DETROIT — As we approach the 50th anniversary of the summer of 1967, Detroit finds itself in a reflective mood. In late July of that year, the city was embroiled in a dramatic conflict, known alternately as the Rebellion or the Riots, depending on one’s vantage point on the crisis. Ostensibly, a police raid on an unauthorized drinking establishment touched off a citywide violent uprising, which culminated in the dispatching of federal troops by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In reality, this was not a singular event, but a tipping point on decades of institutionalized discrimination, including eminent domain land grabs by the city to make way for highways through some of Detroit’s strongest black communities; white flight leading to the devaluation and dissolution of neighborhoods; and predatory economics that made the cost of living increasingly unviable for city residents.
But the summer of ’67 was not all high drama, and a film series at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) offers some perspective on this matter. 1967 Detroit Home Movies is a year-long project that seeks to present home movies from around 1967, depicting everyday life in Detroit, and cannily builds a crowd-sourced archive of quotidian moments that paint a fascinating and nostalgic portrait of the city.
The project, which began through an open call, has so far collected more than 600 reels of 8mm home movies, ranging in time from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. Films are presented during scheduled screenings at the Detroit Film Theatre, unedited and as they are received — submissions were transferred to digital format and donors were returned their original material. The project screens the films in the series without any additional soundtracking (as Super 8 film lacks audio), but invites donors or existing family members to attend the screenings and provide color commentary to the films, if they wish.
I went to one screening last month that was somewhat unusual for the program, as it only featured two contributors as opposed to the typically fast-moving collage of many short contributions. The hour-long program was divided between two large collections of family home movies: those of Zimmerman family, courtesy of Dolly Zimmerman, who was on hand for commentary, and those of the Glover Family, courtesy of Gerald Glover, who was not.
The Zimmerman family — white, dog lovers, and a little bit garden-proud — seemed to break out the camera mostly for big-ticket events. Snippets alternate between Christmas gatherings, an adorable pageant of children marching out of the house in their Easter outfits, and summertime getaways to their grandparents’ lake house “up North.” Filmed mostly by Dolly Zimmerman’s mother, who, according to Dolly, observed the rule of giving each of her shots a 10-count, the family archive captures Dolly’s older brother’s graduation ceremony with the same degree of attention as an extended meditation on the family dog receiving a bath.
By contrast, the unnamed shooter of the Glover Family footage demonstrates an artistic eye, moving faster from subject to subject; the rule of thumb seems to be a desire to linger until the subject grants the camera a smile. Amidst backyard BBQs and good-natured roughhousing, a few surprising gems of experimental stop-motion animation appear, staged with Barbie dolls. The star of these films is the daughter of the house and dedicated camera-ham, enthusiastically inserting herself into as many shots as the cameraperson will allow.
The decision on the part of the DIA to screen these films without specific commentary about the most notorious events of 1967 has been met with some pushback. In his introductory remarks to the day’s program, the DIA’s director of public programming, Larry Baranski, responded to a critical audience comment to this effect, submitted via the DIA’s open text line, that was reprinted in the program guide.
“This is essentially the mission that was developed by the program partners, when we sat down to think about what kind of film program would best respond to this anniversary,” said Baranski. “We began talking about home movies, and how they operate completely different from a Hollywood film, from a documentary film — how it would be interesting to present them without imposing a 2017 perspective of events, to view them as a visual history, and that this program becomes an archive of these images from the 1960s, and that era.”
There is something particularly compelling about this approach, which, rather than romanticizing the past, or imposing a narrative, captures a fundamental quality that links the past with current times: that life happens moment by moment, not all consequential. Additionally, there is a real charm to catching a glimpse of a time when documentation was a special happenstance, rather than an omnipresent experience. There is a beautiful awkwardness to these subjects, both hyper-conscious of being filmed, and simultaneously far less conscious of the longevity and reach of the document being made than we would be today.
The ponderous and familiar quality of home movies cuts us loose in time. There is a marvelous kind of abstraction that emerges from the footage from one Glover family trip to historic Greenfield Village, especially in terribly out-of-focus moments, which somehow reduce everything to its most essential shapes. Instinctively, we know the shape of the father, the outlines of learning to ride a bike. Intuitively, we can fill in the dialogue as an unidentified maiden aunt receives a bottle of lotion, or a young boy, preoccupied with the business of the playground, instructs the cameraperson to leave him alone.
The Detroit Film Theatre plans to continue a regular series of screenings of Detroit home movies, leading into a marathon screening on July 29, which will run some 10 hours, consecutively (with breaks every 45 minutes). As for what audiences will take away from the experience, that’s something the DIA has left very consciously open-ended.
“In a way, that was the next step in this process,” said Baranski. “How did the public, how do individuals respond to this visual history? One way to look at it is that in and of itself, it is not a finished project. It’s an effort to discover these and show them to you, and what happens after that — a lot of things can happen.”
1967 Detroit Home Movies continues at the Detroit Film Theatre (5200 Woodward Ave, Detroit) through July 29, when a marathon screening of all submissions will take place.