Many people, myself included, are fascinated by home videos. They evoke a sense of comfort and wonder. They make us consider how much we and the people we love have changed. In “how we live — messages to the family,” the final feature film screened at last weekend’s 57th Ann Arbor Film Festival, Austrian director Gustav Deutsch explores the beauty of home videos as an art form with remarkable compassion.
Deutsch begins the film by asking his audience to suspend their disbelief. He says, “Imagine we are sitting at home, the screen is set up, the projector ready and we start watching home movies together.” He then proceeds to present the footage, found through film archives across the globe, of a select few families that come from different backgrounds, nationalities and time periods, all the while commenting on the specifics of their lives.
“how we live” doesn’t seize you. It doesn’t demand that you pay attention to it. It doesn’t aspire to entertain. Because of this, it’s very easy to detach yourself from the images being presented. Admittedly, I found myself doing this at times. I struggled to connect to and invest myself in people I’ve never met, many of whom are long gone. However, there’s another, far more interesting way to engage with the film that I found myself embracing by the end of it. You can either view the faces and places shown on-screen as people you never knew and places you have never been, or you can try to adopt the perspective of the person behind the camera, someone who sees what they’re filming as something worth capturing.
In a particularly striking piece of film from the 1950s, a man on a ship films his wife overlooking the New York City skyline as they prepare to leave for Greece, their homeland. She is beautiful and she seems happy, but that’s about all that can be inferred from the footage alone. However, when you consider the image from the perspective of a husband in love, everything changes. “How We Live” is a myriad of moments just like this. In understanding that the people captured in these videos were once alive, with thoughts and feelings just like our own, we come to love them. Deutsch challenges us to practice our own empathy, to try our best to care about people and places we will never know ourselves.
Despite being an active participant in it, I often find myself criticizing my generation’s relationship with technology and its devotion to broadcasting all aspects of life on social media. After seeing “how we live,” my view has been altered. As a result of breakthroughs in technology, we’ve been given the wholly unique ability to capture our experiences with our phones and share them with others with unprecedented ease. And even though the majority of us will almost inevitably be forgotten by history, documenting the parts of our lives that best represent who we were and what we felt is our closest chance to becoming immortal. Perhaps one day a filmmaker from the future will want to resurrect us from the past and show the world how we lived. By acting as documentarians of our lives now, we can give them the chance.