The project aims to fill gaps in existing historical narratives and visual archives about the city.

Jacqueline Stewart had a disruptive idea. The film scholar wanted to study new bodies of work, and realized that amateur films, or home movies, had not received attention, especially those done by people born and raised on Chicago’s South Side. In 2005, she founded the South Side Home Movie Project to collect, preserve, digitize and screen movies shot by community residents on 8mm, Super 8, and 16mm film.

More than just a screening opportunity, the project also asks owners of home movies to share their personal footage and collects oral histories to allow people to describe their films from their personal perspectives.

“I am a South Sider myself, and I was curious about these communities,” said Stewart, a professor in cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago and director of the South Side Home Movie Project. “It is remarkable how, in viewing these movies, you get a real intimate sense of people’s lives.”

By bringing this footage from private collections into public light and discussion, the project aims to fill gaps in existing historical narratives and visual archives about the city. It also invites donors and audiences to reflect on shared and surprising details of everyday family and community life—from birthday parties and Christmas mornings to picnics, parades and vacations. 

When the project began, Stewart was amazed at the number of movies that came in.  “People had tons of home movies, and families would come and narrate the footage,” she recalled. “What we found, no matter whether the family was from Chatham or Bridgeport, was a commonality of shared experiences, which we believe creates a dialogue across communities that have traditionally been segregated.” 

The films are also a form of history. “You see how the geography of the area has changed. You see buildings that are no longer standing. You get a sense of the area and what life was like,” added Stewart. She believes it is crucial that this history be preserved for scholars, general audiences, and future generations.  

An immediate goal of the project is to create an archive of the fragile 8mm, Super 8 and 16mm films, which require cleaning and digitization to protect them from degrading. Stewart recently hired a New York University-trained archivist for that task.

With support from the Community Programs Accelerator, Stewart will work to build the project’s infrastructure, determine its staffing needs, and develop a strategic plan to help advance the project’s goals. 

Stewart said she feels a strong responsibility to preserve and share these family heirlooms, and that she knows this project is creating a resource for those interested in South Side history and African-American history.  

“We are talking with churches, senior communities and others to formulate a plan for collecting material in a way that is purposeful, and not random,” she said.  “We are also doing an environmental scan to think about good organizational partners we can work with that are also doing digital archives.”  

Learn more about the South Side Home Movie Project (video).

-- By Patricia Andrews-Keenan

Originally posted May 17, 2017