Preserving culture through film: Meet doctoral student Snowden Becker

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Snowden Becker

A baby toddling on unsteady legs, a child's first grade play, the family reunion, college graduation: these are just some the personal memories captured by home movies. But, home movies have also played a significant role in preserving and re-living major events in history, such as the Zapruder film of the John F. Kennedy assassination. Home movies are a key element to preserving our cultural heritage - except when those movies can no longer be seen due to out-of-date technology or damaged film.

Chris Bell marking a fossil locality in the black Rock Desert of Nevada.

Snowden repairs a reel of 8mm film

Enter Snowden Becker, a doctoral student at The University of Texas at Austin School of Information. Becker is working to help people have access once again to their amateur movies. Funded both by a Donald D. Harrington Graduate Fellowship as well as by an Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS) fellowship from the School of Information, Becker works on preserving amateur films.

Becker's research interests deal with how audiovisual materials in general, and home movies particularly, are integrated into our larger cultural heritage. Archiving film is important on a number of fronts, including as a public policy issue. Recorded interrogations by police or film shot by witnesses to a crime, such as the Rodney King incident, have created evidence that has proved to be highly valuable in the courtroom.

Snowden Becker with mayor Will Wynn

HMD/CHM co-founders
(clockwise from top left: Brian Graney,
Chad Hunter, Dwight Swanson,
Snowden Becker, and Katie Trainor)

Preservation of 20th century audiovisual materials is also important for personal storytelling and record keeping. One key effort in this area is Home Movie Day (HMD). In 2002, at the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) conference in Boston, Becker and four colleagues came up with the idea—inspired by a conversation over lunch—to start Home Movie Day. The mission of HMD is to increase the number of people who can actually see their home movies, and to help film preservation become a family undertaking as opposed to exclusively an institutional one.

HMD, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, is an annual event which invites local motion picture archivists, film programmers, lab technicians, and filmmakers with small-gauge film care experience to coordinate a home movie "Open House" in their city, welcoming everyone to bring their home movies for viewing, inspection, and tips on preservation. In 2006, over fifty cities worldwide participated.

Since coming to The University of Texas at Austin as a Harrington Fellow, Becker has had the opportunity to help with Austin's own HMD events in 2006 and 2007.

"The Harrington Fellowship has made it financially possible for me to devote myself full-time to my studies and still participate in the projects that matter to me, like Home Movie Day and the Center for Home Movies (CHM)," says Becker. "Aside from financial considerations, I've found the Harrington Society – the interdisciplinary community of scholars that forms with each year's new fellowship recipients – enriching and stimulating."

Becker came to The University of Texas at Austin because she felt that a doctorate would further her career in film preservation, and because she was impressed by the university's outstanding community of graduates. These graduates include many of Becker's colleagues and mentors in the film archive community, such as Mike Mashon, head of the Library of Congress Motion Picture Division, and Margie Compton of the Peabody Archives at the University of Georgia.

"Learning that they are proud graduates of The University of Texas at Austin just cinched it for me when I was applying," says Becker. "They're all amazing people who have contributed a lot to our field through their leadership and hard work, and I hope I can live up to the standards they've set!" She was further impressed by the Information School's commitment to the field of preservation. She says: "They've invested a lot in us, and convinced others that we're worth the investment, too."

Snowden Becker with mayor Will Wynn

Snowden Becker with Austin Mayor
Will Wynn as he proclaims Aug. 13, 2007
Austin Home Movie Day

The 2007 Home Movie Day in Austin took place on Sunday, August 12, at the Carver Center Theater. the next Home Movie Day will be held on October 18, 2008. See http://www.homemovieday.com for more about the international event.

Harrington Graduate Fellows are chosen based on their scholastic records, character and personal qualities, commitment to pursuing a graduate degree in a designated area of study, and potential to become outstanding scholars and citizens. http://www.utexas.edu/harrington/graduate/index.html

By Elisabeth McKetta and Kathleen Mabley, October 2007

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