The origins of my art / by Matt Clysdale

If you’re familiar with me and my work, there’s a good chance you know me as the guy who did the documentary on wildlife in Kalamazoo, ANIMALS AMONG US. And if you know me personally, you may very well attribute my love of nature in that film to my late dad, Gene Clysdale, an avid birdwatcher and card-carrying Audubonite. 

However, very few people realize it was my mom who not only helped fund ANIMALS, but was the root inspiration for my journey into video and documentary. It all springs from mom and her super-8 camera, and her own exploration into the craft of home movies.

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An english teacher by profession, mom left teaching early on in her career to devote herself to raising me and my brother. And for a smart, bold, talented woman, coming of age in the era of women’s liberation, she may have sacrificed some her own simmering ambitions. It's hard to know. 

Having said all that, she loved being a mom and managed to keep her intellect, politics and creativity alive through volunteering and a number of activities, including the art of home movies. Mom loved capturing our early lives with her hand-held Kodak super-8. In fact, the home-movie footage in ANIMALS AMONG US comes straight from mom’s film reels. 

But mom went a little further than most with home movies. 

The early 70’s in America was a period of tremendous racial upheaval, and my brother and I were the first generation to experience busing, a grand experiment designed to integrate the country after years of racial segregation and inequality. My mom, a political animal by nature, was very interested in that effort.

Channeling her political passions and moral compass, mom decided to craft a simple, home-made documentary on the implementation of busing in Kalamazoo. 

So, on the first day of school in 1971, mom not only escorted us to the bus stop for that historic day, she brought along her super-8 camera and filmed the entire event. She focused on the kids, the parents, the teachers, and the picketing protestors who opposed the whole idea. 

The film was low-tech, with credits crafted out of those old plastic letters used on felt boards in schools, and lots of great jump-cuts. In fact, I think the sound-track had to be played on a separate tape recorder. But there was a directness and innocence to the film that matched the smiling children getting off the buses. We were sweet kids of 6 or 7 and pretty innocent to the big picture. Kids both black and white stepped down off those buses and into the sunny day, and mom contrasted that image with the anger of the protesters. There was no narration, just the images and music. And if I remember correctly, she showed the film at school board meetings and/or other community forums as a document of the event and it’s success. It was a simple, cinematic, political tool, all born out of mom's passion for home-movies, politics, and her pursuit of fairness.

Unfortunately, some of the specifics of mom's film remain unclear, and the precious luxury of calling her up and asking her about it is forever lost. My mom, Barb Clysdale, passed on December 19th of 2013, the exact same day my dad passed away two years prior.

I’m forever indebted to "Barb" for her exploration into film, as well as her prowess with the english language, her political savvy and instinct, her kindness, her toughness, her love of cinema, her ability to critique a film like no other, and all the other parts of her being that help make me who I am as an artist and person. Thank you mom.

(Mom's passing is why I haven't posted for so long. I'm glad to be back on my blog and look forward to posting again soon.)