Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Saving culture

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the passing of Jonathan Dennis, at 49. He was someone with a keen passion for preserving our country's cinematic history, and was instrumental in the setting up of the NZ Film Archive, becoming its founding director in 1981. He salvaged and helped restore countless hours of our moving images for future generations. We owe him a huge debt of thanks.

Contrast the Film Archive and Dennis's efforts with the archival gap that is currently lacking in our music scene - more and more recordings disappear every year, and valuable materials get lost or destroyed. Recording studios shut down, record labels go out of business, and they throw their archives in the rubbish.

NZ On Air refuses to take any kind of cultural stance with their music video funding and have never done so since the scheme began in 1991 - getting music video makers and bands to submit their videos to the Film Archive is voluntary, and NZOA says it's not in their mandate. This needs fixing asap. Promoting culture (our music)  to commercial TV while ignoring the need to save our culture doesn't cut it.

You only have to look at Robyn Gallagher's ongoing reviews of all the NZ On Air funded videos on her site 5000ways to see her recurring lists of missing videos.  There are a lot of them that have vanished. The current piecemeal approach to archiving our music history simply isn't enough. Too much is slipping thru the cracks.

I did the following interview with Dennis for the August 1991 issue of Stamp magazine. Radio NZ is playing a radio documentary tribute to Dennis on January 19th at 7pm.

Jonathan Dennis with Witarina Harris at the opening ceremony,
Te Maori Wellington, October 1986. Stills Collection, NZFA

Illuminating History

Jonathan Dennis is the very fine individual who was responsible for the arrival on our shores of the showcase of the films of Asta Nielsen, one of the first and greatest stars of early silent European cinema, seen at this year’s Film Festival But his involvement with the preservation and presentation of movies from both the silent and sound era goes back further He was the driving force behind the establishment of The New Zealand Film Archive in 1981, and saw it through its difficult adolescence, departed last year for greener pastures.

After reveling in the delights of the Asta Nielsen films (you all did, right?), lt seemed like a good time to look at this ‘scratchy old movies’ business in greater detail, throw it under the magnifying glass and ask why people have such trouble watched old movies.

“My interest in film preservation started in the mid seventies when the realisation came to me and a small number of others that films that had been made in New Zealand were being lost with an alacrity that was becoming depressing The process of turning that around took several years, a long tame, actually, and involved personally for me a lot of politics, a lot of trying to work out just what we wanted and what was possible. We started the Archive with an insane sense of enthusiasm, we had a dogmatic belief that It was possible.

“We were cunning enough and persistent enough that we could wind our way through the various beaurocracies that were either trying to prevent it happening, or couldn’t care less. My aim initially was to make people care, make them see that there was a sense of time and place contained within these images that touched people in a particular way. I spent two years training at film archlves in Europe and North America.

“The Archive developed differently from our overseas counterparts The basic idea was the same as with the people who started the major archives overseas, such as Henry Langois in Paris and others – they loved film; that was the starting point. But most of the great film archives were started in the thirties, we were really late in starting, and what that gave me at the time was an opportunity to look very carefully at the structures and operations of my international colleagues, and I found that very few of them were what I would want to have, or be part of, in this country So I came back not so much with a sense of what I wanted but what I didn’t want.

“There were several people who were inspirational to me – one of them was Len Lye. Len posed a question to me which was ‘nice idea to have this archive and all, but would it aid creativity?’ I was annoyed about it at the time, I thought ‘what does he mean?’, but over the years it took on an importance that was central to how I wanted to operate.

“The other person was an extraordinary woman called Mary Meerson, who’d helped establish the Cinemetheque Francaise in Paris. She kept reminding me that for fllms to live they have to be in front of people. Armed at a subconscious level with Len’s question and Mary’s ideas, it was a matter of trying to see just what need there was There was the initial slog getting the expertise and standards in place, film preservation is incredibly specialised, detailed and time consuming, the Archive operates according to the internationally prescribed standards for film presentation; initially the laboratory had the utmost difficuylt in meeting those requirements, so that took a while.”

The Archive went through several stages; at first Jonathan used shock tactics to elicit a response from the public; he got his hands onto some repulsive decomposing rolls of film from our past and paraded them around, giving the pitch of ‘look what we are losing’, working on the great loss principle. (”lf there is any reasons why the loss of a particular ltem would be regretted in the future, there is a case for preservation”) with a showman’s technique “I always thought film archives were part of showbusiness and I could be entrepreneurial about it – one didn’t have to kowtow to other people’s ideas of what a film archive should be, all dullness and formica.”

“This initial approach gave way after a little while to a need to show people not only the destructlon, but also what was being saved, and why these images were so precious, saying loók at what we’ve just found and preserved, isn’t it fantastic’ (and often it was). With the destruction element there, if we didn’t get some more money everything else would be lost too. It worked very well.

"But none of it would have been possible if it hadn’t been for the general public response to what we were trying to do. People would hear me on the radio, and they would send five dollars or something, people actually took it very personally that these films were being lost, as indeed they were -of the early films made here before the thirties we’ve lost 80% of them.’’

“You have to remember that the Archive was started with a permanent staff of me in one room premises we were sharing with Bill Gosden at the Federation of Fllm Societies in Wellington (the Archive’s association with the Film Festival really dates back from there), and an initial grant from the New Zealand Film Commission of $5000.

“Whatever I wanted to do, including be able to pay myself, I had to raise the money. So we existed for the first five years on grants, mostly from the Lotterles Board and sympathetic ministers but they were always one-off, there was never guaranteed funding.

“When we finally had something to screen people responded extraordinarily, and what grew from that was the concept we called the Travelllng Film Shows, using the whole country as a national film theatre. We undertook to make the films accessible to people where it was most appropriate, their own images, history and memories as they existed on moving usages for both Maori and Pakeha. From the early series of screenings it became extremely clear that Maori people preferred to be able to watch their particular treasures in their own surroundings on the marae rather than in a theatre.

“From that grew an attempt to make the Archive fully bicultural, a process that hasn’t fully happened, but the princlples on which it could happen exist in a very clear way; it was a notion of sharing.”

"Not all masterpieces are 
created in the present"

It was important to note here that the Archive sees itself as kaitiaki or guardian, not owner, of its moving image collection, an essential distiction in relation to films such as the early anthropological films of the Maori from earlier this century. The Archive’s direct action of taking its treasures to the people is vastly different from any other film archive in the rest of the world.

“It was regarded with amazement and awe by our international colleagues. It sprung from a response to the fact that we’re not Europe, America; it was a sense of trying to examine who we were, where we were, and what we could do about it in a way that had some meaning here. With the Maori films I have never taken them overseas as part of retrospectives unless they were accompanied in their own right by their own people (mostly by kaumatua Witarina Harris). It was essential that they were accompanied by someone who could speak on their behalf.’’

The Archives screenings in conjunction with the Film Festival date back to 1984 with the presentation of The Adventures of Algy, shot in New Zealand and Australia in 1925, it was accompanied by musicians performing live in the cinema, a truly splendid event.

“The Festival also offered us the possibility of bringing to the country films that seemed to me had some importance; they had last been seen here 50 or 60 years ago and hadn’t been in general circulation since, and films that should be seen as part of our literacy of cinema. We were linked to the international film archive movement and had the treasure houses of all of the world’s archives to choose from.

"It worked for several reasons; one, it gave us a chance to bring in work that had been restored by our colleagues, people could see this material looking gorgeous, so the concepts people had about old films would start to be smashed. Secondly, if they were successful, like Henry V (tremendously successful because Laurence Olivier chose to die just before it, extremely endearing of him, we thought), it funded our travelling shows and our marae screenings.

“I should make it clear that I resigned from the Archive in March last year, and have had little or no involvement with it now except for the Asta Nielsen screenings in conjunction with them. So it’s a little different now in that I’m not at the Archive, I have even more freedom to scan around.

“Also I wanted a slightly stronger sense of context. Our Festival screenings often seemed to me isolated one off things. This time I wanted people to have the opportunity to explore slightly wider, so you could actually see two or three and draw your own conclusions and sense of time. With the Asta Nielsens, it meant we could take a look at German cinema over quite an extended period and see films that had never been shown here. Who would now fund a major feature film of Hamlet with a woman in the lead role? We have Mel Gibson, but would we see the reverse – Glenn Close playing Hamlet? We never would.

“When she achieved success, for a period anyway, she was able to control what she was doing. By then she was the greatest European film star, she’d made a lot of people a lot of money, UFA Studios were built on the success of her films. So putting these works in a context was important. But it’s fraught with problems.

“One is confronting what I think of as illiteracy – presenting these films is a risk, always, it’s like mounting a small opera – some people’s cynical and patronising reactions to the films, it seems so limited in perception; I can’t be bothered with 1991 telling 1920 what it thinks of it, or just how superior we are because I don’t believe it. Not all masterpieces are created in the present.”

Getting people to take that risk is difficult; a dash of showmanship comes into play; there’s the Archive’s musical collaborations with composer Dorothy Buchanan, providing scores for live accompaniment, “trying to get people to recognise what is being presented is special.”

Asta Nielsen’s career spanned 22 years, she made 66 movies, all but one of them silent. Nielsen’s career came to a close around the same time as the arrival of sound in movies – was this one of the factors that bought about her decline? “Well, things changed, the times changed. When she began in 1910 it was not to make her a film star, it was to attract the attention of Danish theatrical producers to the range of work she was capable of; she was a very successful stage actor but was feeling very limited by the roles she was being offered.

The Abyss was an attempt to change that, and it did change things, but not in the way she’d intended. The theatrical establishment paid no more attention to her than before but the success of the film internationally led her to Berlin. She got a contract which gave her exceptional freedom to make eight ‘Asta Nielsen films’ a year for five years. So she could explore the widest range of roles and characters, dramas, comedies she was a great comic actor and an even finer tragic dramatic actor. Before World War I she was probably the best known film star, certainly within Europe.

“By the mid twenties things were already changing in Germany, her last major films of the twenties were Joyless Street and Tragedy of the Street, both of which she plays a similar kind of role , an older woman trapped into prostitution. She then returned to the stage in Berlin and played a wide range of classical roles. With sound there was a problem, she felt, because of her strong Danish accent. She chose to leave Germany in the mid thirties because of the rise of Nazis; she was offered her own studio but chose not to be a part of that.”

“I don’t know whether she felt there would be possibilities back in Denmark – but there certainly weren’t, and if there were they weren’t going to be offered to her. Denmark simply didn’t respond to having her home. Parochialism, perhaps? So she wrote her autobiography then and it was a great success, but it didn’t lead to anything. She made her last film in 1952 and apart from the documentary she made in 1968, she never really worked again, and that is quite astonishing, because as the documentary makes fairly clear, she was a very powerful woman, still. It was a waste of her final forty years. She tried to open a cinema in Copenhagen eleven times and was turned down every time.”

On the Joyless Street, Nielsen worked with the director G.W. Pabst, who would later give the world Louise Brooks as Lulu in the classic Pandora’s Box (1928), a film the Archive bought here several years ago in an absolutely exquisite print.

“Asta had already played this role in an earlier version, and there is a section of it included in the documentary. It’s interesting to see how like Asta Neilsen Brooks looked; Louise Brooks knew about Asta Nielsen, she had the same hairstyle, same look as Asta used for Lulu, there are strong similarities.’’

What bought about your departure from the Film Archive? “I felt the time was right, a number of cycles had been completed; some of it was seeing Mana Waka to completion, my involvement with that had been about seven years. It was time for me to let go, and reclaim some of my own life.’’

Since Jonathan’s departure last March he has treated us to the delights of the Asta Nielsen screenings; his current project is editing a book examining the New Zealand film and television industries and their cultural contexts, due for publication next year.

It is a book that is long overdue in this country, an idea whose time has come, finally. Featured will be essays from Merata Mita on the place of the image in Maoritanga and the impact of filmed images on Maori culture), Roger Horrocks (on experimental film and video making and its part in creating a distinctive local film culture), and producer John O’Shea (his observations of film and television culture from 1940 to 1979).

Film and television producer Alison Webber will provide a feminist perspective of both industries, and Peter Wells will write on the politics of inclusion and exclusion during the 70s and 80s, in relation to his own work (Jewel's Darl, A death in the family.) Geoff Murphy writes on the problems of making films in a country this side, and Russell Campbell examines documentary film-making here.

Also featured will be interviews with many of the leading directors, such as Jane Campion and Vincent Ward, and producers who have made (and continue to make) the moving images that represent ourselves on screen. Coming to a bookshop near you next year.


Robyn said...

I've learned two things since I started 5000 Ways. First, some of the missing videos are for songs that, for various reasons, received funding but never had a video made. In those cases, the money goes back to NZOA and is given to another song in another funding round. NZOA are going to give me a list of all the videos that were completed.

Secondly, NZOA now require that every artist who receives video funding lodge a copy of the completed video with them.

But of course, this doesn't do anything about the many missing old videos. The Film Archive and TVNZ's television archive have a lot, some fans digitise scratchy old videotapes, but there's just a lot that seem to have vanished. And that's really sad.

I feel that someone should do something about finding as many of these old music videos, but I don't know who.

Sounds Like us NZ Music said...

people are doing something about it, but it's not people who are drawing top notch govt salaries.
try these sites for a start, and importantly it' not just important video footage that happened to have got a $5000 leg up.

I too cannot believe our cultural organisation is not all over this like a rash, doing their best to keep this material in circulation.
"Not all masterpieces are
created in the present"indeed. Keep drawing those salaries and shrugging your shoulders NZ on Air.


Russell Brown said...

I'm not sure it's entirely fair to pile all the blame on NZ On Air. Artists and labels generally hold the masters and should bear some responsibility for keeping them.

I'm on the trust board (unpaid) of the NZ On Air-funded NZ On Screen, which has so far digitised and made available 300 music videos. Some, generally predating the NZOA funding era, simply don't exist in any viable form any more. Tragically for an entire generation of male New Zealanders, those include Sharon O'Neill's 'Asian Paradise' video.

Rob Mayes is doing an important job with the nzindiescene channel on YouTube, and although there's some crossover with NZOS and the Film Archive ('There is No Depression in New Zealand'), other videos are only available there.

The live stuff that's emerged in recent years on the chillblue07 and greeneyedowl channels is astonishing, but it is, by definition, being archived when it's uploaded to YouTube. The state doesn't have to own all that stuff -- but libraries and archives need to be aware it exists and be more savvy about directing people to it.

The archive sector itself needs reforming. NZ On Air isn't supposed to be doing it -- NZ On Screen is officially a showcase, not an archive -- but there's no clear picture of who *should* be archiving musical culture, and how, let alone preserving master tapes.

Peter McLennan said...

Thanks all, for the comments. Russell - given that NZOA are spending my tax dollars on these pop promos, then they should be undertaking to save these important moving images for future generations.

Music videos are are seen by the bands and record companies as 3 min ads, so they have no interest in archiving them beyond getting them on tv. NZOA is the only component of the funding chain (NOZOA/band/video maker) that has any power to make archiving a compulsory obligation - which, as I said, I want to see happen, as it's my money/taxes.

The material being uploaded to Youtube may, by definition, be archived, but its not in our possession, is it? Will Google end up owning our national images by default?

As long as there is no clear picture of who should be archiving these videos, they will continue to disappear.

Simon said...

The Broadcasting Act makes the archiving of programmes an obligation. It has the qualifier "as the commission sees fit". It's a matter of what you define as a programme as the act was written in very different times.

The opinion I've had is that a video (and more) fall into that definition.

It doesn't remove the obligation as the board of NZ on Air seems to think it does, but requires that they rather assess the best way to do it.

Simon said...

That said, to be fair, I do know that some effort is being made to look at the best way of doing exactly that at the moment as part of an ongoing process.

Sounds Like us NZ Music said...

We have to stop making excuses for this organisation. As simon points out provision for archiving is in the broadcasting act.
NZOA can say it's not in their mandate all they like, but propping up commercial radio and the unwanted Pap music industry wasn't in their mandate either but they managed to devote huge amounts of resources and energy towards that. When are they going to use their non mandated initiative to do something that is constructive for NZ culture. Another 21 years of executive Salary? or shall we leave it to unpaid enthusiasts to put our cultural archive on an American owned while the big boys figure out a way to squeeze more salaries for themselves before they undertake a task that the rest of us can see is bleeding obvious and should have been started cheaply and easily at any point in the last 21 years.

Sounds Like us NZ Music said...

*American owned site*

Emma Jean Kelly said...

Great article and discussion. I think the lesson from Jonathan Dennis (I'm writing his biography as my PhD so I've been thinking about this a lot) is that someone has to take responsibility for driving a project to archive this stuff. You've got it right to say that YouTube is not an archive. Who owns that material? Certainly not us! What happens if they pull the plug? You can be sure they won't be returning clips to people who posted them! I have heard rumour that there is a discussion going on now in government regarding the future of TVNZ Archives, National Archives, New Zealand Film Archive and Sound Archives (associated with Radio New Zealand). Wouldn't it be great if all departments responsible for our various media (TV, Sound, Film) all had a commitment to gathering materials with a kaitiaki approach? It can be a creative way to engage communities with locally made materials long after they're no longer on the telly or radio or at the cinema. And if people feel they have a relationship with those institutions they're much more likely to support them.
If people feel strongly that archiving our sound material is important they should talk to their government rep and get this on the public agenda. Thanks for the post it's great - there's also an OnFilm article (by me) online if you're interested in learning some more about the fascinating Jonathan Dennis and the great broadcast Gareth Watkins has made. Cheers, Emma, PhD Student, AUT

Bill Sheat said...

What Emma has heard is more than a rumour. Last year the Ministry of Culture and Heritage produced a paper which laid out a scheme to bring together the various entitities currently archiving Film Television and Sound under the leadership of the Film Archive which is where the expertise lies.It was signed off by the ministers concerned, Chris Finlayson and Jonathan Coleman.(Broadcasting)
Unfortunately it was rejected by TVNZ and was met with the customary stonewalling from National Archives. (National Archives holds all the old National Film Unit stuff.) It will be interesting to see how the scheme progresses in 2012.

Sounds Like us NZ Music said...

I find it interesting that our govt bodies manage to have these discussions and yet not consult with anyone I know who is working in this field. They must have it all completely under control, except they haven't.
And I've potentially located a broadcast copy of Asian Paradise in the space of one email. How hard was that?

Emma Jean Kelly said...

Agreed. I think it's time for a public discussion (involving 'end users', 'experts' and everyone in between) on the future of our cultural heritage.
And I'm glad you found Asian Paradise!

Anonymous said...

In 2007 the Film Archive, in conjunction with Roger Shepherd, conducted a major round up of lost music video masters which yielded thousands of waifs and strays from labels, film makers and performers. Around 3,000 of them are searchable via the Archive's on-line catalogue: (www.filmarchive.org.nz/catalogue/advancedsearch.htm )
and work continues on finding, preserving and digitising more.

Hundreds of clips are viewable via the same site, but there is no NZ on Air funding for the Film Archive to put such material on-line, so for the moment it can most easily be seen at the Archive's physical sites (there are currently 11 of those around the country).

In an environment where it is extremely difficult to raise money for this kind of work, it has to be asked whether adding more organisations to the mix is better than resourcing the ones who are already trying to get the job done.

Frank Stark
NZ Film Archive

Sounds Like us NZ Music said...

The job still hasn't bee done right, yet. A google search did not yield that film archive had a copy of Blam Blam Blam's No Depression in NZ clip.
It does show up now, well down the list of results.
Film archive does seem like a logical place to have this stuff, but in the round up many many videos were not collected, or even asked for, I know this cos my large collection was left untapped, so a job half done.
TVNZ are sitting on a still huge and important collection of material that should be accessed for an archive but they require the crossing of palms with gold coins before they will yield their treasures to NZ on Screen or anyone else, so one govt dept pays another govt department, govt funded money to do a job in the interests of the country at a painfully slow rate while these masters quickly degrade beyond salvage. Not much of a sense of urgency or co-ordination going on is there, but at least there's a large pool of people drawing down salaries to not get the job done. keeps them out of the dole queues I guess.