Julia Wack, Institute for History, University of Luxembourg
23 November 2020
Most of us have starred in amateur films, more than ever since we’ve hit the digital era, a lot of people however still have videos or small gauge films made of our childhood benchmarks, such as first steps, first day at school or family Christmas. These latter formats, 16mm, 8mm, 9.5 mm and super 8, which were permanent and not editable, used to reign the world of non-professional film until the 1980s. Yet, there is much more to ‘amateur film’ than what is categorically regrouped under terms like ‘home movie’ or ‘family film’.
Particularly in the decades immediately following World War II, there was a major surge of amateur film making, due to technical development in mobile cameras, projectors and film material and a decrease in price of the aforementioned equipment. For example, every tenth French household, as well as every fifth German household owned small gauge camera and projection equipment in the late 1950s. In addition to home movie making, the newfound accessibility led to a wave of newly founded amateur film clubs and soaring membership rates during this period. Film making turned from an elitist leisure time activity of the upper class to a popular middle-class hobby.
Worldwide, a target group of mostly middle-aged, middle class men got together in local groups that collectively purchased, or even developed and tuned equipment, and spend an important part of their free time socialising, working on film projects or competing in local, national and international amateur film championships. In case of West Germany this development is not only based on economic rise, but partly on the fact that, after a period of hesitation, the allied powers granted the right to found leisure time associations in the late 1940s/early 1950s. The social life of these clubs went largely beyond film making and included excursions, frequent gatherings and public parties or film soirées.
Considering the role of the amateur film maker as a chronicler of the contemporary, academia has shown increasing interest in amateur film as a research subject of since the 1980s, with Roger Odin and Patricia Zimmermann among its most notable scholars. Amateur filmmakers in organised associations and competitions have – with few notable exceptions[i] – however not been studied extensively, even less in a transnational context. My doctoral research at the University of Luxembourg focuses on the cinematic and socio-cultural practices of such amateur film clubs or societies in the long 1960s (between 1955 and 1975) in the so-called Greater Region: a border region comprising the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the French-speaking Wallonia in Belgium, Lorraine in Northern France and Saarland in Germany on a comparative transnational level. A financially rather less affluent cultural periphery during that era; economically and culturally united by the heavy industries of the European Coal and Steel Community, but separated by languages, borders and state forms, the amateur film clubs of the Greater Region show striking similarities in terms of production content and activities.
My project is part of a transnational collaboration Popkult60 between Luxembourg and Germany about Popular Culture in the long 1960s. I am thus not only interested in the medium amateur film, but also in the clubs’ social and cinematic practices as a popular cultural expression. Besides the existing body of peer-reviewed literature about amateur film, I use a base of oral history interviews with film club members of the period in question, as well as an analysis of the medium itself and other artefacts, such as equipment and files, provided by the club members and archives, as primary sources. The search for these primary sources proves challenging due to the archive situation of amateur film in most countries and the fact that most amateur film makers of the research period have passed; these obstacles providing an explanation why the subject had underrepresented in academic research for a long period.
Considering that the demographics of these clubs were (and are) largely homogenous, mostly consisting of middle-aged men of the more affluent part of the working class, on the one hand, we encounter a unique insight in this, by academia rather neglected, target group, and on the other hand, access to a source body that is – while comprising diverse genres – equally homogenous on a transnational level in terms of narratives, imagery and design. An important part of the productions are nature documentaries, family films, travel and Sunday excursion films, fewer feature films and very rarely experimental or avant-gardist films.
At this point, the explanation for these preferences seems that most film makers resorted to what is nowadays called ‘scripted reality’. Even despite the increased financial accessibility of the material, the fact that it could not be edited, made it a very valuable resource, and film makers recall that, due to financial constraints, they were frequently confronted with a decision between the purchase of film rolls or a holiday trip. The often heavily staged and directed family or travel films strongly feature the element of the ‘male gaze’ as described by Laura Mulvey, due to the fact that everyday life and its heydays like weddings, birthdays and other festivities were mostly filmed by men. In rare exceptions, the male film makers would direct their wives using the camera, so they could be featured themselves as actors in their own productions.
Only with the invention of Super 8, which was heavily marketed towards women in the mid-60s/70s in what would nowadays be considered rather sexist campaigns, more women took up the camera to film their environment. Nevertheless, female members were mostly playing the role of caterers, accountants or occasionally scriptwriters in film clubs.
Joining forces in amateur film clubs had the advantage of sharing equipment, advice and manpower. Most interviewees who share their memories with me admit that their main interest was the technical aspect of filmmaking and to proceed from the static image of photography to the moving image. Often, amateur film clubs were founded upon initiative of local photography and film equipment shops to enhance their turnover. Being one’s own film director and making a creative, while chronicling, contribution to society, seemed to be part of the democratisation process of the post-war years. Yet, though the mission statements of clubs and associations of the long 1960s cite a pursuit of artistic freedom and encouragement, in reality, their members limited their experimentations mostly to technical advance, such as building their own montage or lighting equipment, or customising professional equipment. Within the club environment, members also worked on extensive collaborative productions, making division of labour a necessity in the departments of camera, lighting, script or scenery.
Participation in local, national and international competitions, such as in UNICA, the world association of amateur film makers, is a factor that led to the members going to great lengths in their film productions. In the late 60s, a slight increase in critical or satiric films, among others political animations could be observed, which might have been encouraged by the increasingly liberal socio-political climate. Nevertheless, their authors frankly admit that they rather made the effort in order to succeed in the competition, than to make a political or artistic impact. Occasionally productions include elements of high culture, such as classical music or poetry, but feature almost exclusively the ‘mainstream’ of the high culture, with one interviewee joking that one year a national competition saw 30 films opening to the overture of Johann Strauß’ operetta ‘Die Fledermaus’.
The amateurs were producing largely for the reception and recognition of their peers, but adopting well known codes of mass culture which also work for a general audience. This approach only seems to differ in large centres of cultural production such as New York City, where amateur film and artistic production as well as commercial film, had an impact on each other, considering the œuvre of the likes of Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas or Michelangelo Antonioni; these exceptions remain very rare on a global scale and are therefore even more remarkable in their few cases among most amateur film clubs.
In my current research, it appears that, while the amateur film club scene in France was very active, the North-Eastern department of Lorraine is to be a major exception: With a few striking exceptions, little production within a club context is recorded between 1960 and 1980. Consulting Roger Odin, whose contributions were pioneering in the studies of amateur film, about his opinion regarding Lorraine, he noted that this area had always been less active in competitions. Yet, bearing in mind the economic similarities between the fellow regions of the Greater Region, no convincing reason could yet be found for the striking difference between the amateur film landscapes of Lorraine and the other regions. Following Odin’s advice, I’d like to further explore whether Lorraine-based amateurs were preferring the family context to the club environment.
While the German Saarland was more active during the research period, most clubs have meanwhile ceased official activities. This is in stark contrast to Luxembourg and the Belgian Wallonia where an important number of the clubs that were active in the long 1960s still exists nowadays, in the latter under the predicate ‘royal’, signifying 50 years of club activity. Another interesting fact that I am trying to analyse is, that, despite language not being an barrier for their members, Luxembourgish clubs seem to not have had closer collaborations or exchange with clubs in France or Belgium, whilst in the case of the German Saarland, the Luxembourgish Amateur Film Federation had several close ties and was even instrumental in the establishment of the local association of clubs – a remarkable fact shortly after World War II.
In the future I hope to connect my findings with the results of fellow international researchers in order to establish a transnational overview of the creation of amateur film and clubs, hoping to assist UNICA and the European association for the conservation of amateur film, INEDITS, in their respective work.
[i] Compare for instance Ryan Shand, “Amateur Cinema: History, Theory, and Genre (1930-80)”, University of Glasgow, 2007; Melinda Stone and Dan Streible, ‘Small-Gauge and Amateur Film’, in Film History, 15:2 (2003), 123-125; Laurence Allard, ‘Espace public et sociabilité esthétique’, in Communications, 68 :1 (1999), 207-237
Julia Wack is a 3rd year PhD candidate at the University of Luxembourg’s Institute for History. Her research focuses on socio-cultural aspects of amateur film clubs in the long 1960s in the Greater Region (BE/LU/FR/DE). After studies of History, Art History, Archaeology and Cultural Management in Cologne (DE) and Maastricht (NL), Julia spent 15 years organising and contributing to large scale exhibition projects, publications, film series and festivals in Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, UK, Switzerland, Romania, France and Luxembourg (selection: Projekt Migration (DE), 2003-2006; Manifesta 9 (BE/NL), 2012; Eppur si Muove (LU), 2015). Most recently Régisseur des Expositions at Mudam and Communication Coordinator at CinEast Festival (both LU), her main research interests are Popular Culture, Performance, Film, Gender and Esthetics.
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