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Filmmaker unearths historical treasures in home movies
Hari Sreenivasan: When is an old home movie of interest to anyone beyond the immediate family? The answer can be found in a digital archive run by a San Francisco based couple who are compiling and curating the work of thousands of amateur filmmakers and turning it into living history. And that's not all they're doing.
NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Joanne Elgart Jennings has our report.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: For anybody, this would be an incredible find. A 70-year old reel of home movie footage that had been hidden in an attic.
Rick Prelinger: Oh, it's all going so fast, but these are the family. That's my mother, if I'm not mistaken, that's the only home movie footage I've ever seen of my mom which is astonishing. My mother died in 2002 and this is a part of her life that we don't know much about, but she was in Europe after the war.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: For Rick Prelinger, it's particularly poignant. He has spent a career peering into other people's pasts, using home movies as his lens on history.
Rick Prelinger: You can't distill history down to a few ideas. It isn't true that things were simpler and safer and people were friendlier in the old days. It's infinitely more complex.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: Prelinger and his wife Megan have amassed 17,000 home movies. Some twelve-hundred hours of footage. It's all contained in a digital library called the Prelinger Archives, which makes most of its footage available for free to the public.
Brewster Kahle: He's kind of a cult character actually among filmmakers because you can now have stock footage for free. I think it's also not just for documentarians. It's the next generation. A very visual generation so they want to see what the 20th century looked like and felt like.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: Brewster Kahle founded San Francisco's non-profit Internet Archive, which digitizes the prelinger material for free. It includes not just home movies, but also some 5,000 industrial and educational films. Kahle says those help give a truer picture of the past than anything created by big movie studios.
Brewster Kahle: Hollywood is sort of a little edited. And so these old industrial films, training films, home movies, they're more raw. They're kind of more of what real life was like and you can relate to it.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: From major finds to tiny details, prelinger knows the contents of his vast digital archive intimately.
Rick Prelinger: Again, this is 1928. It's a very charismatic and very beautiful family.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: But he's done more than just collect and catalogue the footage. Prelinger has used it to craft a unique film series called "Lost Landscapes." The carefully edited montages present the life of a city across a hundred years in the span of about an hour. So far, he's created films about New York, Detroit, Oakland, Los angeles. And San Francisco. In its 13th year, the series has gained quite a following. A screening in January packed the Internet Archive's Auditorium in San Francisco. This film has no narration. Barely any audio in fact.
Rick Prelinger: You are the soundtrack. This is crucially important. I'm going to give you some background and I'm going to do some identifications and if you're quiet, I'm going to try to antagonize you so you speak up.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: Prelinger guides the audience to yell out memories and reactions as the images roll by.
Crowd: Ohhh. There's the newsboy!
Rick Prelinger: There is something amazing about giving people the opportunity to violate the rules and talk during the movie. I think it's really a case of people owning history in a way that they wouldn't if they were told what to think and what to feel.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: Prelinger also provides some live narration of his own.
Rick Prelinger: This is the Bass Tub. Its skipper is taking native activists to Alcatraz for the occupation.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: This scene shows Native American activists heading to a protest on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.
Rick Prelinger: This was shot by a man named Oswald Skyes in 1970.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: Oswald Sykes is the kind of filmmaker the Prelinger Archives specialize in, an amateur with a keen eye.
Rick Prelinger: His daughter Kim is in the audience tonight.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: Kim Sykes has been attending lost landscapes for years, but for a long time she felt something was missing.
Kim Sykes: I hadn't seen people of color in a lot of the footage in the years that I've gone to the show.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: So she convinced her father to make his footage available.
Kim Sykes: These are African Americans coming out of the Fairmont hotel, So I thought it was important to show that, you know, San Francisco was very diverse.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: Prelinger says home movies show much more diversity than the commercial film record.
Rick Prelinger: Beginning in the 30's when 8mm was developed, it was sufficiently inexpensive that almost everybody could shoot home movies. You've seen farmers shooting home movies, young people shooting films, LatinX people shooting films. It's this great sort of a flowering of democratic expression.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: In addition to documenting the 20th century's human experience, Prelinger's films show how dramatically our urban landscapes have changed.
Rick Prelinger: So, this is the Sunset District before it was built up. You see it's all dunes. The Western side of San Francisco was built on the dunes.
Rick Prelinger: You know, when the places we live change rapidly, we notice the increments. We notice the short term changes, but we don't always get a chance to sit back and think about how they've accumulated, how much a place has changed maybe in 20, 30, 40, 50 years.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: In the 2017 film, "Lost Landscapes of New York," viewers travel from the depression era with "Hoovervilles" and a garment worker strike. To desperate housing conditions in Harlem in the 1940's.
Film: So the El is being torn down.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: There's also a ride on the third avenue elevated train, the last piece of a railway that once ran the length of Manhattan before it was torn down in the 1950s.
Rick Prelinger: It was noisy. It was dirty. It blocked people's view and sunlight. It was seen as an eyesore and there was a feeling that property values would dramatically increase when it was torn down. But look at this, this is like a Victorian landscape going through lower Manhattan. This is the East side.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: In addition to the Digital Film Archive, Prelinger and his wife Megan have created a physical archive called the Prelinger Library. It's devoted to what they term "ephemera."
Rick Prelinger: Our culture leaves a great deal of ephemeral material behind. But it turns out to be incredibly illuminating evidence of how we lived, how we worked, how we played, what was important to us.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: One example: a collection of U.S. Department of Agriculture documents that spans the 19th and 20th centuries. Megan prelinger explains how that relic of the past might help illuminate the present.
Megan Prelinger: And information for instance about insect populations of the 1880s might not have been interesting in 1950, but today, with a crisis in the health of worldwide insect populations, it becomes urgent.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: The Prelinger Library has become a communal space for artists and researchers from all around the country.
Jeremy Farris: This is great.
Rick Prelinger: Good. Well, we aim to please.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: Jeremy Farris is working on an illustrated book about the history of pollution along the hudson river in Upstate New York.
Jeremy Farris: Oh yeah, this is the one I was looking for. A lot of these maps and like kind of obsolete reports are really great to have in hand.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: And once a month, the library hosts artist-led talks.
Caitlyn Galloway: So, the Dalia is the official flower of San Francisco.
Joanne Elgart Jennings: Rick Prelinger says that building community, both here in the library and through the digital film archive, is part of what he calls an historic intervention.
Rick Prelinger: A place like this helps you not take the present for granted. A place like this helps you step back from what we assume to be true and think about alternatives. A place like this helps you think about the continuing presence of history and how we have the opportunity to change history on our own.