The full interview was published in Cinepur and is available on Cinepur's website (in Czech only).
At the Jihlava festival you hosted a lecture in the series organized by the Archidoc programme that, since 2002, has been helping documentary filmmakers who use archive footage in their films. Have you been following Archidoc's activities for some time? Would you be able to tell if or in what way Archidoc contributes to improving creative use of archive footage in documentary filmmaking today?
I've been working with Archidoc for three years now and I'm happy Archidoc can teach young filmmakers about all the things archive material has to offer. Sometimes, especially with films that depict specific historical events, you need to illustrate the event with some archive footage. Sometimes archive film may be a used to simply show places you didn't visit or scenes you didn't take part in. Archidoc brings together filmmakers who are interested in archive footage, whether used in stories with some personal meaning or in stories they're interested in for other reasons.
So you believe that Archidoc helps mostly as an environment in which filmmakers can pass on experience and share information?
I think that Archidoc generally enhances creative skills of European documentarians, especially those who want to work with archive material. And its role is invaluable in this regard.
You started working with archive footage in the 1970s through television. Did television networks back then, being financially more or less secured institutions, provide better conditions for film archive projects?
Definitely. For me as a professional working and living in Great Britain, television was the main driving force behind the use of archive material in documentary film. Many documentary films in Britain were made for television and funding that was available for television networks was much higher than what independent filmmakers had. Sure, there were a few exceptions, independent filmmakers who used a lot of archive material - in the UK as well but perhaps more so in the USA and France. Nevertheless, for me television was, at first it was mainly the BBC and then the ITV Commercial Network, from the 60s and 70s the major driving force that developed work with archive material.
How important were archive-based documentaries for the networks though? How were they programmed and what were the viewer ratings?
These documentaries were immensely popular. I remember it myself when I was a child in the late 50s and in the 60s. I watched the American series Victory at Sea that was entirely based on archive material. The BBC ran it on Sunday afternoons and the viewer ratings were really high.
Many people still remembered well the Second World War so they were always interested in documentaries about WWII but also WWI. Victory at Sea was followed by the 1960s BBC series The Great War. The BBC ran it at prime time and it was very successful as well. The fact that the BBC considered it important is evident in their generous funding. After the BBC, Thames Television, a commercial station, came with The World at War in 1973, a 26-part series produced by Jeremy Isaacs. This one is broadcast to this day, plus it's available on DVD and now it's supposed to be released on Blu-ray. Forty years since its first showing - and it's still making money!
In what way was television practice which you got to know in the 1970s as a professional different from the specifics of the 60s? How would you describe the environment when you were starting your career? Was there anything about Thames Television that made it special regarding the use of archive material in documentary filmmaking?
I can only speak about ITV Commercial Network, which was a federally-run network of fifteen broadcasting companies in different towns across the UK. The main programme content was provided by five key stations, out of which three or four - Thames Television, London Weekend Television, Granada Television and Yorkshire Television - produced documentary films, including those that use archive footage. This was of course done by the BBC as well but in a slightly different way. BBC employed one team to search for people, places, photographs and documentary footage. Stations that were part of the ITV Network always worked with film and film archive experts and gave them specific tasks related purely to film archive material.
When I joined Thames Television in 1975, there were seven specialized film researchers. When I left Thames in mid-1980s, there were ten or twelve of them and the number kept rising. Thames employed the largest number of film researches at the time and the conditions provided for the whole team were really generous. We learned from one another and the team work also helped us to get better and better. All this with the institutional and financial backing from Thames.
How frequently did filmmakers at the time use archive sources in standard documentary films, that is in films not made for television? Would you say that by treating archive material more seriously, television in some ways influenced classical documentary film as well?
There were more and more filmmakers who started using information from film researchers instead of simply shooting the locations they wanted to include in their films. Now all you had to do was to pick up the phone and ask, sometimes only for a little bit that would make up only 2% of the whole film. But make no mistake, most of the material we were looking for was recent or current footage from remote places so that they would save on time and travel costs. We weren't searching only for footage from the late 19th and the early 20th century. The first project I was involved in as a researcher had nothing to do with documentary film. I worked for the Benny Hill Show. He had nothing to do with documentaries but the show used accompanying footage which we had to find somewhere...
Soon you moved to historical subjects and history still seems to be your main focus.
I don't even know how that happened. I was interested in current affairs and history and I got an opportunity in This Week, a weekly programme that gave a summary of current events. We followed current political and social topics from the UK and the rest of the world and quite often, we needed to illuminate a particular event using history. That was my task. At that time many programmes focused on events in Northern Ireland and I got a chance to move to a larger documentary project on the general history of Northern Ireland and local conflicts. Then I got another assignment with documentaries on organized crime in the United States because a lot of material on Northern Ireland was in US archives. Just like directors like to work with specific cinematographers or editors, television producers often rely on film researchers they've already worked with so that at Thames I and a whole team of people moved from one project to the next. The topics chose me, really.
What historical topics have you worked on in the course of your career?
Besides the projects on Northern Ireland and organized crime in the US, I was involved a lot with the conflict in the Middle East. In 1986 I quit Thames and joined Central TV that was part of the ITV Commercial Network. I took a team of people with me with whom I worked on the organized crime programmes at Thames. We continued to work on a programme about scandals and corruption affairs and I had another opportunity to access American archives and also travel to Asia. Gradually more and more producers contacted me as a researcher who can always manage to find stuff no one else is able to find. During the perestroika and glasnost, stalinism and Soviet history became attractive subjects and my reputation gave me access to Soviet archives as well. Although it took me days and months to establish some relationship with the Moscow Archive, this experience later allowed me to leave Central TV and become a freelancer. After that I was contracted for specific projects and, as to the archives in Moscow, I'd say I've still got the air of a real expert on the things you can find there.
Thanks to the Stalin project I had a chance to work on WWI and WWII series and this job took me to German archives which I didn't know too well. I worked with American, Asian, Russian archives and in other European countries thanks to topics spanning the whole 20th century.
Most of the projects you were involved with captured war topics and historical conflicts from the perspective of national history or the key leaders, such as Stalin or Hitler. But you also worked on the series Lost Children of Berlin that looks at the war from the perspective of a little man. It must be much more difficult to find film material for this kind of history programme...
Sometimes these projects simply don't deal with major historical figures, sometimes they centre around ordinary people. This trend of history that no longer views events through political leaders started in the 1980s and still continues. The big history was captured too many times already. The thing that hasn't been recorded and still draws viewers is the human dimension of war conflicts. Projects like Lost Children of Berlin and many others are based on personal stories. Film researchers naturally have a much harder task in this case. Usually, you won't find the protagonist on film so you need to search for generally illustrative images. I can explain how it works on one episode from another BBC series. It was called Time Watch and each part was roughly fifteen minutes. One of them, Love Story, was about two women who lived in wartime Berlin. One was a Jewish woman in hiding, the other one was the wife of a soldier fighting on the Eastern Front. To accompany this story, I chose documentary footage of Berlin women during Second World War. Not these two particular women, but women in general so that the viewer is able to imagine the conditions in which they lived. When you watch common street footage, everyday life in wartime Berlin, you'll see mostly women anyway because men were off fighting.
Personal stories are also closely related to family films. Have you ever worked with amateur or family footage?
One of the groundbreaking projects of this kind was made by the BBC in cooperation with Belgium's Radio Television, independent Hungarian filmmaker Peter Forgács and German producer Michael Kuball. I wasn't involved in this project but the idea dates to the early 1980s when under the title CineMemo, the project set out to collect amateur footage from various countries. This material was then supposed to be used to put together programmes connected with society, education, childhood, weddings, christenings and so forth. The goal was to use this footage to point out similarities between individual European nations. Europeans speak different languages, hang different flags, live in various power structures but their basic, purely human experience of being European is the same, regardless of the country, the weather... For me, this was one of the first documentary programmes that almost fully relied on amateur footage.
At the time I was in a peculiar position because commercial networks were tightly controlled by union organizations that tried to protect cinematographers and so tried to ban any external footage and demanded that we use all the available footage made by the union members. Of course, it wasn't all that strict because if there was a piece of rare amateur footage which couldn't be replaced by in-house material, the unions didn't object too much. Let me give you a good example from our project on Northern Ireland. There was the Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974. Television crews weren't allowed to report on it but we wanted to recreate the events and so we put an ad in a local newspaper looking for amateur footage and in the end we were able to cover the strike thanks to amateur material. That was my first time working with amateur footage and union organizations were really hampering our efforts. Things changed, though, over the next ten years and we no longer had to deal with this kind of problem.
You specialize in colour archive material. What has brought you to colour? Was it its appeal for networks or was there any other motivation, professional curiosity..?
Bits of colour material started appearing already in documentary programmes like World in War and others. Most of them were war shots from the Pacific, only brief cuts, while the rest of the film was black-and-white. I was always curious about the colour film. I had been convinced that Americans had more colour film than we thought at the time. In the mid-1980s I worked on a project on North Africa in 1942-1943 I and discovered that during WWII the British were using colour film but their films were lost. I was finding out that this was not a purely American phenomenon.
During my work in documentary film I always kept finding fragments of colour footage on various events. Some in the Soviet Union, some in Germany, the UK, most material in the U.S., but the non-American bits were naturally more intriguing because they were not known. At the beginning of the 1990s I found I had enough material to paint the story of WWII using nothing but colour film. For me, colour film has an immediacy about it. I thought that colour footage could reach young audiences much better than black-and-white film. Black-and-white film seems to stress the time gap much more. Viewers look at black-and-white film and think that, oh well, all this happened a long time ago and it has little to do with me. Colour was a way for me to bring historical events closer to viewers today.
If you watch, let's say, footage from the 1940's, of course the buildings look different, fashion is different, the cars are different but the faces of people still look somewhat familiar in colour, we can see our acquaintances in them, we can see ourselves. It makes for a more intimate experience. That's why I wanted to make a film using only colour footage. No interviews with living witnesses, only period accounts illustrated by period material. For example, the 1940 Invasion of France would consist of excerpts from period texts (notes, diaries, letters, newspaper articles) read by contemporary actors and actresses, and colour footage of the events described in the commentary.
No producer was interested in the project, it was stuck for six or seven years. In the end, I found partners but even they were skeptical or concerned to begin with. They even had a poll made that targeted different audience groups. And they were very suprised that across all the demographic groups - that is, people over fifty, under eighteen or twenty-five, men and women, etc. - all respondents liked the idea of seeing history in a different way, in colour. So we made one three-year series about WWII that included a whole range of perspectives - showing the war through the eyes of both the occupying forces and the occupied, a soldier in Europe and in the Pacific. I believe I had some twenty-five hours of material.
Do you research colour footage in any systematic way? For example, do you try to find out what crews could have been present at a particular event, which would help you to figure out where the footage might be today?
In researching colour collections, you need to remember that most of the material is 16mm or 8mm film and that it was not always used by organizations but quite often by ordinary people. These could be soldiers or civilians with their own camera. Colour film for recording family events was available in the developed world from 1936 or 1937 and it was used by often wealthier people in Germany, France, the UK, Central Europe, USA, Japan... It wasn't particularly cheap to use colour film. An amateur British filmmaker was once telling me how much he wanted to switch to colour film in the 1930s. In order to fulfill his dream, he quit smoking. The money he saved on cigarettes was just enough to cover the costs of colour film. So it was both cheaper and better for his health. So you can see there were ways if people wanted to use colour film. The problem is that colour archive footage is not often found in national archives because for a long time they weren't interested in amateur film. In contrast, regional archives will collect almost anything that records local history or the life of local communities. This was how Peter Forgács and Michael Kuball ran their project CineMemo and thanks to more and more new contacts, their project continues on. Projects like this one that use amateur archive material helped to shake up national archives that are forced to reevaluate today what they're collecting and how, and what they're overlooking in the process. Filmmakers who want to make archive-based documentaries are in a better situation. For many years, Japan remained a big unknown because Japanese archivists claimed that colour film wasn't available in Japan during WWII and that their archives didn't have any colour footage from wartime Japan. But we knew an American who shot on colour film in Japan prior to the Pearl Harbor Attack so I was skeptical to their claims and in the end I found some colour fragments, first at the Kyoto Museum and then also at the Kobe Museum.
Situation is Japan is complicated in that there is only one national institution that collects audiovisual material, the National Film Centre that is part of Japan's National Museum of Modern Art and always focused on local feature narrative film. The National Film Centre completely ignores amateur film, they're simply not interested. Only the local television network NHK tried to care about this matter but, as it turned out, they didn't have much experience with private collections and didn't really examine the content of the footage they received. Everything was automatically filed as black-and-white film because everyone assumed Japan had no colour material from WWII. After the discoveries in Kyoto and Kobe we were allowed to check the archive boxes and found out we had more footage to make episodes on Japan in colour as well.
What has been the biggest surprise during your search for colour footage?
I think Japan was that kind of surprise. Though I didn't work alone - I found people who worked for me, I only had a hunch that was supported by a student paper on the history of Kodak in Japan before WWII. Anyway, colour film in the 1930s and 1940s is no longer that unusual for historians. The greatest discovery for me probably was footage from the 1920s. For a long time, I was exploring Kinemacolor, first introduced in 1901 in London. The first commercial use was in 1908 by the American Londoner Charles Urban. His company made visually attractive events, recording the royal family, military rallies, marches, etc. One of his most ambitious projects was a session with King George V, who became Emperor of India in 1911. Urban sent three cameramen to India and made a film over two hours long. Sadly, his company went bankrupt and the film was released only three or four years later, in 1914 or 1915. I found his films during my work on the series British Empire. Many of these films were on the list of lost films. I always thought the list was too long for it to be correct. I told myself I'd try to find Urban's films somewhere. I knew that the list was created from replies sent to its authors by archives associated in the FIAF. Then I focused on archives that are not part of the FIAF because no one asked them. I also knew that Urban's company had branches in Australia, South Africa and Russia. There's quite a big newsreel non-fiction archive in Moscow that's not part of the FIAF. I asked my Moscow colleague Victor Beliakov to do some research, with the task of finding "anything on India before 1918". He found some twenty boxes and I travelled to Moscow to look at them.
The problem with Kinemacolor is that the system, like Technicolor, records on black-and-white material. It uses various filters to capture different parts of the colour spectrum. Technicolor is the synthesis of three such layers. Kinemacolor only has one but each shot is exposed and then screened using a different filter. The eye can see colour even though there is none. On top of that, Kinemacolor didn't record 16 but 32 shots per second so that when you play it on a standard projector, everything looks in slow motion. Due to the various filters for each shot, the films also show much more grain. One day, on a beautiful Tuesday morning I sat down at my desk in Krasnogorsk and started watching the films on India. There was one that wasn't labeled as a film on India but Indian units fighting alongside the British on the Western Front in France. When I examined the film in detail, and looked to see if it had any of the typical Kinemacolor features, I found out that this was no Western Front in France but a fragment of Urban's film Delhi Durbar. Clearly, his footage was later used to illustrate something completely different from what it really depicted. We then further examined the film to conclude that it really was a fragment from Delhi Durbar. This has been perhaps my most interesting discovery. We're still missing more than two hours of the whole film but I believe we can find the rest as well.
The full interview was published in Cinepur and is available on Cinepur's website (in Czech only).
For more details on Archidoc and Ex Oriente Film that hosted Adrian Wood's lectures, please click HERE.