Handheld filmers caught history


WASHINGTON -- What people can now do with ease using digital cameras, Julien Bryan, Jonas Mekas and Dwight Core did when it was much more difficult and seemed to matter more.

What people might post on YouTube or MySpace today, they did with film as Bryan, Mekas and Core documented ordinary people going about their daily lives in extraordinary circumstances.

Movies shot by the three were added to the National Film Registry on Wednesday, joining such boxoffice giants as "Rocky," "Halloween" and "Blazing Saddles" on the 450-film roster.

In "Siege" Bryan filmed the citizens of Warsaw going about their daily lives amid the horrors of war as the Nazis battled to take over the city.

"You just sort of see people going one way and soldiers going the other," said Raye Farr, director of the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive at the U.S. Holocaust Museum. "It's just mind-boggling."

Bryan's name has largely slipped from the public mind, but he was an influential writer and documentary filmmaker in the 1930s and '40s, one of the first public figures to spotlight the menace of the Third Reich. In excerpts from a book about the movie published in Reader's Digest in 1940, he described the eerie nature of the siege.

"A strange aspect of life was that the siege of Warsaw was a commuter's war. The front lines were at the edge of the city," Bryan wrote. "Soldiers kept coming back from the front each day to share their food with their families, or at least to make sure their families were provided for. Losses among civilians were greater than among soldiers, and often it was not so much a question of a husband returning alive from battle as of a family remaining alive at home."

Raye said it was unclear exactly why Bryan was in Poland at that particular moment, other than having a nose for news.

"He was a real reporter," Raye said. "A reporter with a camera. He knew trouble was brewing, but he didn't know war was breaking out."

Bryan was forced to leave, and his film helped open the world's eyes to the brutality of war in general and Hitler in particular.

Avant-garde auteur Mekas later filmed a different kind of war. While Bryan dodged bullets and bombs, Mekas had to elude the Lithuanian secret police and the townsfolk of the village he left in 1945.

Mekas got to go back in 1971 because of Allen Ginsberg. The film editor of Pravda wanted to meet the beat poet, and Mekas set it up in New York. When he went to Moscow for the annual film festival, he was allowed back to see his family in Lithuania.

"The Soviet Union, in 1971, was still the Soviet Union," Mekas said in an interview. "At night I would sleep with the window open so I could jump out."

But it wasn't just the secret police Mekas feared.

"It was more complicated that that," he said. "Not only did I need to be afraid of the secret police, but of the local people. Most Lithuanians did not sympathize with the Soviets. To them, I could just as easily be an American spy as a Soviet spy. After all, how come I was permitted to visit Lithuania?"

The film Mekas made wasn't what the Soviets wanted, and they tried to convince him to destroy it, he said.

"It's about the old Lithuania, not the Soviet Lithuania," he said. "It was done in a very personal way. It's not the usual documentary. I was just going by myself with my Bolex."

Unlike Mekas and Bryan, Core doesn't show up in any texts on the history of film. He made movies like most people did back in the '60s and '70s -- with a home-movie camera. True, Core's camera was a 16mm model, but though he shot the usual birthday movies he went a step further, editing some of the footage about his son, Dwight, Jr., who has Down syndrome. That film became "Think of Me as a Person First."

George Ingmire, Core's grandson and a New Orleans-based filmmaker, inherited the home movies, and with them his grandfather's masterpiece.

"My goal when I first discovered it was very mundane," Ingmire said. "My aspirations were to give it to family members as gifts, and maybe show it at a couple of film festivals."

Ingmire showed it at the Center for Home Movies' annual Home Movie Night in New Orleans last August. Dwight Swanson, an archivist working with the center, saw it and pushed Ingmire to allow the movie to be shown more often. Eventually, it became one of the films in the registry.

"It actually caused me to think about what it's like to be a family member with a disabled child, especially in that time," Swanson said. "It's kind of wonderful -- moving, sad and happy all at the same time. You'd understand if you saw it."

Although most of America hasn't seen the film, Dwight Core Jr., the film's subject, has.

"He keeps the DVD with him everywhere he goes," Ingmire said. "It makes him feel like he's famous."