Documentarians carry much responsibility as creators. They are often one or two person bands. As business managers, fundraisers, marketing gurus, adventurers and agents for change, they are not finished with the final cut of each film. On the contrary, they have just begun. They must know how to navigate film festivals and distribution. They must engage their works with communities and demonstrate impact. They are required to keep up with new technology and information with rapidly changing mediums and modernized platforms while continuing to garner audiences through traditional venues. In a world where it seems there are more non-fiction narratives out there than ever, there are also fewer storytellers making a full-time living as documentarians. That means that in addition to doing all this, many filmmakers are also performing side jobs, in and out of the field, in order to bring their stories to life. Of course if you are one of these people, I'm preaching to the choir. I bring this up because with all the above in mind, it is a lot to ask of independent filmmakers to become archivists of their own work over their lifetime. A task that requires, yet again, more funding, and yet again, more upkeep with the ever evolving (or devolving – your choice) technology that is involved in our industry. Not only that, but storytellers are being told to start this process now, if they haven’t already. Yes, it can feel overwhelming, but as is with the rest of our profession, it is challenging but achievable.
As someone who works in documentary, I have supported many struggling and talented filmmakers in a variety of roles, who churn out amazing stories through blood, sweat and tears. I too have toiled with some reward and disappointment with my own projects. With all the obsession, sacrifice and money that’s put into these productions, which can take years to make, would someone as smart and activist oriented as documentarians, allow their beautiful work to disappear over time?
I ask only because I believe non-fiction filmmakers are the ideal (and necessary) candidates to become preservationists of their own work, as well as their community’s, because of their natural activist instincts (pictured left: Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, 1985, preserved by Women's Film Preservation Fund).
I propose to you documentary filmmakers out there to add "preservationist" to your portfolio of skills because:
• We can see from the beginning of the documentary form how historically and culturally relevant these works are too look back on decades later. In some cases these stories, points of view, insights and subjects otherwise may not have been captured.
• Your body of work over your lifetime will become your personal legacy as well as part of a collective documentary heritage of your generation, generations to come and society at large, but only if it’s around in the future.
• You are a non-corporate entity that tells stories often otherwise untold. Do you really want our moving image history to be all Disney and network, big business news?
• Your movies can generate income for years to come. There are limitless possibilities for continued distribution, but only if your master elements are alive and well, accessible and maintained (both your work and it’s playback equipment).
• That extra material on the cutting room floor, might be of additional historical and monetary value. Weren’t you just wondering how you’ll fund your next project? Your previous movie can be your future revenue in addition to your new production.
• Find out where your previous project’s original elements are. Don’t assume you know. Confirm this whether you recall that they are under your bed, in your mother’s closet, at an archive, or at your former business partner’s office.
• Examine those elements, whether analog or digital, they ALL need to be archived properly. Confirm what they are and what condition they are in.
• Talk to your resources (they exist! See bottom of this page for a short list, but there are more. Do your research). It is important for your elements to be properly stored and managed.
• Create a preservation plan just as you would create a production plan. Include funding sources just as you would when researching for your production and post production grants.
• When beginning a new production’s budget, include an archive line item. Don’t hate me. You’ll be thankful later. Do your research just like you would any other expense and add it in there. This will save time and money later.
• Get to know preservation best practices with the same vigor you put toward learning how to shoot, edit or strategize your outreach.
• Get to know and build a relationship with an archive. Find out if your alma mater has a media archive and library that accepts alumni work, have you screened your film at a museum that houses an archive? Consider your existing resources to start out with. If they can't be your archive, they might help you find one that will.
• Advocate for audiovisual preservation best practices to become part of the curriculum in film schools and addressed at film festivals, conferences and other industry events. Help makes this the norm, rather than an oddity.
Works are disintegrating in canisters, boxes, tape cases and on hard drives, as I write this blog. The sooner we get serious and active about this the better.
Okay, so that's quite a few actions steps. As someone who is ardent about preservation, and in particular about documentary, I can attest that it's similar to filmmaking- fascinating and frustrating. It can pay off, however, if you see it through. Logically, the more you understand it, the easier it becomes.
To begin, or continue this conversation, check out the International Documentary Association’s (IDA) and DOCNYC’s Documentary Preservation Summit, 3/31 – 4/1/15 at the IFC Center in New York. Here you can listen to panels, ask questions and contribute to an important discussion with your colleagues. The major players in the doc world will be there, from filmmakers (Barbara Kopple, Pennebaker, Sandra Shulberg) to organizations (The D-Word, those listed above and more.)
One characteristic that no one in documentary is short on is passion. Bring it all to the summit. (Pictured above: Behind the Veil, 1972, Preserved by WFPF).
Some resources: Al Larvick Conservation Fund; Association of Moving Image Archivists; Film Foundation; IndieCollect; Kickstarter Archives initiative; National Film Preservation Foundation; Women’s Film Preservation Fund.