As a kid, I always remember my grandmother telling me: “My father, your great-grandfather, was going to be filmmaker, right before he died”. She never hesitated to repeat that line, I heard it about a dozen times when I started film school. It echoed in my head, an unfinished story about a family member who loved the same thing I did and chose to pursue it as their life’s dream as well. Alas, he died over one hundred years ago, he was ‘going to be a filmmaker’ in 1917. The only reason he did not succeed is that he and his wife Pearl were taken by the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, both in their early twenties. My Grandmother and her sister were raised by relatives, our family knew that story. What we didn’t know was that before he died, Herman Barfield shot one film. After my Grandmother died, we found that film.
She passed away in 2007, the year I began film school. Living in Oregon, I returned to California for her funeral. My father had found, in her belongings, a reel of film. “What’s on it?”, I asked. “I have no idea. But I figured you could get it transferred, so here you go”. It was a small reel, 16mm, possibly ten minutes of film. I finished my trip and returned to Portland. Not having a projector, and with my school utilizing almost all digital technology (we had one class editing film on a flatbed editor), I took it to our lab to have it transferred and awaited the call. When it came the next day I returned, told them who I was and what I came for. The guy at the counter gave me the strangest look, said “hold on a minute”, and disappeared into the back. I could hear him whispering with someone and then another man came out. “Is this your film?” “Yeah.” “Do you know what it is?” He seemed concerned in the way people aren’t generally concerned over a film transfer. “It’s my Grandmother’s. I don’t know what it is. What is it?” He flipped up the counter. “Come on back, I want you to see it”.
“My father, your great-grandfather, was going to be filmmaker, right before he died”
It’s strange, recognizing someone as an infant. Immediately I knew – this was a film of a family. My family. A home movie. From 1917. There she was, my grandmother Virginia, a smiling three-year-old, playing with her sister Sally and my great-grandparents, Herman and Pearl Barfield. I was floored. The playfulness of the four of them, the way they held and cared for their daughters, it was remarkable. My grandmother, even as a child, kissed her mother on the cheek the same way she would kiss her own children and grandchildren. It takes quite a bit to blow my mind, and this was the hands down lifetime achievement award. As we watched he peppered me with questions. “What year would this be?” “Who’s the other man?” “What city is that?” I had no answers, knew nothing. It was all shot in medium close up, what we now consider to be generic home movie style: waving to the camera, holding the children, smiling, climbing into a car, handing them a piece of candy, playing at the park. A flickering, ancient nitrate, too quickly extinguished. That first viewing overwhelmed me in a way that I will never forget. What shook me most was when my great grandfather Herman, who I am named for (my middle name is Barfield), would stop and look directly into the camera, smiling and staring across time and space into a future that was not to be his. Within a year, they would both be gone, victims of the Spanish Flu epidemic. Our lineage almost broken, but not quite.
Family is fragile. There are twists and turns that fork invariably astray and often never find a theme or even a thread of hope. History is a dustbin of forgotten families and lost lineages. Wars and plagues have taken the great multitude not reaped by natural cause, and so it was, in that moment, watching that film, I felt a pull across the centuries, a fork that almost dead ended and in that slight moment our family almost ceased to exist. That four-minute film is the greatest living treasure of my father’s family, an almost lost document that stands to remind us we are not alone. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, eager to love and to laugh, to be kissed and held, to lay in the parks where the days last forever. In these tough times, I have reflected on this daily, it’s a cinematic reminder that we can all hold tight and get through this pandemic together. We are not alone.