undeniable racial and cultural diversity of the children in the home contrasts with the antagonism of the surrounding community and directly relates to the shifting demographic of the nation.
This example shows a complexity within the home movie’s representation of Britishness and the encounter of post-colonial diasporic shifts in population. But what about the ways in which the home mode can articulate a Caribbean consciousness in its own right? Images of Trinidad carnival are a staple of how the tourist gaze structures the Caribbean as spectacle for consumption. Yet carnival is simultaneously part of the construction of a national ritual, on which a complex Caribbean identity is written. In my family films, carnival recurs in different places. Robbie’s films record the celebrations of 1962, the second film after New Heys, documenting my parents’ first visit to the family home in Trinidad as a couple, but before they had children. The carnival part of the longer compilation reel of their holiday, starts with the children’s parade, where my cousins are identifiable among the costumed groups. Then the film continues with the exhibition of carnival bands parading across the Savannah (the large park in the centre of Port of Spain).
My mother tells the story of how my father used up all his film on the first day of carnival, not realising that the main spectacle occurred on the Tuesday. It is a mistake that speaks to his position as tourist and outsider. Likewise, the film itself has both the flavour of exotic spectacle as well as the potential for reading the images as national spectacle. Within the carnivalesque portrayal we can see a fragmented and hybridised Caribbean identity emerge.For example, my favourite image of this film (and perhaps of all my father’s films) is of a carnival band of Trinidadian men marching, dressed in short red kilts with t-shirts and tams, while in the foreground, a man dances with a large map of Africa on his back. This image, with its equal parts syncretism and parody, would have appealed to my father at the time, and echoes the ironies of a cross-cultural family life even as I watch it today.
Among my uncle’s collection there are also films of carnival, several 100ft reels of different celebrations and a compilation of the 1964 event. The 1964 film is hypnotic to watch, as repeated scenes of dancing groups cross the screen, with a similar use of long shots, visual framing and takes of equal measure. There is a sequence of children’s carnival on one reel as well, but in this case it is hard to distinguish any of my cousins. The camera-work is shaky, taken as if by someone in the middle of the action, rather than viewing from a distance. Also notable among the films that I received from Harold are two 100 ft reels not taken by my Uncle Harold, but by my Uncle James (uncle by marriage). James was a keen photographer and probably shot these reels of film with Harold’s borrowed camera. Although James was later to move to Canada, at this point he lived in Trinidad, so the films are not the diasporic documents that Harold’s and Robbie’s are, but a native Trinidadian’s home movie. James’ camera style is much more methodical and controlled than either Harold’s or my father’s. The images of the carnival bands are produced with carefully executed long-shot pans. Although knowing Uncle James, my affiliative gaze sees this style as part of his personality, I also see the care and caution of someone for whom film is a rare luxury, to be consumed with diligence and respect. The boxes these films come in attest to this, as they are labelled with great care, addressed to Kodak in the US where they would have had to be sent for processing as this was not available in Trinidad (see Fung 2008: 30). In this example, the native Trinidadian view of carnival is distanced by the stylistic choices, rather than the involved shooting of Harold, the diaspora son from away, with his shaky camera movements and closer take on the action or my father’s more impressionistic participation.
Dare I mention the last carnival film of the collection, when I can hardly bear to look at it? In 1985, I also shot a carnival film. With my father’s borrowed camera it was my first attempt at filmmaking (other than the fragments of regular 8 I shot with my brother when I was younger). There is nothing remarkable about these four 100ft reels, unless it is my tendency for short takes and interest in shooting scenes of my extended family enjoying the party, rather than the more conventional images of the costumes and bands. The carnival sequences are surrounded by footage of other events, and the last reel shows the conventional, formal march past of the bands from the viewing stand in the Savannah. But nearly a third of the footage shot is of a group of cousins ‘liming’ (hanging out) at the corner of Stone Street, near where the family house is situated. We are watching, dancing and drinking. This corner also appears in both Harold’s and Robbie’s films (Angela and Sandy returned to that spot for carnival 2001, my mother shot a sequence of photographs from that location during carnival 2008 and I returned there with my video camera in 2009). It is a place that speaks to the family’s connection to the national spectacle, our participation comes from this spot. It is not our family home itself that is the point of intersection for our diasporic connection to the national ritual, but another liminal space of transition. We are a diaspora family; we gather, dance and lime on the corner of our street.
As a document of a national celebration, the films from the four family members speak to a fragmented and incoherent sense of how carnival expresses the Trinidad and diaspora identity. This identity is spoken through style, the affiliative gaze, but also the acknowledgment that the home movie in the Caribbean context is privileged through the limitations of access. Richard Fung makes this point when he argues for a complexity in the role of the home movie in the Third World context: ‘in Third World countries home movies were accessible only to the relatively privileged, and the footage draws attention to social difference rather than commonality. Its use therefore undermines, or at least provides a counterpoint to, the inclination to conflate the ‘I’ of the Third World autobiographical film or video maker with the ‘I’ of the nation, to extend Henry Loius Gates formulation about identity and race in African-American autobiographical writing’ (2008: 39). It is undeniable that the relationship of home movies taken in Trinidad (and by necessity processed elsewhere) and any project of national or regional imagining would be inevitably overlayed with questions of privilege, access and technology. Yet there are ways in which home movies do speak to a specific national context even as they articulate part of a history defined by questions of privilege. Here the comparison between the Third World autobiographical film and the racial identity exposed in African-American autobiographical writing is valuable. Gates (1985) refers in his article to the development of the slave narrative tradition and the way it grew into a form of articulation of the black American experience. This tradition grew at a time when literacy itself was a privilege not available to all, just as access to home movie technology is limited within Third World contexts. Despite, or in addition to, the privilege these forms evince, they nonetheless also become important cultural and historical referents.
Roger Odin sees the home movie’s potential to articulate an experience outside the proscription of official discourses of history:
Family filmmakers are involuntary endotic anthropologists; they film those moments of life that professionals ignore. Official reports fail to document entire aspects of society. Home movies are sometimes the only records of some racial, ethnic, cultural, social communities marginalised by the official version of history. Even if these films do not recount the entire history and often show what the community sanctions, these films represent important documents. (2008: 263)
HOME MOVIES AS TRAVELOGUE
Home movies expand out beyond the space of the home. Although many of the moments they celebrate are created in that familial space and often it is on a wall or screen at home where they are viewed, they stretch out beyond the house to view the family life outside of the home. A significant subgenre of the home movie is the holiday film, often documenting international travel and the tourist’s encounter with another culture. If, as Michelle Citron suggests, ‘vacationers take 70 percent of all photographs shot worldwide’ (1999: 7) then the way that the amateur photographer, or home moviemaker, views the world is highly relevant to perceptions of cultural difference.
Travel holiday films are derivative of the images perpetuated through tourist travel discourse. They are often framed in terms of the family’s journey to the exotic, constructing objects of the tourist gaze. They are films documenting the leisure time activities associated with travel; tourist attractions, beach and relaxation, parties and festivals. As Nicholson points out, the holiday film has a pre-written narrative structure; with preparation, departure, travel, sights and activities of the holiday and ending with the return (2002: 54). Holiday trips, like home movie technology, speak to who has the economic power to travel and make images.
In both my father’s and uncle’s collection, holiday films are a significant feature. My father’s films include three trips to visit family in Trinidad (for carnival in 1962, Christmas in 1969 and the summer of 1973), one trip to family in New York and Toronto and the aforementioned highland holiday to Colonsay. These films, and the Trinidad films in particular, represent a fractured family experience of travel. For my mother, Trinidad was a journey home, reuniting with family in a known and comfortable environment. For my father, it is more clearly a holiday, in the sense of visiting a place that was not home and where he would always be a foreigner and a guest. His position in the process, as filmmaker and outsider, in some ways allows for these images to be created. Yet his presence as a visitor also inflects how Trinidad is seen through the eyes of a non-Trinidadian. This outsider role gives these films a different inflection than home movies that emerge from a native Caribbean context. There is another layer of conflict that can be read into what appear to be simple records of a family holiday. As Robbie operates the camera, he structures the image partially through the tourist gaze and partially through his affiliation as an in-law member of the family. Thus, the films mix visuals of tourist sites and holiday activities with family members congregating. Pictures of carnival, which to the non-affiliated tourist are mere exotic spectacle, to the affiliative gaze involve picking out family members among the costumed crowds and seeing the activities in the context of a participatory national spectacle.
As I watch these films through my own affiliative look, I see the paradox at the heart of the images that resonates with the conflicted nature of these journeys as I experienced them as a child. Visiting from Scotland, away from the home of my childhood, my sister, brother and I are clearly on holiday. But through our mother’s connection, we are bound to Trinidad more intimately than the average tourist: it is a return of sorts to a motherland, marked by a feeling of duality. We are and we are not tourists, we are not and we are home. I anticipated these trips as a child as holidays and expected them to be fun, but remember them as more fraught – with family visits rather than time on the beach, heat that I found insufferable and the culture clash of ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ I could barely remember invading my not-inconsiderable Scottish personal space. My memories are not unique, they are shared by siblings and cousins who felt to varying degrees, similar discomforts of this home/not home.
I re-watch one particular sequence repeatedly, encountering traces and evidence of the conflicted diaspora experience in the film. It is from our 1969 visit to Trinidad, when I was three. I am absent from this short scene, possibly marking the territory of my future life behind the camera. My mother and her sisters are buying fish from a stall in Mayaro, they talk among themselves, occasionally acknowledging the presence of the camera. My mother tries to keep hold of my brother as he pulls away and my sister looks on with interest from the sidelines (she became a marine biologist, so perhaps she was foreseeing her future also). If I were to watch this sequence without the familial context it could appear as exotic spectacle of the market taken by a passing tourist. But the comfort of the three sisters with each other and with the camera binds even the non-affiliative spectator into the family moment. The camera, and with it the viewer, is part of the group. The scene catches for me the diaspora family film, with multiple levels of address visible in the frame and more interpretation accessible in the viewing context of the home mode.
HOME MOVIES AND THE DIASPORA
One of the questions that I seem to be repeatedly asking myself in this research is whether home movies produce or reproduce, familiarise or defamiliarise, critique or undermine conventional images of the Caribbean. As an extension of the tourist impulse, holiday films serve functions supported by the appeal of tourism. Yet I would argue that there is a different set of prerogatives for the home movie produced by the member of the diasporic family, a function linked to the disjuncture of home and separation articulated in the Caribbean first person narrative. The diaspora home movie creates a different view of travel from that of conventional tourist films. Travel here is not the simple narrative structure of the holiday suggested by Nicholson. It is not a going out from the routedness of home and the return, but a constant shifting and migratory relationship between different spaces, locations and familial splits. It is not a search for the exotic or simplistic cross-cultural moment so much as a search for the connection between disparate family members. I am not arguing here for a radical rewriting of the home mode in the diaspora, so much as a shift in the affliative gaze.
What in the images of the home movie articulates this difference? After all, are not my family doing similar things as other home movie families? The images are interpreted by the affiliative gaze in the context of experience: therefore different artists reading and anchoring the home movie image reframe and recontextualise their films in relationship to different forms of experience. In Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003), for example, the way the film contextualises the home mode images encourages the viewer to search for evidence of abuse, while in Tarnation (Jonathan Caouette, 2003) the viewer is invited to see the effects of mental illness reflected in the home mode. I search my family archive for the visual representations of the stories of diaspora and displacement.
The diaspora home movie does not represent a break or a radical rewriting of the form of home movies, but it does show significant shifts from the convention of the holiday film in its intentions and reception. As the quotation from Di Stefano at the start of this chapter suggests it is often the absent family member who makes the images to create the imagined ‘connection’ with the space of home or the connection with imagined space of ‘home’. This replays certain power relations as suggested by Fung especially if the absent family member accesses resources of economic or social privilege through residence in the first world.
Diaspora home movies function as a social bridge, reaching across physical distances to perform basic familial functions, such as introducing a new baby, inviting the family over to see the new house, or acting as a alternative reunion. Sometimes, as discussed earlier, they document the trip home and the reunion with family moving through the transitory image of arrival or leaving. At other times they are like an animated Christmas card, going beyond the stasis of the still photographs circulated to absent family members, substituting for the presence that holidays demand. Of course they do all this while simultaneously coming up short: silent, two-dimensional images on the wall, flickering to a close, always ending too soon. These diasporic filmic envoys are always intended for an audience beyond the home, structured to address a different audience than that of the usual nuclear family home movie. The shift in the context of reception, points to the diaspora home movie as involving a divergence in the intentions of the family filmmaker, to address family across geographic divides. Here the destabilised notion of home links a variety of spaces where different family members now live into a common shared and imagined space: a virtual home created by home movie.
After I had written the initial draft of this essay I came across personal evidence to support this theory that my family’s home movies were part of the intricate system of communications between the separated family members. I found a letter written from my maternal grandmother to my father to congratulate my parents on my birth. In this letter my grandmother describes having seen the first part of the reel I mentioned earlier in this essay, my brother and sister in the garden in Leyland. I wonder about the logistics of this ritual viewing; my grandmother probably had to borrow a neighbour’s projector to watch the reel of film sent from abroad for viewing. Without a dedicated screen in the house, the images would have been projected against a wall. Home movies were not reproducible as still images and could not be kept in multiple spaces of the dispersed family, it would have to have been returned after viewing. This is a more precious and fragile ritual of image sharing than today’s world of endlessly reproducible digital capture. This brings me spiralling around in a circle (although not by any means the proverbial ‘full circle’) to:
January 2008: I approach the pier in Port of Spain by boat, with a camera in my hand, as my uncle probably did over fifty years earlier. Through the viewfinder, the frame includes my mother in the foreground and the background of approaching new highrises climbing out of the building sites. I am documenting another moment of return. My mother has not been to Trinidad in over twenty years; she is coming back for a six-week break that will include her first sight of carnival since the 1962 celebration documented in the old home movie. The sea journey seems forced, more orchestrated for the video opportunity and its narrative significance than a documenting of a moment of homecoming. Of course we flew over the Atlantic; few people travel across by ship anymore, however poetic the visual metaphor may be for evoking the history of the ‘black Atlantic’. The ship is only the short-hop ferry that brings us over from Tobago, where we arrived on the cheap tourist shuttle. We are a modern diaspora family; our journeys are contingent rather than mythic (or tragic), our wanderings are economic migrations rather than enforced exiles, our homecomings are always tinged with the knowledge that home itself is not a stable space, but a shifting signifier, an uncertain place. Trinidad is no longer my mother’s home and it never was mine. If Richard Fung felt discomfort in old family films where I have sought comfort, this is where my discomfort lies: the power of the image, laying over the sheen of professionalism what was once much more organic in the amateur mode.
If this seems like an inconclusive conclusion, it is. It may find some resolution in the documentary that will emerge from this process of research, thinking, writing, listening, looking, recording, filming and editing. Or it may remain the fragmented, incoherent and partial narrative that is the purview of the home movie, the autobiography and the experience of diaspora.
Chalfen, R. (1982) Snapshot Versions of Life. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.
Citron, M. (1999) Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Di Stefano, J. (2002) ‘Moving Images of Home’, Art Journal, 61, 4, 38–51.
Fung, R. (2008) ‘Remaking Home Movies’, in K. I. Ishizuka and P. R. Zimmermann (eds) Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 29–40.
Gates Jr, H. L. (1985) ‘Writing “Race” and the Difference It Makes’, in H. L. Gates Jr (ed.) ‘Race’, Writing and Difference. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press 1–20.
Gilroy, P. (1993) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso.
Glissant, E. (1989) Caribbean Discourse. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Hampl, P. (1996) ‘Memories Movies’, in C. Warren (ed.) Beyond Document: Essays in Nonfiction Film.Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 51–77.
Hirsch, M. (1997) Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kuhn, A. (1995) Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. London: Verso.
Moran, J. M. (2002) There’s No Place Like Home Video. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Nicholson, H. N. (2002) ‘Telling Travelers’ Tales: The World through Home Movies’, in T. Creswell and D. DixonEngaging Film: Geographies of Mobility and Identity. London: Rowman and Littlefield, 47-66.
Odin, R. (2008) ‘Reflections on the Family Home Movie as Document: A Semio-Pragmatic Approach’, in K. I. Ishizuka and P. R. Zimmermann (eds) Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 255–71.
Paquet, S. P. (2002) Caribbean Autobiography: Cultural Identity and Self-Representation. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Urry, J. (1990) The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies. London: Sage.
Zimmermann, P. R. (1995) Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Review 1: accept with no alternations
kydd’s film is an evocative meditation on the significance of her family home, Stone Street, in Trinidad and its importance for her sense of self and that of the different generations of her diasporic family. The poignancy of the film, with its underlying sense of loss and longing for connection with somewhere that can be called home despite the fragmentation and separation caused by migration, is made even more intense by the knowledge that its maker, Elspeth kydd, died this year in her middle years.
The originality of the work lies both in its layered, multi-modal approach to an exploration of the author’s family history and in the use of first person narration not as any form of confession but as dream-like, lyrical reflection on a diasporic experience of family, place and nation. Within the context of the Caribbean diaspora, the family film is given a new meaning, focussing much less on the internal dynamics of the family and its vicissitudes, but on the significance and interactions of the extended family as experienced in rare reunions, and through its mediations, to its members living separated in far flung parts of the globe.
kydd’s camera wanders through her grandmother’s Trinidadian home, searching for the past of her kin and of her own childhood there, pausing momentarily on a bed where flickering Super 8 images of children appear where they laid together many years before. At the same time as dramatizing the yearning for a sense of belonging, the film reflexively acknowledges the inevitable irrecoverability of the past and the instability of any narrative which might connect it seamlessly to the present, as well as some of the silences and omissions which excluded those from memory who did not fit norms of patriarchal and colonial legacies. The division of the film into chapters which reflect on different themes such as ‘Dispersions’ and ‘Voices and Echoes’ works well to give it an original structure and order the flow of meditations and musings of the author. My one query about the film-maker’s approach is whether more personal information about the family’s many members might have helped orientate the viewer and bring her closer, at least at some moments, to the people represented. We remain somewhat at a distance, and sometimes slightly confused as to who we are seeing and hearing. While I realize this is intentional to a large extent, possibly mirroring kydd’s own unfamiliarity with some of the very large, dispersed clan (as she admits in the voice-over), it could be said to underline how viewers from outside the family may feel excluded from the ‘affilliative look’ which gives some of family’s images, speeches and interactions special significance. The question of power within the family is also only really alluded through to the stories of a couple of enigmatic figures from the distant past, rather than being an issue for any of the current or recent family relationships.
The film beautifully and effectively conveys the insight that ‘home is shifting signifier, an uncertain place’ through its critical deployment of and counterpointing of the home movie footage shot by kydd’s father, her uncle and herself as well as her professional footage and through telling metaphors such as the sand being sifted through fingers. This description of ‘home’ carries particular resonance for kydd’s generation, in her case, having grown up in Scotland, in a Scottish – Carribean family, her father filming the ‘standard happy family at home…burdened with over-determined cultural symbols’ – her sister wearing tartan and brother carrying a ‘gollywog’. The film’s emphasis on questions of identity, transition and dispersal across generations and spaces gives it a very telling and significant place in the current field of auto/biographical film practice, prompting a keen reflection on the importance of cultural, and political contexts in representations of ‘family’.
kydd’s article on the film, originally published before its completion, suggestively locates it within key theoretical readings such as Pacquet, Hisrch and Kuhn. She makes valuable comparison with Richard Fung’s work and very cogently highlights her intentions in creating its fragmented and partial form, highlighting the affinities between the ‘radical instability of the Carribean as a cultural domain’ and of autobiography as a genre. She provides astute reflection on the ways in which home movies, may construct and reinforce nationalism. One such example is a family holiday film at Colonsay which is used in the film and effectively undercut through split screen juxtaposition with an interview with her brother where he recalls the tactical response the siblings developed to questions about where they came from, ’We’re Trini-Caledonians’, they said.
Review 2: accept with No alterations
Early in her essay, Looking For Home In Home Movies: The Home Mode in Caribbean Diaspora First Person Film & Video Practice, Elspeth kydd establishes the corporeal and ideological metaphor of “sifting sand” as a way of describing what it is like to seek the truth of oneself (or one’s Self) in the traces and fragments of her family’s story that have survived the diasporic history which has always and ever been that story’s context and subtext. The metaphor is derived from the lyrics of a Calypso, and it is intended to suggest the paradoxical truth of any attempt to explore “identity” via the artefacts of mediated communication between distant or forgotten relatives, which have become the totemic objects of a collective post-memory: it evokes at once the notion of futility and of fruitfully pointless labour; of something slipping through one’s fingers, and of simple joyous immersion in an occupation that is an end in itself, so long as one does not ask too much of it, or is willing to attenuate one’s ears to the diffuse lessons that it does have to teach.
It is this ability to embrace and accept dichotomy, to embrace and accept the inevitable elisions and enigmas which we in fact embody, that makes her film, Stone Street, such a delight to watch: it is not so much a narrative as a dance, or perhaps the cinematic equivalent of an afternoon spent floating in an ocean of memory, and idly sifting the sands that have accreted almost randomly upon its shore. From the very beginning, kydd warns us that we will be disappointed if we expect a resolution, closure, clarity; but she also promises us that we will discover treasure if we are willing simply to enjoy the dance…
What she presents is a formal negation of the false and dangerous clarity of Historical Narrative, countering this with an elegaically slow and hypnotically repetitive subjective account, accompanied by (or, more precisely, arising from) a sifting and resifting of several generations’ worth of domestic media. The contents of this family’s home movies are (in one sense) so very generic that taken as a whole they might almost constitute a reflective surface, insofar as even when the subject matter is “unusual” (I note especially the preponderance of liminal spaces, the huge number of records and photographs of Helloes and Goodbyes that this family have made in docks and in airports around the world) or when it is “exotic” (the Carnival, the dancing) somehow as an oeuvre, as an exercise, it remains very much in keeping with the unspoken and eurocentric laws of conventional self-representation and status-play that govern all domestic media production. Elspeth stirs at this surface, lovingly sifting the delicate grainy super 8 footage, scrutinising hidden corners of the overexposed or blurry photographs, scrubbing the degenerating vhs images, as if in the hope of penetrating beneath their surface, trying to get behind the fragment to the forgotten whole that it excludes or elides…
While we do learn quite a bit of the Cherrie family’s history from this process, what we mostly learn is why fragmentation and elision is inevitable in diasporic culture, why some stories and voices survive and others are repressed, excised, lost or elided. It is in the gaps that the real treasure is found; by identifying (with) the absences, we may attenuate our ears to hear the echoes of lost voices, or to syncopate our bodies to the rhythms that secretly control the dance, or to imagine the histories that have been repressed by History.
Elspeth kydd died on 9 April 2013 after a long battle with cancer. She was a filmmaker and a teacher. Her book,The Critical Practice of Film, placed a unique emphasis on the integration of film theory and practice, introducing students to thinking critically about their own filmmaking. As well as publishing Elspeth was a civil-rights activist who also made a strong and enduring contribution to the disciplines of queer studies and Caribbean studies.