Super 8, private lives, public art

Michelle Moo

Homemade History—The Home Movies of Joseph Gauci

Homemade History—The Home Movies of Joseph Gauci

There’s nothing like Super 8 to connote memory. It might be the ubiquity of the form until the 1980s and its recording of younger days. It might be that, as an almost obsolete medium, it belongs to the past. But it’s also inherent in degraded Super 8 film itself; it shows its age, continually threatening disintegration with its graininess, scratches and stilted movements. And in the intensity and saturation of the reds, the blues, the greens, it evokes the selectivity of visual memory.

SBSi’s Homemade History is a series of 13 episodes comprising Super 8 home movies (and one 16mm movie) narrated by those who shot the footage or are in some way related to it. Sourced through advertisements and word of mouth, the films were constructed using footage the owners were discouraged from viewing prior to being interviewed by the Homemade History makers, in order to capture their spontaneous reactions. Some had not seen the films for over 15 years.

As far as history goes, there’s priceless footage and material here: wonderful family gatherings in the Syrian and Maltese communities from the 1960s to 80s; Leon Isakson’s road movie of Dig Richards and the RJays’ 1959 outback tour of Queensland; footage of Noel Elliot and Barry Martin performing their acrobatic Trapinos show in Tokyo, London and Copenhagen in the early 60s; and striking footage of an airport tarmac crowded with wheelchair-bound people waving off athletes on their way to one of the very first Paralympics. There’s also the beauty of the past in its material form: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the vistas, the way people move. We are given glimpses of a democratic history as recorded by those who lived it: an intimate history.

This is not to say that these histories are not subject to treatment. Episodes are deliberately crafted so that the stories reveal themselves. Don Watson’s episode begins with what looks like a family travel movie with Don when he was “rugged and handsome”, pulling the kids along in the water. As the film unfolds we are drawn into the struggle of Indigenous Australians as we return with Don’s mother-in-law to a Queensland station in a very discomforting and saddening moment.

Ken Garrahy’s film also starts quietly; a turning point emerges with the statement “I was always aware I was different.” We begin to realise we are watching rare footage of the social gatherings that grew in a groundswell to the establishment of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

The films can be particularly poignant when disjuncture occurs between the image and what we hear. In Joe Gauci’s film we see a boy playing gently with a powder blue budgie. Gauci’s narration tells us this is the last time we see his brother before he dies, aged 14, in a riding accident. Suddenly the story of migration slips: the promise of a better life through hard work is punctured by tragedy and the narrative of migration subverted. In real life things happen differently.

The Super 8 spool, very much shorter than contemporary video tapes, produced a very different kind of recording. Shots were short and usually taken at important or representative moments. In the ordering of material that occurs in Homemade History, footage was edited by the series makers: first an hour long version, then after the interviews, to 5 minutes of carefully constructed footage designed according to the revelations of the interview and the demands of storytelling. However, with these films there’s friction between our tendency and ability to narrate and narrativise our lives, and what happens on screen. Mary Wilkinson’s footage of cats was, she says, originally meant to form a story but, “no possible way…it’s just cats.”

The only 16mm footage is older, taken by Les Petty some 30 years prior to Super 8’s introduction. Featuring Doncaster (now suburban Melbourne) as a farming district, there are remarkable shots showcasing the era and its rural life. The film features quite stunning, classically composed scenes. It looks professional, which again alerts us to the democratic nature of Super 8: it’s grainy, amateur, intimate, hand-held and imperfect.

Homemade History, director Robert Herbert producer, Sophie Jackson, Arcadia Pictures, broadcast Feb 3-March 31 on SBS

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 27

© Michelle Moo; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2005