A Day at the Archives: BBC Written Archives Centre

Tom May, Northumbria University

9 November 2020


Figure 1: Part of a wall display in the locker room of the BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham (Photo taken by author, 15 January 2020).

 

My last trip to the archives was in January 2020 and it was to the BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham, near Reading, Berkshire. This wonderful resource was originally opened in November 1970, so is now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. I was actually due to go again for a couple of days in mid-March, but my better half and bioinformatician Rachel rightly told me in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t best for myself or others for me to travel hundreds of miles down south and back on a train amid the growing public health crisis of Covid-19. It was to take the British government another two weeks or so to start taking the situation anything like as seriously.

But, anyway, for the moment: enough of “These Interesting Times”…! I’ve got an archive to extol. Any researchers of British media, television, history or politics should be chomping at the bit to get inside the unprepossessing white building of the Written Archives Centre whenever this is again possible. Depending on what your research area is, you will be able to access the BBC’s full holdings of micro film, paper files, as well as specialist books on the shelves in the Reading Room and no doubt much else I have yet to discover…

The main thing to be aware of is you will need to book by appointment well in advance to visit. You will be allocated an archivist who will source and bring the archival material you need on a large trolley to the reading room. In a way, this person is like an informal collaborator in how vital their facilitating role is. Across my visits, I have been assisted by two supportive and professional archivists.

Now, I have found the WAC absolutely essential for my personal research: for my PhD, I am writing a history and analysis of BBC1’s influential drama strand Play for Today (1970-84), which is just one month older than the WAC itself! Before I obtained funding to study full time, I had visited the WAC on several occasions in holidays while I was a full-time lecturer in FE. It has always seemed to me like a goldmine, containing not monetisable riches but cultural wealth. To a television and cultural history nerd like myself, this surpasses the Klondike. As well as looking through personnel files and a catalogue of the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, I have accessed a full set of audience research reports for The Wednesday Play and Play for Today – which contain the contemporary opinions of the BBC’s carefully calibrated audience panels. As a researcher, you are allowed to photograph such material provided you include the correct copyright card within your photos (either BBC, Crown or third party) and get permission before quoting from or using them in any way.

Figure 2: BBC Audience Research Report of PLAY FOR TODAY: ‘Baby Love’ by David Edgar, 3 December 1974 [BBC WAC, VR/74/651] (accessed: 30 July 2015).

See my article on David Edgar’s unduly neglected Play for Today Baby Love at Royal Holloway’s Forgotten Television Drama website here. Suffice it to say, I am not at one with the ‘small group’ of contemporary viewers who found it ‘sordid and depressing’…

In addition, I have consulted BBC Daily Viewing Barometers – which were records of a whole day’s viewing on every terrestrial channel. These are essential to gain detailed audience data from any programme before October 1981 when the Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB) took over and provided one standardised set of audience measurements. I have also treated myself to the recondite delights of the Television Weekly Programme Review minutes. These were meetings where all the senior BBC managers would gather on a Wednesday morning and mull over what the perceived merits and audience figures of the previous week’s BBC TV programming. You can infer occasional personal animosities and, more frequently, turf wars between departmental fiefdoms. You can even chance upon bizarre, stern addendums which signify something about the organisational culture, such as the fifty-ninth and very last minute taken at a meeting on 24 February 1971. This recorded widespread concerns within the BBC that a non-BBC employee and current TV critic had taken to hanging around the BBC canteen ‘unattended’… The tone of this minute seemed coolly indignant, with a touch of Reithian imperiousness. And it named this transgressor: Elkan Allan, who for many years wrote TV previews for the Sunday Times.

Like the TWPR minutes, you can access the full Camera Scripts of television and radio programmes on the micro film machines. These have been significantly upgraded from the more laborious totally manual system they apparently once were. Once you have fastened the tape in place correctly – during my 2019 visit, this proved a steep learning curve! – the pages will now appear digitally on a computer screen and you can use what is an accessible interface to fast forward and rewind through the reel to find what you are looking for. Especially usefully, you can also take snapshots of pages and then get a PDF emailed to yourself. I did this for several of the Camera Scripts from the thirty or so “missing” Play for Today episodes that were taped over for economic reasons by the BBC in the 1970s. These Camera Scripts are practically the only way to get a detailed grasp of these plays’ dramaturgy and the writer’s prescriptions for visuals and tone. It took around 25-45 minutes to go through a whole script and send the emails to myself. Laborious, yes, but a vitally worthwhile process for gathering missing fragments of televisual history.

Figure 3: Small extract from the camera script to PLAY FOR TODAY: ‘Hot Fat’ by Jack Rosenthal, 1974 (accessed: 15 January 2020).

My archivist helpfully located all of the microfilm I needed, including locating the exact position on the microfilm of a Play for Today Camera Script that had been mislabelled on the reel. This showed the intensely skilled nature of the archivist role.

Figure 4: My annotated copy of the sheet specifying the micro-film reels I was looking for.

Due to the large amount of material I wanted to view in my 2019 and 2020 visits, I curtailed my lunch to ten minutes, a Granny Smith’s apple and some water from the locker room tap. In my 2015-17 visits, it had been possible to lunch at the BBC Monitoring canteen within Caversham Park, a Grade II-listed stately home, built in 1850 which the BBC had used during the Second World War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was an almost preposterously grand, neo-Classical white building that you were able eat in, provided you obtained a visitor’s pass. But such are the straitened times that the BBC has put it up for sale, in 2017 and again in 2019 after a mystery bidder’s purchase fell through. BBC Berkshire moved out in 2018, ending the BBC’s 75 year use of the building. However, instead, there is the opportunity to fulfil your lunch needs or wants at Bite, an apparently excellent independent café in nearby Emmer Green.

Reading Station is around 37 minutes’ walk from Caversham, but the bus goes from the station to a stop on Peppard Road very close by the Centre. I wouldn’t recommend walking from the WAC to Caversham after the place shuts at 5pm in winter, as the busy roads only have a handful of proper pedestrian crossings with lights! There are plenty of good public houses to enjoy in non-socially distanced times. I have also sampled at least three curry houses on my various visits to Reading and by far my favourite was the one I visited last time: River Spice, overlooking the Thames. The repast was absolutely delicious and I would urge anyone else to go there – and I sincerely hope to go there myself again, when the time is right!

A visit to the cultural motherlode that is the BBC Written Archives Centre is, remarkably, free, given certain conditions. And, not just for UK licence fee payers! Academics worldwide are allowed to visit for research projects, as are those working on specific written publications. I have been fortunate for my 2019 and 2020 visits that my institution, Northumbria University, have kindly paid my train travel and hotel costs. This was massively appreciated given that all of my previous visits were entirely self-funded.

Of course, we are in uncharted territory with a major global pandemic with deeply questionable public health decisions being made by the UK government. So, my recommendations to visit the WAC in Caversham come heavily caveated. When it is safe to do so, and when it re-opens to researchers, go forth, masked if necessary, into this wonderful, vast repository of our cultural pasts.

BBC copyright content reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.


Tom May is a Post-Graduate Researcher at Northumbria University, in his third year of study of a funded PhD research project constructing a history and analysis of Play for Today with attention to its aesthetics and style, representation and reception. He also blogs at May’s Britain and Opening Negotiations. He has written for The Conversation and has had articles published online about David Edgar’s Plays for Today Baby Love (1974) and Destiny (1978).


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

 

Loopline Collection: Irish Film Institute (IFI) Archive

Kasandra O’Connell, Irish Film Institute

22 May 2020


“It’s somewhere between art and education, if you can capture those two things, you’re home and dry”[i]

Se Merry Doyle, Loopline films

In May 2020 the Irish Film Institute (IFI) [ii] published the second volume of the Loopline Collection on its online platform- the IFI Player. [iii] This material is the output of Loopline Films, one of Ireland’s most influential independent production companies, founded in 1992 by filmmaker Sé Merry Doyle. The internationally award-winning company named after the River Liffey viaduct, AKA the Loopline Bridge in Dublin’s Inner City, specialises in producing documentaries and TV series “with heart”.[iv] Merry Doyle and his collaborators forgo traditional documentary techniques, such as narration, preferring a more experimental approach to their subjects.[v] Since its inception Loopline has become renowned for its perceptive, political and poetic body of work, particularly a series of portraits of prominent cultural figures and a succession of programmes highlighting pressing social issues and documenting changes in Irish society. Amongst the material made available on the IFI Player in April 2019 was previously unreleased footage of U2 playing live on Dublin’s Sheriff Street in 1982, the inclusion of which ensured international media interest in the project.

Sé Merry Doyle and Eugene Finn at the launch of the collection on the IFI Player

Project origins

The genesis of the collaboration between the IFI and Loopline was an approach by Loopline’s founder Sé Merry Doyle, to the IFI Irish Film Archive in 2015.[vi] This resulted in funding being secured from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s (BAI) archiving scheme in order to preserve the output of the production company. [vii] Over the following year, Merry Doyle and archivist Eugene Finn assessed and catalogued the various media elements that made up the collection, which had resided in the Loopline offices for many years. This material included a wide variety of formats: 16mm and 35mm films, a multitude of tape formats, numerous audio materials and a significant amount of born digital content held on hard drives and camera cards- illustrating the transition of the production world from analogue to digital through the period in which the production company has operated. When Loopline closed its studios in 2017 this material was transferred to the IFI Irish Film Archive, where the IFI began its part of the project to catalogue, digitise and preserve the collection, eventually making it available to the public via the IFI Player.

Despite the fact that IFI Archive team had been provided with a sample of the collection’s content in order to write the BAI funding application, it was only when the entire collection was transported to the IFI premises for assessment that its full value was appreciated. In addition to 47 finished programmes chronicling the social, cultural and political landscape of Ireland between 1982 and 2015, the collection contained outtakes, interviews, pilots and additional material not included in the final broadcast programmes, thus giving unparalleled access not only to the programme subjects but to Merry Doyle’s immersive, and instinctive approach to filmmaking.

The collection contains undeniably starry content including such high profile figures as U2, Patrick Kavanagh, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Maureen O’Hara, J.G. Ballard, Margaret Atwood and Gore Vidal amongst many others, but it is the footage chronicling changes in Irish urban and rural society and documenting key areas of Irish history and the arts that is of particular value to the IFI. Although the IFI Irish Film Archive collection holds material from  1890s to the present day it is weighted towards the mid-20th century, so the inclusion of such a  wide ranging and extensive (over 900 hours of footage) collection  covering the latter part of the 20th century provided some welcome curatorial balance.  This was also the first full broadcast collection that the IFI archive had acquired and processed in conjunction with the filmmaker, thus providing a valuable opportunity to work with Merry Doyle to ensure the material was correctly documented, the context of its creation was captured and allowing staff to gain a deep insight into the production process itself.

An instinctive practitioner, Merry Doyle stumbled into filmmaking with no formal training. Born into the working- class Dublin suburb of Finglas he began his artistic career in the theatre. A contemporary of director Jim Sheridan and actors Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson, his first foray into filmmaking was in the early 1980s when he borrowed footage from the legendary Irish documentary maker George Morrison editing it into a theatre set piece, the success of which encouraged him into a career as a film editor in Dublin and then London. [viii] Returning to Ireland in the 1990s he officially set up Loopline films, although his first work Looking On (1982), was created prior to his departure to England.

The Dublin Merry Doyle returned to was in flux as the last vestiges of tenement life and the old city were being swept away by internationalism, capitalism and a sense of the modern. Merry Doyle was acutely aware of the internal tension within the capital as communities fought to retain their identity in the face of economic and social change. He felt compelled to capture not only the Dublin he knew before it disappeared, but also the struggle of working-class communities as they tried to navigate their changing environs; and so, he began to film those around him. This resulted in a trio of films that are still relevant as they deal with issues that continue to effect Dublin, urban regeneration and gentrification and social and economic deprivation. Looking On, Loopline’s inaugural work focuses on a 1982 cultural festival, spearheaded by community activist Mick Rafferty and the Independent politician Tony Gregory; this landmark event sought to reclaim the inner city for the local population and instil pride in an area facing financial hardship, lack of employment and increasing levels of drug abuse. It notably features an early rooftop appearance by U2 in Alive Alive O: A Requiem for Dublin, Merry Doyle’s first full length documentary featuring original poetry from Paula Meehan and footage shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Robbie Ryan, chronicling the fight of Dublin’s iconic street traders to maintain their livelihood against the threat of commercial interests in the inner city who seek to expel the traders from their traditional locations of the Iveagh Market and Moore Street.[ix]

Liam McGrath’s Essie’s Last Stand depicts 76-year-old Essie Keeling’s fight to stay in her home as developers attempt to demolish St Ultan’s, the block of flats she has resided in for four decades. One of the last remaining tenants she and a neighbour refuse to be evicted, determined to thwart the ambitions of developers to create luxury apartments on the site of their home. The film is considered a companion piece to Alive Alive O by Tony Tracy as it similarly depicts a “proud and marginalised community defying mainstream expectations”.[x]

In addition to topics that explore the shifting community and values within the city, Loopline’s other focus is creating intimate portraits of renowned Irish cultural figures. These deeply personal works include Patrick Scott: Golden Boy, produced by Andrea Pitt and Maria Doyle Kennedy of Mermaid Films, which gives an insight into the work of one of Ireland’s foremost abstract painters; the film includes footage shot by Seámus McGarvey, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer. Patrick Kavanagh: No Man’s Fool which focuses on the life of the renowned poet, with contributions from poets John Montague and Macdara Woods, writer Dermot Healy, and actor T.P. McKenna. James Gandon: A Life which looks at the career of the renowned 18th-century architect responsible for some of Dublin’s most iconic buildings including the Customs House and the Four Courts; the documentary is notable for an extensive interview with former Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Charles J. Haughey at his Gandon-designed home in Abbeyville, North Dublin.

Loopline also made several series for television, including Imprint which was hosted by the poet Theo Dorgan and first broadcast on RTÉ between 1999 and 2001. It features in-depth and revealing interviews with some of the literary world’s most notable figures such as Margaret Atwood, Richard Ford, Gore Vidal, Eavan Boland and Colm Tóibín, while the six-part series A Good Age, originally broadcast in 1997, is an intriguing look at the issues facing older people, with candid personal testimonies about intimacy, self-care, and ageism. The most recent series for television was Muintir na Mara (People of the Sea) which ran for six series on TG4.[xi] A travel programme of sorts, presented by traditional boatbuilder Pádraig Ó Duinnín, it followed his journey around the Irish coastline as he visited Cork, Kerry, Galway, Clare and Sligo/ Mayo, engaging with a variety of local characters, before ending his travels in Donegal. The series illustrates Loopline’s continuing preoccupation with location and identity albeit it in a vastly different setting to previous urban focussed works. Ó Duinnín explores and memorialises the activities of range of crafts people, artists, musicians as well as addressing “contentious issues facing Ireland’s coastal towns”, such as “over regulation of the fishing industry, the impact of multinationals on communities and the natural environment and the demise of the fishing community and traditions”.[xii]

Folklife material 

Rural life is also the focus of a particularly valuable sub-collection within the Loopline corpus; the material shot for the BBC/RTE series Hidden Treasures directed by Anne O’Leary in 1998 explores a range of trades, crafts and traditions widely practised in rural Ireland from the 1850s to the 1950s.  The series is built around a collection of 16mm films commissioned by the National Museum of Ireland’s Folklife Division, in association with the Irish Folklore Commission and filmed from the 1950s through to the 1970s and which is also preserved as part of the Irish Film Institute collection.

Hidden Treasures, episode 1: ‘Cot, Coracle and Currach’

Hidden Treasures, episode 4: ‘Rod, Rhyme and Spinning’

These films emphasise the self-sufficiency of rural householders and crafts specialists, through their use of everyday materials to make objects for practical use in their daily lives and cover a wide variety of pre-industrial practices, such as rope-making, tinsmithing, various forms of fishing and grain-threshing, turf-cutting, tillage, and straw and seaweed gathering. They are a beautifully shot record of a fading Ireland and indicative of Loopline’s preoccupation with changing tradition, landscape and place.

Feminist perspective

Another prominent strand within the Loopline output is work that memorialises the lives of Irish women, although the company has sometimes met with controversy whilst doing so.

Martina Durac’s documentary Mairéad Farrell: Comhrá nár Chríochnaigh (An Unfinished Conversation) is about the Republican activist who was shot by the British Army in Gibraltar in 1988, in which her friend historian Bríona Nic Dhiarmada, attempts to uncover the complex woman behind the mythology that has been woven around her.

Still from Mairéad Farrell: Comhrá nár Chríochnaigh (An Unfinished Conversation)

MNÁ AN IRA is a six- part series that focuses on the role played by female members within the Provisional IRA, taking a very personal approach to its subject matter the series explores what motivated the women to become involved in the conflict. The sympathetic tone taken by the filmmakers led to criticism of the series, not least by Concubhar O Liathain, a member of the TG4 board, who asked for the decision to broadcast the series to be reviewed following the airing of the episode featuring Rose Dugdale, as he felt its tone would prove “heart-breaking for the victims of the IRA and their relatives”.[xiii] In response the producers of the series Vanessa Gildea and Martina Durac, defended their work explaining that it was “an attempt to understand part of the recent history of our country and why certain people became involved in violent activity — by hearing their personal stories and finding out what motivated them into such drastic action.”

Another less controversial female figure that is celebrated within the collection is Kathleen Lynn, Rebel Doctor a programme that rediscovers the legacy of this extraordinary humanitarian. Structured around Lynn’s diaries, the programme explores Lynn’s remarkable journey from a clergyman’s daughter in the West of Ireland to become a physician and suffragette who founded the first Irish children’s hospital St Ultan’s and was chief medical officer for the Irish Citizen Army.  This celebration of women’s achievements continues with Merry Doyle’s next project Hanna and Me which tells the story of republican suffragette Hanna Sheehy Skeffington through the eyes of her great granddaughter Micheline.

Value of the collection

In addition to the completed programmes within the collection, Loopline project archivist Eugene Finn highlights the value of the uncompleted works, projects which Loopline began but were unable to progress due to lack of financial support, thus illustrating the difficulty in “raising funding for serious social cultural and historical documentaries”.[xiv] These fragments provide an insight into the subject matter which fascinates Merry Doyle and his collaborators, as the abandon works offer a glimpse of partial profiles of figures such as the controversial writer Ulick O’Connor, and trade unionist and socialist politician Jim Kemmy. Equally tantalising is a series of interviews with international practitioners such as D.A. Pennebaker, Kim Longinotto, Les Blanc and Molly Dineen amongst others, for an unfinished project entitled Documentary Where Art Thou?

In his piece for Cassandra Voices, Finn also remarks on the value of the collection in providing a window into the production process, as outtakes and rushes document “the filming of establishing shots”, and “ the pursuit of best takes” and show how the “ideas that arise during interviews” are developed into new concepts, giving us an unparalleled insight into the development the and construction of the work. In an in-depth interview at the IFI Merry Doyle’s further emphasises the instinctive and organic nature of the production process, as relationships, coincidence and circumstance led Loopline from one topic to another.[xv]

Availability of the collection

The first tranche of the Loopline Collection was made available on the IFI Player in April 2019, with the second tranche published in May 2020. Volume 2 can be viewed here. In preparation for publication the IFI player curatorial team mapped out an online programming strategy, working with Merry Doyle to identify themes within the material in order to present the collection to the public in an engaging and accessible way.[xvi] Video segments and introductions were filmed with a range of contributors to provide context and create a route for further critical engagement with the content.  Additionally, the IFI programmed a retrospective of Loopline films in its cinemas, including a career interview with Merry Doyle to coincide with the public availability of the work. The collection is now available on the IFI Player without geo-blocking so that an international audience can explore and enjoy its diverse subject matter. Taken as a whole the collection is fascinating document of recent Irish history and the changing cultural life of the nation.

Merry Doyle’s interest in complex themes such as changing identity, social justice, and the creative process, has ensured that the collection contains a rich seam of material for researchers, historians, sociologists and programme makers to mine. Similarly, Merry Doyle’s innate ability to find the human story within universal themes, will no doubt ensure that the work of Loopline continues to resonate with audiences long into the future.

You can view the trailer for the Loopline Collection, Volume 2 here.


[i] ‘900 hours of footage that tells the story of Ireland’: Video from the last 30 years archived at IFI https://jrnl.ie/4594823 Apr 16th 2019, Journal.ie Andrew Roberts.

[ii] The Irish Film Institute is Ireland’s national cultural institution for film with a remit to Exhibit, Preserve and Educate.

[iii] The IFI Player is a virtual viewing room for the IFI Irish Film Archive’s collections. Launched in 2016, it gives fee global access to a range of material from the IFI’s collections, and acts as a platform to publicise the IFI’s preservation and digitisation projects. In collaboration with tech partners Axonista a suite of apps for Android, Apple and Roku was launched in 2017.

[iv] IFI Career interview.

[v] Merry Doyle was not always at the helm and collaborated with a range of accomplished producers and directors such as Martina Durac, Vanessa Gildea, Anne O’Leary, Liam McGrath amongst others stepping in.

[vi] The IFI Irish Film Archive is part of the IFI. It has a mission to collect, preserve and share Ireland’s moving image heritage.

[vii] The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland is Ireland’s broadcast regulator, but also runs an archiving scheme which aims to promote a culture of preservation within the broadcast sector and provides funding for preservation projects for audio-visual material made for broadcast.

[viii] George Morrison is an Irish documentary maker, best known for his ground-breaking film Mise Eire (1959) which is created entirely from archival footage and tells the story of events around and during the Easter Rising.

[ix] Alive Alive O, review Film West, Issue 39, Dan McCarthy

[x] Essie’s Last Stand review, Flim West,issue 41, Tony Tracy

[xi] TG4 is Ireland’s Irish language television station.

[xii] www.loopline.com

[xiii] IRA series Seriously stains TG4, Independent, 8th Jan 2012

[xiv] ‘Archiving the Recent Past: the Loopline Collection’, EUGENE FINN ON JULY 19, 2019 https://cassandravoices.com/uncategorized/archiving-the-recent-past-the-loopline-collection/

[xv] https://ifi.ie/2019/05/se-merry-doyle

[xvi] Shauna Lyons, Kasandra O’Connell, Sunniva O’Flynn and Saskia Vermeulen


Kasandra O’Connell has been Head of the IFI Irish Film Archive custodian of Ireland’s national moving image collection for two decades. Prior to this she worked in conservation at the National Museum of Ireland and has a postgraduate qualification in Archival Science, an M.A. in Museum Studies and is currently undertaking PhD research in moving image preservation and policy at DCU. She is on the editorial board of the Association of Moving Image Archivists journal and has written about digital preservation and moving image archiving for a number of publications including Film Ireland, History Ireland, Journal of the Society of Archivists and International Journal of Film Preservation; she has also contributed to a number of television and radio programmes on the subject. She devised and teaches an MA module in digital media preservation at Maynooth University and was one of a group of international experts selected as faculty for 2018 FIAF preservation and restoration workshop in India. Her focus in recent years has been devising and implementing the IFI Irish Film Archive’s Digital Preservation and Access Strategy, developing the award winning IFI Player and undertaking large scale preservation and access projects such as the Irish adverts project, Loopline and the Irish Independence film collection.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Asian archives and archivists: travels and revelations

Dina Iordanova, University of St Andrews

15 May 2020


I am not a specialist on archives. As an East Europeanist, I mainly know of archives in places like Tirana – magnificently supported through the Albanian Cinema Project and depicted in Mark Cousins’ film Here Be Dragons (2013) or Bucharest, the Romanian capital, where a number of B&W documentaries from the time of state socialism, made at the Sahia studio, were recently restored and published in a series of DVDs, in a project sponsored by the One World Romania film festival. Then, as a specialist on film festivals, I have had the chance to learn about the role of festivals in showcasing restored films, which expands far beyond festivals like Il Cinema Ritrovato or Pordenone, and comprises of a global network of festivals in places like in Chile or Japan, discussed in contributions to the Archival Film Festivals volume, edited by Alexander Marlow-Mann in 2013.

However, it so happened that in recent years I travelled a lot across Asia and had the chance to visit and get to know the work of quite a few Asian film archives and preservation organisations that I previously knew next to nothing about.

In 2013, friends from Kasetsart University in Bangkok took me to the Thai Film Archive, an imaginatively designed complex on the outskirts of the city which combines a film museum, a small cinema, as well as storage space. I came to know about the amazing life work of Dome Sukwong, the archive’s committed founder, who had been collecting old films on his own, with no support from the state nor institutional framework until his work came to be noticed many years later. Having commissioned a contribution from archivist Chalida Uabumrungit for the collection Film Festivals and East Asia (2011, which I co-edited with Ruby Cheung), I already knew about the adverse climatic conditions that affect preservation efforts in these parts of Southeast Asia. In Bangkok I witnessed on the spot how they address these difficulties in action, with dedication and perseverance.


Then, whilst guest lecturing at the Beijing Film Academy in 2016, I was invited to give workshops on film festivals at the venerable China Film Archive, which occupies a large 16-storey building in Beijing, and features an adjacent cinema that has a full programme of screenings of films from China’s rich film heritage, in many respects similar to the programme that one finds on a daily basis at the Cinematheque in Paris. It is here where I saw the largest screen I have ever come across in my lifetime. I also enjoyed the privilege to be shown around their restoration department, which occupies one of the floors and where over twenty young employees are seated in front of advanced computers, each engaged with clearing the scratches from the scanned old prints that they are in process of digitising. From a detailed flowchart displayed on the wall, I learned that a trainload of films for restoration are being shipped to them every week from the storage depot in Xi’an and then processed by the restoration unit. China’s whole film heritage is being digitized here. Even if this is not yet released to the public, I was able to realise that the global cinephile community will have access to an amazing resource once a decision is made for the release of this digitized material.

The Big Screen at China Film Archive

Fast forward two years later, to December 2018. Serving a term as Visiting Research Professor at the University of Hong Kong, I chose to live in Kwun Tong, a part of town where few foreigners ever set foot. A former industrial area occupied by large building blocks where various factories were clustered in the past, nowadays this is one of the places in the city where rents are still affordable. So no wonder that even if not obvious on the surface, Kwun Tong is the epicentre for the city’s cultural industries. Quite remote from Hong Kong’s glossy commercial areas such as Central, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui, it is the home of leading modern art galleries such as Agnes Lin’s Osage and the Sun Museum, as well as of popular music venues. It only took me a few daysin Kwun Tong to discover it is also the centre for Hong Kong’s burgeoning film industry, with the venerable Hong Kong International Film Festival having its offices here, as well as many production and distribution companies occupying co-working space in the buildings nearby. One of these older industrial space, The Milky Way Building, is owned by director Johnnie To and his associates – and it is on its staircase that many scenes of well-known Hong Kong action movies have been shot.

Today the Milky Way is home of various film companies. I visited it one day with my friend, documentary producer Peter Yam, who took me to meet Bede Cheng, the director of L’Immagine Ritrovata Asia, a highly specialised film restoration lab which is local subsidiary of Cineteca di Bologna. I was shown around their premises, witnessed the high-tech equipment and seeing several young women at restoration work in front of large computer screens. The big scanner in one of the back spaces – amidst buzzing FedEx trucks and commercial spaces storing Chinese herbs — was loaded with an old copy of a King Hu film which was being scanned and slowly transferred to the new digital format.


Most recently, whilst attending the first Film Festivals and Restoration Forum at Xiamen University in China in the summer of 2019, I was privileged to join the expedition to their brand new large campus, which, being the size of a small town, is home of one of the newest film archives in China. Its holdings, still in process of being organised, are occupying several floors within their 12 -storey spacious library, which also has a good-sized modern cinema equipped for showing various formats on the ground floor. With many historical posters displayed on the walls, the colleagues from Xiamen showed us many rooms where they had stored historical projection equipment, cans of 35 mm film prints, as well as many other film-related paraphernalia. I had the chance to browse and view some of the material they screened for me, along with colleagues such as Jan-Christopher Horak of the Pacific Film Archive at UCLA and Dan Streible and Juana Suarez from NYU. Even if this archive in Xiamen is not yet organised in a manner that would allow to systematically research their holdings, it is one that will stake its presence soon.

The Film Festivals and Restoration Forum at Xiamen University, July 2019

The restoration part of the conference itself was particularly interesting, not least because it allowed for encounters with archivists from China and various other Asian countries who spoke about their work. Several of the speakers had been invited by Prof. Ray Jing, a well-known archivist and anthropologist and long-standing director of the Taipei Film Archive, whose new venture is the Film Collector’s Museum (see Jan Christopher Horack’s blog entry on his subsequent visit to Taiwan and encounter with Jing). I was particularly impressed with the account given by an amateur archivist from Lanzhou, the capital of the remote province of Gansu, who is struggling for the preservation of rich material that he has discovered after the closure of older local cinemas.

Most importantly, the event included screenings of rare restored material with introductions given by Asian archivists who elaborated on how the films were brought back to life. The programme included early ethnographic films made about Yunnan province’s numerous ethnic minorities in the 1950s, for example. But there were also screenings of several other restorations of Asian films – including the Thai classic Santi-Vina (1954) which had long been believed lost and the Singaporean gongfu extravaganza Fist of Fury (1973), which had been banned at the time of making and only now restored and shown.

Scene from the restored Thai classic Santi-Vina (1954)

In listening to the amazing stories of these restorations as told by archivists such as Sanchai Chotirosseranee of the Thai Film Archive and Karen Chan of the Asian Film Archive, I felt I was particularly inspired to realise the extent of transnational collaborative preservation efforts that each one of these stories revealed. It was also clear that film festivals had played an important part in each case. So, as someone who believes in cinema’s transnational essence and the key role of film festivals in global circulation, I felt I wanted to create a resource that would showcase these important aspects of global archiving. So I invited the archivists from Thailand and Singapore to write accounts on the discovery and restoration of the films they were presenting at Xiamen. I also asked two of the doctoral students from our programme at the University of St Andrews to conduct interviews with prominent figures involved with preservations efforts in Asia – such as Bede Cheng of L’Immagine Ritrovata in Hong Kong and Nick Deocampo from the Philippines. The dossier we created will be published in June 2020 as part of the next issue of Frames Cinema Journal.


Dina Iordanova is Professor of Global Cinema and Creative Cultures at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and director of the eponymous Institute. She has worked extensively on the dynamics of global film industries and transnational film cultures, with focus on non-Western cinematic traditions and contexts. The forthcoming dossier on Archives and Preservation in Asia which she curated for Frames Cinema Journal 17 will be published in June 2020. It contains contributions from the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand.


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