Archival & Survival Day at DOC NYC fest hit on some hot issues between archival institutions and filmmakers. The day began with filmmaker Shola Lynch’s Morning Manifesto, where she was by joined festival artistic director Thom Powers to discuss the importance of archives. Later in the day, a panel moderated by Karen Shatzkin included director Sam Cullman, director Penny Lane, Nan Halperin and Rosemary Rotondi who all shared their insights about using archival material effectively and legally.
Highlights from the conversations can be read below, including a word from the festival’s artistic director on the debate that broke out at the evening panel.
“It seems to reflect an ongoing back and forth over access to archival footage. On one side are independent documentary makers feeling frustrated by high cost hurdles to obtain footage they need. On the other side are archive houses facing high costs to maintain footage in ever changing formats. I think both sides can feel misunderstood,” commented Powers.
“I think for commercial archives need to understand that they can’t hold our history hostage by the cost of the licensing,” said Shola Lynch.
She continued, “Archives often don’t know what they have, and filmmakers do a service. We actually tell you what you have and we make it accessible. Our films are advertisements for the great material you have collected. And if we think of it more in barter terms, there’s got to be a way that the relationship can work without just the cost…[It] desensitizes people to make historical films, which is a disservice to our culture and history. Kids need to see history, hear it, feel it in that way. So there’s got to be a way for the archives and the makers to come together and find a mutually beneficial price or barter.”
“I also feel that you should bring in your lawyer from the start, I really feel having somebody at the beginning to create a relationship with will make you feel more serene, more secure,” added Rosemary Rotondi.
“You will know what your boundaries are because sometimes I’ll hear from filmmakers and they will say, ‘I’m going to claim fair use on this or that.’ And they really don’t have a strong understanding of what fair use is and they could open themselves up for a lawsuit in the future,” she continued. “You really need an expert to guide you through things like that. As a researcher I can help to some degree guide, but it is not really my jurisdiction to do that. I feel like it absolutely bottom line has to be timed off by a fair use lawyer.”
The Vastness of Archives
“I think the typical archival approach, typical not bad, but more often in documentary it is to support the historical record,” said Sam Cullman.
He continued, “It is to try and have documentary evidence of either arguments or positions taken in the film and that’s certainly the case with ‘If a Tree Falls’ some of it was not just pulling from news sources but it really mattered for us to get the primary source footage, whether it was the protesters who were part of one side of the movement or the cops who were policing it on the other end and we were able to juxtapose that and that had a lot of value in and of itself.”
“The first thing I would say about being in an archive is that you get a sense of vastness; it can be overwhelming,” added Penny Lane.
“There’s a superfluity of roots you could chase down, or folders you could open, or boxes you could ask for, other archives you could visit, questions you might ask; it can be a very overwhelming experience and there’s this feeling of vastness. Conversely there’s this other feeling of partiality, you know that not everything gets written down and saved, not everything gets filmed and saved, not everything that even exists is findable,” she said. “You become aware of these gaps because you’re dealing with these fragments, you’re not getting a complete record of everything.”
Understaffed Archive Houses
“I do think that we have to remember that when we’re researching, that the person on the other side, the archivist, is probably understaffed, underpaid, overwhelmed,” Lynch said.
“We have to make their job as easy as possible. When I started in the business, you could go into archives and they would let you do your own research. I feel like that’s a space that we need to reconsider because documentary filmmakers, we’re obsessive compulsive people who will help you find stuff and organize it and let you know what you have. It’s a good barter situation. But I think that’s one of the issues is to gain access to material. The other aspect of it is when you have an archive purchase lots of other personal archives, that institutional memory is gone. Often places don’t really know what they have and if they do it’s only by whoever’s labeled it or the subject heading they’ve given it,” she continued.
“One thing I’d like to impress is, perhaps not a lot of people have used archival researchers before, or you’re just starting to think about it, but I really believe strongly that we should be brought in pre-production and during production as opposed to being left to be brought in at the end of a production,” Rotondi added.
“I have found more as the years go on that if we’re brought in at pre-production and part of a production, that the work that I funnel to the artist or the filmmaker, it sometimes can change their direction greatly of their film and make them think of other things they want to cover in the film or other things they maybe want to focus more heavily on,” she said.
The Question of Authorship
“It was something that was very helpful to us because it was something that we knew that we needed in order to tell the film in the appropriate way and we couldn’t cheat ourselves on that,” Sam Cullman mentioned.
“That’s not to say that there isn’t value in these archives and there isn’t value in the services that they provide. On the other hand. filmmaking is incredibly expensive and as a documentary filmmaker, our role as much as anything is to describe a historical topic. I think that stories exist because a historical record has to be in the public sphere. It is for the public sphere and I think that is the goal of television and movies as well,” he continued.
“I want to mention is this question of authorship,” Penny Lane added. “You’re dealing with this range of material, so classically an archive is meant to be raw. You can get a documentary film or a book in an archive, but typically an archive is defined by these more rare documents. You can’t help but think ‘who made it?’ And ‘why?’ And ‘for what purpose?’ Because it’s not for the purpose that you have…You start thinking of ways to go about that irony because you’re looking at things that weren’t made for you. You’re also trying to understand the trustworthiness of the situation and what purposes it may have been created for: ‘is it a propaganda reel, was it an advertisement?'”
The internet is not an archive.
“Don’t assume that if you go to a website and search someone’s holdings that what they have because almost nothing is digitized in an archive and it depends on the archive,” Lane shared.
She went on, “Most of the time if you actually talk to the people who work there you’re going to find out that the online catalog is not going to ever be complete. That’s a huge mistake that people make all the time, they’re like ‘well, I searched the internet.’ The internet does not contain most of the information that you need. Hire an archival researcher because you might think ‘I know how to use Google,’ but there are literally thousands of archives that [a researcher] would know because they’ve been doing it for many years. Believe me, I don’t know the names of most archives in the world and I’m not going to find them on Google.”
“That’s something I want to remind people about. YouTube is incredible but often it doesn’t have proper credits, it often doesn’t have proper time code,” added Rotondi.
She continued, “And no archives, no network can accept time codes that an individual has laid in on their upload on YouTube. For me as a researcher, I use YouTube to double check my work. To make sure I’ve found everything or I am aware of every archive that may have every individual piece of footage that I’m looking for. I really only use, like I said, the formal channels ABC, NBC, CNN, if I’m looking for footage for documentaries. Also all these networks have their own archives, so the researcher has relationships with people that run the archives and with those relationships there is some negotiating.”
Lane said, “Really interesting juxtapositions can come about that you didn’t necessarily expect. For example, the Super 8 home movies for ‘Our Nixon’ were organized to how they came out of the box, they weren’t chronological. We pulled this one out from the top and that became reel 1 and the next one was reel 2. It was totally random, but incidentally the first shot of ‘Our Nixon’ was the first shot I saw on that reel because it was like [gasp], and I don’t know where that shot was from.”
“Be patient and give yourself time to work on it,” added Lynch.
She went on, “The other thing is the material is not always categorized in an obvious way. I found my best materials looking in miscellaneous files, found great stuff on black women in miscellaneous files. Also by date, understanding your dates and looking for dates and not so much subject descriptions.”
Lynch said, “I’ll give you an example from HBO Sports, I was working on a sports documentary ‘Do You Believe In Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team,’ and the script was based around a match that happened in Madison Square Garden before the Olympics between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. And the Soviet Union just killed the U.S. The beginning of the story was that. Nobody had the footage, so I decided to go to ABC News actually because they had covered the Madison Square Garden. I asked to see everything they had on the Soviet Union in 1980, period. Do you know what I found? All three periods of that hockey game. It took a while, and it took not just looking for hockey because it wasn’t listed that way. Somebody had taken the film and put USSR on it and threw it in the corner. If you think it exists, follow your hunch. If you don’t love the detective work, hire someone that does. There are great people out there.”
Be kind to archivists.
“Commercial archives are in the business of doing business, a research institution like the Schomburg Center, we’re in the business of sharing material, we often don’t own it and we don’t license it,” Lynch said.
She continued, “There is a workflow, which may be frustrating to you and is probably frustrating to the archivist on hand, but must be followed. Sometimes I’m amazed, people send their emails and they assume that their request is the only thing you’re working on. Please be kind to your archivists, they’re juggling.”
“If you go through an archive physically, which is a very fun thing to do, ask the archivist ‘what’s you’re favorite thing here?’ added Lane. “Because you’re going to get the most amazing unexpected answer. They literally will have a DVD at their desk and they’re like ‘I’ve been waiting for someone to ask that!’ The centerpiece of ‘Our Nixon’ came from that, it was really not something I was looking for, it was me asking the Nixon library ‘what’s the coolest thing you have that no one’s seen?'”