A Day at the Archives… East Anglian Film Archive

Juliana Gisler (University of East Anglia)

20 June 2024

East Anglian Film Archive

The East Anglian Film Archive was the first regional archive in the UK. Established in 1976 by David Cleveland, much of the archive focuses on exactly what it says on the tin. Its holdings are mostly made up of content from six counties: Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, and Suffolk. This includes a large collection of regional news and television, industry spots, amateaur films and home videos. However, it also goes beyond this by including works from the rest of Britain and the world. Lucky for me, the archive is only a short distance from the university. It is located just outside the centre of Norwich in a squat little building off of a roundabout (where it shares a building with the equally brilliant Norfolk Record Office).

For those who aren’t based near Norwich, a great feature of the EAFA is that a journey through its archives can begin from the comfort of one’s desk. Some 200 hours of film are currently accessible on their website and an additional 600 titles are available on BFI. However, an in-person visit is always exciting and will surely include the sounds of the latest tape being digitised. It can also provide access to the additional 12,000 hours of film in the collection and 30,000 more on videotape.

The online collection has curated selections on a variety of topics: climate emergencies, the home front, and travelogues to name a few. The historian or media scholar is bound to find something of interest but the appeal of these films goes beyond the academic. What consistently sticks out in the archive’s collection is its unabashed humanness. The selections often present people at their most honest and so, most interesting: capturing life in the midst of political upheaval, cultural turning points, and everyday monotony.

When I speak to the staff about their favourites in the archive, they choose creators with unrestrained creativity and sincere subjects. Senior technician and conservator Pete Fairchild finds it difficult to choose but settles on a BBC reel. As he describes it, it is at once hilarious, honest, heartbreaking. In it, children at Fakenham Primary School talk about their favourite belongings. They include football cards, a painting of a horse, lots of rocks, and a gas mask. One boy brings his deceased father’s RAF medal. One of archive administrator Flo Reynolds’ favourites is the collection of work by pioneering filmmaker and stop-motion animator Arthur Melbourne Cooper. Cooper creates bizarre and wonderful worlds where matches playing cricket and toys get into traffic disputes.

Crickets (Arthur Melbourne Cooper, 1899, St Albans). Courtesy of EAFA.

My favourites must be those that feature Norwich. I particularly love Muhammad Ali’s visit on tour for Ovaltine in 1971. Ali can barely pass through the train station as he is overwhelmed with fans. Then, there is the mix of shameless commercialism and genuine excitement of supermarket shoppers as he signs their cans of Ovaltine. It is difficult to watch without cracking a grin. Having lived more than two years now in the region, it always proves interesting to me to see how much life and the land  have actually changed. You also get to hear the local accents which are tragically disappearing today. And even if you haven’t spent time in East Anglia, you will no doubt still be charmed by such vivid records of its inimitable culture.

Copies of Amateur Cine World.

However, the archive’s collection is not just limited to regional. The pretence for my visit at the archives today lies in its paper collections, in particular the magazine Amateur Cine World. They are filled with ideas for interesting shots, advice on equipment, and wartime reflections. Again, it is revealingly personal. One article suggests how to film a keepsake of your baby. For best results try to capture everyday situations like waking up. If one can, have a rehearsal with the baby the day before. The more creative parent may like to animate the toys. Most importantly, don’t let the young actor look into the camera!

The magazines compliment the archive’s role as a repository for the Institute of Amateaur Cinematographers. In this internationally significant collection, one can find a wide range of documentaries and stories from West Yorkshire to Johannasburg to the Hawaiian islands. The result is a testament to the imagination and skill of filmmakers worldwide.

Many of these films have been created by women, either fully or partially, and many are in husband and wife teams. The archive has given special attention to these. In 2015, the University of East Anglia catalogued the amateur films made by women in greater detail. As the project’s report highlights, these films are significant as they contribute to histories of leisure, female authorship, and household dynamics. Indeed, many feature holidays, couples, families and farm life. One particular trend in the collection that piques my interest is that of women’s fantasies and the articulating of private dreams.

Still from Freak (Sharon Gasdon, 1988, Leeds). Courtesy of EAFA.

In “A Bench in the Park” (1958, Johannesburg) a woman reinvents herself as a wealthy, well-travelled, and glamorous woman while on break from her job as a waitress. In “Freak” by Sharon Gasdon (1988, Leeds) a young school-girl dreams of becoming a punk. The film allows these imaginings to be temporarily actualized. The waitress momentarily appears before us as the bejewelled beauty gambling untold sums away amongst young men at Monte Carlo. The schoolgirl shaves her eyebrows and cuts her hair into a mohawk. In these sorts of moments one desperately wants to peek behind the curtain and learn more about the lives and thoughts of these elusive women filmmakers.

Writing this blog post without a strict research objective in mind has provided me with a reason to explore far beyond what would normally occupy me. While it is a plentiful resource for research, I hope what has shone through is the importance of regional archives. The EAFA has extraordinary potential within it to engage larger audiences, build community, and stimulate conversation. A browse through its offerings is always thought-provoking. It repeatedly brings to the fore the “average” people and allows access into how they worked, how they lived, how they had passed their time and expressed themselves.

Juliana Gisler is studying history at the University of East Anglia. Her current research uses Hollywood promotional materials to explore changing conceptions of romance and desire.

Image disclaimer: Please do not reproduce the images published in this blog piece without written permission from the East Anglian Film Archive.

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.

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