It can be tough to organize all the unsorted family photos in that shoebox, or to make sense of that pile of video tapes that your dad shot all those years ago in some defunct format. The challenge isn’t just with the quantity of material, but also with its nature, and its significance. Who are we? What have we accomplished? What does it all mean? Fortunately as you’re grappling with these big questions, or just transferring footage, certain patterns will naturally emerge. Here are a few helpful ones that we found.

Category Descriptions:

1. Apparatus, Actuality: the conventions and resources of broadcast television can be pretty great. They can also be awkward and artificial, especially when we try to use them at home. Industry and intimacy don’t mix very well. That’s not to say that the kids shouldn’t try their hand at advertisements or the odd crime picture. But even better are the actualities, which is what a lot of the very earliest movies were called. These were simple documents of actual people doing actual things in actual places. Film grammar, and film subjects, have come a long way since those first days. Are those advancements really that much of an improvement? Blockbusting is overrated. You and me, here and now.

2. Everyday: escapism implies that our regular lives are somewhat lacking, and that we’re yearning for something a bit more exciting. Even non-escapists look forward to holidays and highlights and other fun events. Most appropriate—maybe that’s why so many home movies are comprised of graduations, games, concerts and such. The thing is, that kind of movie doesn’t always turn out so well. The lighting and sound are bad and you can’t get close enough. Your equipment and your technique might be better suited for smaller things, closer to home. And years later the small typicalities, the things from which we used to want to escape, start to look very big indeed.

3. Modes and Methods: some home movies aren’t very good, which is usually more a problem of technique than subject matter. Home movies are the best movies; all we need to do is learn to shoot them better. A lot of school media curricula concentrates on teaching kids professional techniques. Too bad. You don’t learn to read and write for publication’s sake. Literacy is for understanding ourselves and others, and for communicating that understanding, as well as the interest and sympathy that it brings. There is reading and writing to film, too, and the best and most basic rules don’t come from commerce, but from the long evolution of the documentary film, the idiom of inquiry and understanding. They’re simple, they work, and they’re distributed all throughout our films here.

4. Self and Other: Ptolemy. Toddlers. Teenagers. The universe, and you at the centre thereof. It’s a natural developmental stage, for individuals and communities as well. But it is a stage we do well to move beyond. By most accounts we should develop an awareness of and an interest in others. As we do so we enter into ethics, or just dealing. We may eventually enter into religion, or charitable dealing. Parents who transfer their self-interest to the care—and recording!—of their children slowly and surely traverse this moral path. And it’s clear by the footage that the kids, as they both squabblingly and sweetly interact with one another, are doing the same thing.

5. Lost and Found: Mr. Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) faithfully and self-absorbedly wrote about himself for years and years. He not only recorded accounts of plagues and fires, but of plain things too. Because Pepys was kind of typical, and a bit atypical, he ended up giving us a definitive portrait of his age. You know, in case any one is still thinking that home movies are too particular to be universal. Here comes one of the world’s most heartbreaking images:

Where’s the cat, you may ask. Who cares! Where are the children? In an instant, they’re grown and gone. How can we preserve what is most precious to us? Leo Tolstoy was moved by the prospect of film because he immediately understood that though people and things will pass, the image of people and things can remain.