The box of delights

Some years I was rooting around in the cellar at my mum’s house when I found a battered cardboard box full of old film reels. They were films my dad had made in the 60s and 70s. We’d never watched them.

At the time I didn’t pay the films too much attention. I had better things to do than watch old films.

But now? As I approach the middle of middle age, nostalgia is starting to tug at me. And 18 months of sitting around during the pandemic made me realise that actually I don’t have better things to do than watch a box of old films.

So I went back to my mum’s and counted up the films – there were around 50 of them in all. I took a handful home with me.

The film reels. I love my dad’s handwriting

I knew the films were silent 8mm reels but I had no way to view them. I asked around and got lucky – someone on my street WhatsApp group had a vintage 1960s projector she was happy to lend me. (This is perhaps the first time a street WhatsApp group has proved useful for anything.)

I set the projector up on my bed, precariously balanced on a stack of books, and I loaded in a reel of film. I pulled the curtains closed, turned off the light and pushed the button. Magic happened.

The mechanism whirred into life and a misty image appeared on the bedroom wall. I adjusted the focus and there was my mum, in her 20s, chatting to my aunt on a beach in America. After a few minutes my dad appeared; younger than I’d expected but as bald as ever, ambling awkwardly onto screen. It was ridiculous – here were my parents as twentysomethings, striding across my wall, preserved like insects in amber. Some celluloid version of them had been hiding in the cellar all these years. 

Brighton in 1970.

I tried recording the projections on my phone but it came out juddery and unwatchable. If I wanted to watch the films properly (and share them with my family) I’d need to get them digitally converted.

So I called my local Snappy Snaps. The good news was that they could indeed convert the films. The bad news was it would cost £40 per reel. Now, much as I wanted to see more of the films, I wasn’t willing to spend £2000 on them. I looked on eBay instead and found a man in Hull who would do it for £3.75 a reel. Take note, Snappy Snaps. Well done, eBay.

I did spend a few anxious moments worried that I had sent a box full of potentially irreplaceable memories to a random bloke in Yorkshire but a couple of days later an email appeared in my inbox with links to the first five films. 

More films followed; faded, flickering messages from a disappeared world.

Some of the films were of London, viewed through the eyes of my dad, new to the city and fascinated by the peddlers of Petticoat Lane and the changing of the guard. (He infuriated me by spending ages filming random buildings or buses, before I realised that I do exactly the same.)

London, late 1960s. I think the market is Petticoat Lane.

There were countless films of my parents in America during the year they both lived there; my mum looks stylish, sharp, a London girl in the States. My dad looks like the cat who got the cream, not quite believing his luck. It was bittersweet to see them both so young, and to realise that the story of my family (which now seems so set in stone) was once fresh and unformed.

My dad’s footage of New York in the late 1960s.

There were also a handful of films from Argentina. Black and white scenes of long-gone relatives in Buenos Aires and family holidays in Mar del Plata. One film features my dad’s cousin Gregorio who died in his thirties (I was named after him) looking cool alongside my dad. His children, now middle-aged adults, had never seen any films of him. It must have felt like a miracle.

Mar del Plata, mid 1960s

I don’t know why my dad stopped filming; maybe the camera broke, maybe he ran out of film, maybe he got more interested in living life and less interested in documenting it. I’m grateful he made the films at all. When the final emails from the man in Hull arrived, I felt a pang of sadness: I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to imagine another box of films, and another, and another, an endless supply of footage.

The films mean a lot to me personally, but I also feel like they also deserve a wider audience; they contain some wonderful footage of daily life across three continents.

New York in the late 1960s. My dad helpfully labelled the film ‘Hippies’.

These days we’re all used to the idea of documenting every moment in photos and videos. Millions of hours of footage are uploaded to YouTube every day; I can’t imagine how photos are uploaded to Instagram every hour. So it must seem odd to people born into a digital age that relatively little everyday footage exists of the generations before them. There is no video of my childhood. And I’m not even talking about the distant past – I was at secondary school for five years in the 1990s and there are maybe two photographs documenting that time. There are whole chunks of my pre-Internet life that only exist within my memories. I went on whole holidays without taking photos! I didn’t take a photo of the food I was eating for the entirety of the 80s and 90s! Historians will have no idea what I had for breakfast.

Over the last year I’ve become slightly obsessed with the idea of filling in some of those blanks, of finding all my lost films and photos and fitting together the jigsaw pieces of my pre-digital life. In the last six months I’ve scanned in thousands of slides and photos and loaded up old hard drives in search of photos. I suppose I’m trying to neaten up my timeline. Yes, I am quite boring.

When I think about my dad’s films, sitting for decades in a cellar, hiding in plain sight, it feels faintly miraculous. What I love most of all is the idea that across the world, in backrooms and shoeboxes, there are millions of old film reels and faded photos just waiting to be rediscovered; lost universes waiting to be brought back to life. Go find them all. Bring them back to life.