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‘A Century of 16mm’ offers portal to Indiana’s past through film

Apr 3, 2023

Ursula Romero, outreach librarian at the Indiana University Lilly Library, observes displays at the 16mm Exhibition Reception in the McCa... Ursula Romero, outreach librarian at the Indiana University Lilly Library, observes displays at the 16mm Exhibition Reception in the McCalla School. Photo by Alex Kumar, Indiana University

When Eastman Kodak introduced 16mm nonflammable film in 1923, millions of people across the globe had access to an affordable, mobile form of filmmaking for the first time. The 16mm format introduced the concept of home movies and amateur filmmaking, allowing “regular people” to document history without having to look through the lens of a production team.

The Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive celebrates A Century of 16mm this year with a series of events honoring the groundbreaking format. Events include an academic conference, commissioned films, exhibitions of 16mm technologies, workshops, and an archival roadshow screening 16mm films from the Moving Image Archive collection.

“Sixteen millimeter film changed everything,” said Rachael Stoeltje, who has been director of the Moving Image Archive for 17 years. “It was the first time that history was being recorded by average people not affiliated with a production studio, which I think we all take for granted now.”

A headshot of a woman. Rachael Stoeltje. Photo courtesy of the IU Moving Image Archive

Stoeltje focuses on preservation and access for the IU Libraries’ unique collection of more than 130,000 films. Among the archive of films protected within IU’s cold-storage facility is a large collection of underrepresented materials shot on 16mm, including films by avant garde artists, educational films and home movies that offer a glimpse into the past.

Several films from the collection were hand-picked to be screened at various locations across Indiana as an archival roadshow. The films were curated by former IU Cinema director Jon Vickers and his wife, Jennifer, at the invitation of Stoeltje and her colleagues. The Vickerses have been part of the Midwestern cinema scene for decades, beginning in the mid-1990s when they restored and operated the historic Vickers Theatre in Three Oaks, Michigan.

“The 16mm collections at IU are so vast and impressive,” Vickers said. “We researched thousands of film titles to develop these three programs which focus on education, the Hoosier state and the subject of filmmaking. Our goal was to curate programs which are entertaining, informative and represent the archive. We hope people see these films, many of which have never screened in a movie theater.”

A man looks closely at 16mm film strips. Jon Vickers, founding director of IU Cinema, studies film strips while attending the 16mm Exhibition Reception in the McCalla School at IU Bloomington. Photo by Alex Kumar, Indiana University

One of the three roadshow events is titled “Inspired Education.” It will include a screening of the Academy Award-nominated short documentary “The Masters of Disaster,” which follows a chess team of 11 underprivileged sixth-graders from IPS School 27 in Indianapolis, known now as Center for Inquiry School 27. Under the guidance of their teacher, Bob Cotter, the team proved naysayers wrong, winning a national championship and garnering worldwide attention.

Produced by Indiana University in 1986 and digitally restored by the IU Moving Image Archive thanks to a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation, the film offers a glimpse into the team’s final year of competition together. Viewers see the teammates’ home lives woven in with scenes of practice, their travels to compete in Tokyo, and a special meeting with then President Ronald Reagan.

In one scene, Derrick Thomas, known as “Rabbit” by his teammates, challenges then Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut to a chess match and quickly checkmates the public official. The film concludes with their final championship tournament together.

The team named themselves the “The Masters of Disaster” because they were not the best chess players when they first began to learn. However, Cotter taught them to never give up.

A man stands and speaks to young students sitting at a table covered in chess boards. Teacher and coach Bob Cotter speaks with students on the chess team during a scene in the Academy Award-nominated short documentary “The Masters of Disaster.” Photo courtesy of the IU Moving Image Archive

“I think he really wanted to utilize it as a teaching method because the game of chess can teach you many things like concentration and logical thinking,” said Anthony Allen, a team member who went on to graduate from IU.

“Those experiences taught me a lot about teamwork and about not giving up, about reaching for goals and then finally achieving them,” said Allen, who now works and lives with his family in Indianapolis. “The lessons it taught me were lifelong.”

Allen and former teammate Derrick Brownie, who is writing a book about his experience playing with the “The Masters of Disaster,” plan to attend the roadshow screening at the historic Madam Walker Theatre in Indianapolis on April 6.

Another “Inspired Education” screening showcases the short film “The Moving Image: Super-8.” Also produced by Indiana University, it was filmed in 1976 and focuses on a classroom at Manchester High School, where English teacher Jane Bales taught a beginner filmmaking course.

“I think Jane affected all of us, and that class affected all of us,” said Christine Deavel, a former student featured in the film. “Mostly what Jane did was try to give us ways to express ourselves and encourage creativity. To have a teacher like that in a small town that didn’t have a lot of resources, ultimately, was huge.”

A student looks through the viewfinder on a camera. Teacher Jane Bales instructs beginner filmmaking students at Manchester High School during a scene in the 1976 short film “The Moving Image: Super-8.” Photo courtesy of the IU Moving Image Archive

Deavel later graduated from IU and formed a career as a creative writer and owner-operator of a poetry bookstore in Seattle with her husband. She and several former classmates from the film plan to return to Indiana for the screening on May 4 at Manchester University.

The screenings and events offered through A Century of 16mm represent the value in preserving unique films that provide a glimpse of the past, according to curators at the Moving Image Archive.

“The history of the film industry is often talked about in terms of California and New York, and the Midwest and everywhere else between the coasts are often left out of the conversation when you’re talking about representation of this art form,” said Carmel Curtis, moving image curator and digital initiatives lead at the Moving Image Archive.

“What is special about these particular programs is that the films have a specific tie to the state of Indiana, and the films themselves are stored and protected here in Indiana. I think the effort to preserve these films and the history they represent is an important point of pride for IU.”

All events in the archival roadshow series are free and open to the public. Doors open one hour before each screening for interactive 16mm film handling and preservation demonstrations with professional film archivists from the Moving Image Archive.

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Julia Hodson

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