Archival Values: A report on losing a documentary archive

Almost thirty years ago, I attended an international seminar at the Babelsberg film school in Berlin, the first time that teachers of documentary from west and east Europe met together to compare notes on pedagogical methods and values. On the second day, Klaus Stanjek, the seminar’s convenor, disappeared and returned later in the day with a van full of film cans. ‘Someone called from the other side of the city,’ he explained, ‘they said people at the old East German film school were about to junk their archive, so I just had to go and rescue what I could before it was too late’, and then he rushed off to get some more. I am put in mind of the episode because I now find myself forced to oversee the loss of an archive that I have myself built up over several decades and which then expanded considerably after I moved to the University of Roehampton in 2007. 

I speak of a collection of several hundred titles ranging across the history of documentary, as well as a selection of material on 16mm. The tapes come in a variety of formats, VHS, Umatic, Betacam, even one-inch broadcast tapes, housed in a room equipped with viewing facilities (except for the one-inch tapes). The 16mm Steenbeck editing table is stand-alone, but the tape decks were connected to a computer to allow digitisation. It wasn’t an archive in the full sense, since the University didn’t have any rights over the holdings, so I called it a library, and the idea was to create a rich teaching and research resource of use to both filmmakers and scholars. It was used over the years by a handful of PhD students but never reached its full potential, due to insufficient funding. 

The tape collection, which began with my own VHS off-air recordings in the 1980s, expanded with donations from various sources, including rare items like copies of films on the history of photography assembled for an exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery back in the day, and a large selection of materials from a documentary distribution agent, Jane Balfour Films, which went out of business (that’s how we obtained those one-inch tapes). The 16mm holdings came from two sources. First, acquired when I was at UWE in Bristol, a run of post-war East German newsreels, unsubtitled, acquired by a colleague in the languages department for a research project, which, thinking back to Klaus in Berlin, I rescued from being junked. It was a sign of the times. UWE, which I joined in 2001, had got rid of its 16mm projectors ten years before that, and in the desire to be a modern university, switched entirely to VHS, but the titles then available were limited, especially with documentary and my other specialist field of Latin American cinema. In practice, I depended for much of my teaching on tapes I’d recorded off air over the preceding two decades, a few of which had been distributed on 16mm by The Other Cinema before they collapsed. To supplement the newsreels I added a good deal of material left over from the films I made on New Latin American Cinema for Channel 4 in the 1980s, which I was obliged to remove from storage, including tracks, cut negatives, and numerous dupes of clips from Latin American films, plus an assortment of material from other films of mine and some bits and pieces picked up along the way; all in all, not projectable but viewable on an editing table. The Steenbeck also came from UWE. They had no use for it, it was a relic, and they let me just take it away. 

All this is now to be disassembled. Perhaps I didn’t show enough leadership skills in my professorial role to get the institution behind the idea, but there was a problem: it fell between departmental stools. For example, the original tranche of funding allowed me to start cataloguing the collection, in consultation with the library, to ensure that at some point in the future it could be incorporated into the library as a special collection. My own previous experience of archival work equipped me to do this well enough and to teach an interested student to start work on the catalogue, but the funding ran out. The library showed no further interest, and when the university set about the project of building a brand new library, which would have allowed the collection to be properly housed and looked after, they ignored it. They didn’t own it, so they didn’t care. I attribute this to the managerialist turn which took place when the School of Arts was split up into departments and there was a loss of synergy and collegiality. Ironically, a new Vice Chancellor has decided to bring them back together again in a new School of Arts, but it’s probably too late to restore what was lost. I don’t know; I’m not there any more.

  I got on with other responsibilities. I was awarded a grant to go and make a film in Latin America and took several months’ research leave. While I was away, without any warning, the collection was moved to a nice new room in another building. It was carelessly done. It had been dumped and needed re-organising. The Steenbeck had been damaged, though it was still in working order. Nevertheless, I got the room sorted, and a video projector was installed along with a sofa. When you entered the room, which is windowless, you were surrounded by shelves which not only contained history but also represented it in the mushrooming variety of formats which register the changing character of historical representation – this in itself is a worthy object of study, it reminds you that representation is not transparent. As for what it contains, anyone who has worked with archives knows that they hold all sorts of secrets. When I worked on the wonderful Stanley Forman’s ETV archive, building a database of the holdings (he was still using index cards at the time), I discovered remarkable films I would later incorporate into films of my own, including a pristine 35mm copy of a forgotten film by Esfir Shub, not only remarkable in itself but historically significant for using sync sound filming ahead of the game. When I made a film on Detroit, and viewed archives there and elsewhere, I found the same iconic images of the Depression cropping up in films from different periods and sources – the different ways they were used reveal much about the way such iconic imagery is created and reproduced, and the shifts in historical perspective they accompany. But these things, it turns out, are not the kind of reasons you can offer to the funders who would be needed to turn a library like this into a marketable facility in an institution increasingly deformed by market principles. What they want is a business plan, which excludes the cultural and intellectual value of conducting an activity that is not, in fact, a business.

Now that I’ve left, the facility, as I say, is to be dismantled, but meanwhile it’s still there languishing, and so, as a last resort, a few days ago I offered it in a post to the RFN to anyone interested, and received a flurry of responses, many more than I anticipated, which I’m now working through. No-one of course wants to take it over lock, stock and barrel, but it looks like there may be ways of putting parts of it to good use. Several things about these responses have intrigued me, but also pose certain dilemmas. First, I was struck by the RFN’s international reach, as I realised several inquiries came from abroad, or on behalf of someone abroad (although I’d said in the post that stuff would have to be collected from South London). Second, the item most frequently inquired after was the Steenbeck, and in several cases this came from filmmakers also interested in the 16mm material because they’re experimentalists who work with found footage. However, there are practicalities to consider, like not being able to view anything and make selections, and the costs of moving scores of film cans. And then the question of who would make best use of it? I would rather it went somewhere which would give some kind of public access, rather than fall into individual hands. Perhaps that’s a pipe dream. And sadly, practically no-one is interested in the tape library. 

I’m left thinking about the loss. About having to abandon hundreds of tapes. About university libraries which abandon research resources in the race to modernise themselves; they’ve even stopped buying physical books when they can get them as e-books. About the instrumentalisation of education and of the wider culture. Sitting at home as I write, I’m surrounded by media I cannot play, including quarter-inch magnetic tape, audio cassettes, video cassettes and tapes of other formats. I’ve thrown away my old floppy discs, but there are files on my computer in formats that are now unreadable. I could try plugging in the different devices needed to play them, which I neglected to do when I moved house, but I’m fully wired in to the internet and already spend much of each day swapping between screens of different sizes. The web is truly a universal archive, and I’m constantly astonished by the films I discover available for free streaming, although often in reduced quality, but it flattens differences and holds history in a strange no-space. I’ve used the web as an archive for my own filmmaking, where I’ve tried to treat my objets trouvés in the spirit of what Walter Benjamin called the ‘dialectical image’, which comes alive in montage. I enjoy the freedoms of digital filmmaking, but there’s something about 16mm that I miss – the physicality, the plasticity, being able to hold a piece of film in your hands and look at it every which way, the very smell. It has a material quality that is missing from the digital signal. I can well understand how those of a certain temperament can be drawn back to it. Our institutional culture, however, has abandoned its own history and no longer knows how to value the materials of culture.

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