Unit: Home Movies
Since the availability of VCRs and camcorders in the mid-1970s, videotape has come to play a major role not only in documenting, but also in shaping engagement with holiday and life-cycle rituals for many communities, Jews among them. For several decades prior to the advent of video, amateur 8-mm (and before them, 16-mm) film cameras played a similar, if less extensive and flexible, role, while the precedent of still photography by amateurs and professional photographers used for similar purposes dates back even further.
The phenomenon of making photographic records of rituals raises a number of provocative questions:
- How have the planning, making, viewing, and archiving of these photos, films, and videos become part of religious ritual life, preceding and following rituals as well as integrated into the ritual practices themselves?
- What investments are made in these media documentations of ritual. Why are they seen as desirable, even necessary?
- How has the practice of media documentation informed the nature of ritual experience? For example, how does knowing that one is being photographed or filmed while performing a ritual (and that one will be able to view it later) inform one’s engagement with the ritual?
- What are the protocols for creating these mediations, and how do they relate to the protocols of the rituals themselves? (e.g., the impact that prohibitions on operating electronic equipment during the Sabbath and holidays have on creating media documents of bar/bat mitzvahs)
- Who are the people who create these mediations: family members, friends, hired professionals? What are the differences between amateur and professional mediation of rituals?
- How do photographers/videographers shape the rituals that they document? To what extent are they (especially professionals) seen as authoritive not only with regard to the documentation of the ritual, but the ritual practice itself?
- What are the aesthetic protocols, albeit implicit, for filming rituals? Are they informed by particular expectations of an ideal viewer? Are they influenced by the ways that other films (home movies generally, documentary films, Hollywood dramas) or other art forms (theater, art photography, painting, advertising) situate viewing?
- What is the afterlife of these media documentations once they have been developed/produced? How are they archived, distributed (esp. photographs in albums or posted on websites)? What are the contexts for their viewing, and how do these events constitute completions or extensions of the rituals being documented?
- How do people conceptualize these mediations of ritual vis-à-vis the rituals themselves: Do they regard the mediations as extensions of rituals or substitutes for them? Do they see them as enhancing the ritual experience? Or do they see them as interfering with or undermining the “immediacy” of ritual?
Range of media
Consider how developments of new technologies over the past century and a half have occasioned the elaboration of these media’s role in ritual planning, observance and remembrance:
- Photography: studio photography, beginning in the mid-19th century; amateur “snapshot” photography flourishing after World War I; more recent developments include Polaroid “instant” photos (post-World War II) and, most recently, digital cameras at the turn of the 21st century.
- Home movies and videos: movie camera invented at the end of the 19th century; advent of amateur movie-making during the 1920s; 8-mm film developed in the 1930s but its use does not become widespread until after World War II; home video recording begins in the 1970s, and videos are now being transferred onto DVDs and posted on the Internet.
- Consideration of media should also include the various strategies of storage and display of photographed images, from albums and scrapbooks to websites incorporating text, photos, moving images, and/or graphics.
Range of rituals
Consider which rituals regularly involve mediation (e.g., weddings), which ones almost never do (funerals). Consider how mediations are involved in the process of realizing and recalling ritual--e.g., the case of bar/bat mitzvah, in which media are not only used to document the event (which often entails a “pre-enactment” of Torah service, which cannot be filmed on Sabbath) but also employed before the event, in the form of video invitations, and during the celebration, in the form of media presentations of images of the bar/bat mitzvah boy/girl’s life from infancy forward. Consider range of motivations for mediating ritual and their implications: visual notetaking, as a mode of encounter, as actively imagining the need and nature of future remembering of the present moment, witnessing of oneself to oneself and to others.
Life cycle events
- birth and infancy: bris, pidyon ha-ben, baby naming, simkhat bat
- bar/bat mitzvah
- Passover seder
- Chanukkah/Purim celebrations and parties
- trips to Israel (sometimes incorporating bar/bat mitzvah, Passover, seder, etc.)
- to Holocaust memorial sites
- to family home towns in Europe
- Jewish heritage travel
The range of media artistry
Mediations of ritual are the work of amateurs as well as professionals. Within each category there are ranges of expertise and aesthetic sensibility. For example, there are professional event videographers who promote their services as “documentary” and contrast their sensibility to that of other professionals, whose work is dismissed as offering a banal, conventional approach to ritual photography, lacking in proper sensitivity to the uniqueness of the event.
Even as the aesthetic of home movies has been derided by professional photographers as amateurish, some filmmakers celebrate its idiosyncratic sensibility, devoid of influence from “slick” professional photographers and the “commercial” idiom of Hollywood. For several decades, documentary and experimental filmmakers have been turning to amateur “home movie” footage, including media documentation of rituals, in autobiographical and ethnographic works. More recently, media artists are incorporating the making/viewing of mediations into their celebrations.
1. Examine a “home movie” (or video) of one of your own life cycle celebrations with members of the family. Consider how people being filmed respond to the presence of the camera; how the photographer shapes the event being filmed. Consider how the experience of watching the video of the ritual compares to actually being there. Consider the viewing experience of someone who is a celebrant appearing in the video (e.g., wedding couple or bar mitzvah boy/bat mitzvah girl). If possible, ask family members about their responses to watching the video, as well as when/how often/with whom they have watched it.
1a. Watch a “home movie” of a ritual with people unfamiliar with those appearing in the film. What is the viewing experience of the family outsider like compared to that of a family member familiar with some of the people in the film?
2. Examine a family photo album of a life cycle ritual or trip. Note the structure of the images - are they in a particular order (chronological, series of related topics, random)? Are the images captioned - if so, what contribution do captions make to your “reading” of the album?
2a. Examine the family album with one or more members of the family familiar with the event. Discuss the images you see together. Note how people narrate or explain images. How is this different from simply looking at the images (and reading captions)? How do photos, texts, and any other items in the album (e.g., invitations, tickets) shape remembrance of the event, especially with regard to its connection to the sacred? How does this compare to a movie or video of the same kind of event?
Citron, Michelle. Home Movies and Other Necessary Fictions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
Nicholson, Heather Norris. “Seeing how it was?: Childhood geographies and memories in home movies.” Area 33:2 (2001): 128-140.
Zimmerman, Patricia R. Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.