Personal archives: CAAM's home-movie project Memories to Light

The family of CAAM's Davin Agatep poses in a vintage home movie.
Courtesy of Davin Agatep

For as long as I can remember, my family has spent New Year's Day at my aunt and uncle’s house in Campbell. As we had our fill of sushi and kamaboko, watched football, and, in more recent years, entertained my little cousins, my Uncle Hiro would walk around the house with his video camera, getting everyone on tape. He would focus in on my brother and me, narrating in Japanese so I could only catch our names and how old we were that year. It was just a thing Uncle Hiro did on New Years Day. I never thought of it as recording history.

But that’s exactly what home movies are – a largely untapped source of our histories from an intimate and personal perspective. Recognizing this, the Center for Asian American Media has developed Memories to Light, an initiative that collects, digitizes, and shares the home movies of Asian American families. Advances in digital media and discussions between CAAM executive director Stephen Gong and archivist and filmmaker Rick Prelinger gave way to the project, which has now gained over a dozen family collections and somewhere between 30 and 50 hours of footage.

“I think Asian-American communities are becoming more relevant and more engaged and more deeply embedded in the American story and making our presence felt,” said Gong. “It’s a good time for a lot of good stories.”

Given today’s technology, it’s never been a better time to share these stories recorded on early film. Memories to Light takes donated home movies, digitizes them, and returns the original copy and a digital copy to the family. That way, the original footage doesn’t just sit in an archive and collect dust. And all it costs is the family’s willingness to share their little slice of history.

“One of the tenants of this project is not to treat these like they’re copyrighted materials that we need to monetize,” Gong explained. “That it is with a new ethos of saying that like a participatory society and culture that we can have greater effect in the culture if we do our best to make this stuff as widely accessible as possible.”

By having such an open transaction with donators and leaving the task of preserving the original film in their hands, Gong can focus on gathering, editing, and presenting collected content. CAAM’s mission to show the richness and diversity of Asian Americans, and Memories to Light achieves that by showcasing real, everyday life as important history.

“For communities of people that don’t have a sort of rich, moving image history, who have been depicted in mainstream media in stereotyped ways, articulated by someone else to someone else’s ends and needs, there is something that is amazingly liberating just by saying, ‘Let’s go right to the material that people themselves decided to shoot,’” said Gong.

The footage collected spans from as early as the 1930s all the way up to the 1970s. Though this medium is usually considered more personal than educational, there is a lot to be learned by these moments captured by various families. Mark Decena of Kontent Films, who originally got involved with Memories to Light to produce a trailer for the project, unearthed his own family’s films and had them digitized. He did not expect the onslaught of emotions that came with viewing the footage, which he ended up editing together into a film called The War Inside.

The War Inside came about from the very implausible and ultimately ill-fated union of my Mom and Dad,” said Decena. “My mom is Japanese and my dad is Filipino. Not a common coupling, especially after Japan's brutal imperialistic binge and World War II defeat. I always bemused that I was at war with myself by having such different racial and cultural mix.”

With a script he wrote in a day after viewing the footage, along with editing work by Blake Everheart and soundtrack by CAAM’s program manager Davin Agatep, Decena shared his film for the first time with an audience that included his entire family.

“Since it's basically a story of a family breaking up, it was emotional for everyone,” he said. “In some ways, you could see it as an indictment of certain people, but it's as much about the circumstances that brought them to make the choices they made.”

Decena’s film is just one form of presentation that has come out of this initiative. Another collection of footage, presented in September at the Asian Art Museum, was accompanied by live performances by DJ Deeandroid and Lady Fingaz. Given that much of this footage is silent, there are many creative options for screenings.
So when you head home for the holidays this year, ask your family about old home movies they might have hiding in a closet somewhere. Though videotapes like the ones my uncle recorded aren’t what Memories to Light is looking for, the project is currently accepting more 16mm, 8mm, and Super 8mm film to digitize and add to the collection.
Take a look at The War Inside on the Memories to Light website, as well as the Gee and Udo family collections, and perhaps you too will be inspired to dig into your own home archive for family history to share. Check out Memories to Light at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose on Dec. 18 and at CAAMFest in March 2014.
Memories to Light
Dec 18, 7pm, free
Japanese American Museum of San Jose
535 N Fifth St, San Jose
(408) 294-3138