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4.3 Archival appraisal of moving images

Sam Kula

1.1. Appraisal of moving image records is a contentious issue. Archivists have just begun to recognize their value as historic documents, and while many archives have initiated limited programs of selective acquisition, many more have deferred action due to the financial commitment associated with the technology involved. In the absence of any action by national archives, and as a response to the severe losses that occurred in the first fifty years of cinematography and in the first twenty-five years of television broadcasting, a variety of non-governmental organizations working for the most part with inadequate resources, have tried to restore part of the moving image heritage and to safeguard those contemporary moving image records that have obvious historic, social, cultural or artistic value.

1.2. These non-governmental organizations, now being joined by state archives at both the regional and national level, are linked in their activities through the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) and International Federation of Television Archives (FIAT). Both these federations have been attempting to develop appraisal standards, but there has been little consensus within each federation and between the federations. At one extreme archivists in non-governmental organizations echo Sir Hilary Jenkinson and argue that any selection is wrong, that the archivist does not have the right "to play God". In the light of this position all moving images should be safeguarded by a network of moving image archives acting in concert.

1.3. The argument for total conservation is encountered more often in FIAF than in FIAT where archivists have to contend with the enormous volume of moving images generated by television broadcasting, and where archivists attached to broadcasting networks theoretically have the entire production available as acquisitions. Selection criteria in television broadcasting, however, is inevitably orientated to the needs of broadcasters. Value is determined to a large extent, on the likelihood of re-use by the production organization. That determination however, is based on the intrinsic historical or cultural value of the programme or sequence. In addition television archivists add illustrative specimens of repetitive programming and programmes that mark a significant advance in the art of the technology.

1.4. In practise all non-governmental moving image archives are selective even though the appraisal standards are seldom precise or well-articulated. The emphasis among FIAF member archives is on national productions that document the film and television industries and on international productions that advance the art of the film or which constitute important historical or cultural documents. Selection criteria for non-governmental depositories also include moving images that are part of the oeuvre of producers and directors whose careers are significant in the history of the film and television industries.

1.5. Appraisal standards for governmental archives may now embody similar criteria, but in the past they have been rooted in the classic distinction between functional or evidential and informational value. Only a small percentage of the moving images produced in the world today meet these criteria. The value of moving images as historical documentation lies primarily in their informational value. They seldom reflect the activities of a governmental or institutional entity, nor do they often offer insight on the implementation of government regulations or the application of corporate policies.

1.6. Moving images are, however, part of the "public" record, and they reflect the ideology of their producers, whether they are government departments or private entrepreneurs. Regardless of the mechanism of distribution - theatrical, non-theatrical or television - they are normally intended for mass audiences and they play an increasingly important role in determining how that audience perceives the issues of the day and the society in which they function. Moving images may not always be an accurate mirror of the societal structures that have generated them, and of the audiences that have consumed them, but they always impact on societal development and thus, for better or worse, become an integral part of that society's culture.

1.7. For state archives with a broad mandate to conserve all documents of national historic interest the following criteria for the selection of moving images, by no means exclusive or exhaustive, should be considered:

(1) Administrative: Moving images which are produced as a result of the activities of government agencies and which document the policies and programs of the sponsoring agencies, or which complement documents in other media that have been selected and conserved. This is sometimes referred to as evidential or functional value.
(2) Historical: Moving images which document the political, economic, scientific, technological, social and cultural life of the country, either as actualities (documentaries, and newsfilm) or as dramatizations.
(3) Sociological: Moving images which document the significance of the film and television as an integral part of the public record and the popular culture, and which function as an unofficial record of the national cultural heritage, either as actualities or as dramatizations.

1.8. Moving image archives attached to production organizations or officially designated as the archives of such activity in a country should also consider the following criteria:

(1) Moving images which document the history and development of the image making activity in terms of significant milestones in time, in form, in genre, in technology, and in content.
(2) Moving images which document the activity in relation to a significant personality, an image making unit, or to a regional or ethnic or racial minority involvement.
(3) Moving images which have been distinguished by critical or popular acclaim and which have been instrumental in influencing the nature and direction of further production.
(4) Moving images which have a high potential for re-use by the production organizations, or which meet perceived immediate or future research needs by the community the archive serves.

1.9. Moving image archives which are private, non-profit, non- governmental organizations with a mandate to promote and develop public appreciation of the media as well as to conserve the media could add the following criteria:

(1) Moving images from both the foreign and domestic production that mark significant advances in aesthetic, artistic or technological development of the media.
(2) Moving images whose production and/or distribution, both foreign or domestic, documents major social or political changes, or which challenge contemporary community standards and/or censorship laws on what is acceptable in subject matter, treatment or form.
(3) Moving images that explore the relationship between the audience and the screen, or which reflexively examine the image-making process.
(4) Variant versions of moving images regarded as 'classics' which are valuable for film study and for the purpose of film restoration; 'outtakes' from such productions if significant in documenting the process of production; and 'cuts' made from such productions on demand of censorship authorities.

1.10. Factors which should be considered in applying these selection criteria could include the following:

(1) First priority should be given to the moving images of the national production, including moving images produced in the country by visitors or under the authority of former administrations. Where such images no longer exist in the country every effort should be made to repatriate them as part of the national moving image heritage.
(2) Foreign films distributed in the country, especially when sub-titled or 'dubbed' in the language of the country, may be designated as part of the moving image heritage and selected if they meet the appraisal standards.
(3) Specimens of repetitious or voluminous productions (serials, advertising commercials) should be selected systematically and with sufficient frequency in order to document the entire production schedule.
(4) Specimens of moving image production for television broadcasting, in the context of the broadcast schedule, should be documented by recording and conserving entire days of broadcasts with a frequency that adequately reflects schedule changes.
(5) Given the severe losses that have occurred world-wide as a result of technological obsolescence (the introduction of sound on film) and during the nitrate era (theatrical films on nitrocellulose stock, pre-1950), any film produced before 1930, regardless of content, should be seriously considered for selection as a relatively rare surviving example of a very substantial production; and all films produced before 1950 on 35mm stock should be given priority in appraisal and processing because of the inherent instability of the stock. Special precautions must be taken to segregate film on nitrocellulose stock in environmentally controlled vaults.

1.11. In order to achieve the orderly transfer of moving image production resources to archives custody, the introduction of modern records management techniques should be encouraged at the earliest stage possible in the production process. All production elements (negatives, prints, videotapes, etc.), and related documentation, should be identified, designated, and scheduled so that the disposition of the elements can be controlled at every stage of the production/diffusion process. The short term (3-5 years) retention of the broadest possible selection of moving images should be the objective, to provide opportunity for a final selection with some sense of historical perspective.

1.12. Whenever possible documentation directly related to the production (scripts, stills, posters, press books, etc.) or associated with the production (production files, correspondence, memoranda, etc.) should be appraised at the same time as the production itself. When selected, such documentation must be intellectually linked with the production although it may be physically separated.

1.13. In the final analysis, the appraisal of moving images is as unscientific, as imprecise, and as inherently frustrating as the appraisal of any type of archival record and indeed, any judgemental process. After years of personal soul-searching, open forums, and professional debates, archivists are still without a consensus but some progress has been made since the first theories of modern archives administration were being developed at the turn of the century. It is the obvious untenability of the alternate positions - let the administrator (image maker) decide, or retain everything in perpetuity - that has forced archivists to practise appraisal, and because the policies have never been precise, or practical, or consistent over time, the results have normally been a compromise fully acceptable to neither archivist nor researcher, or an outright disaster.

1.14. Faced with an exponential increase in the volume of production that shows no sign of levelling off (the introduction of low- cost videotape cameras and recorders has expanded and exploded the use of moving images throughout the world), the archivist must select, and select in a coordinated program with fellow archivists in the home territory and with colleagues around the world. Needless duplication must be avoided. Even with the possibility of applying the emerging technologies of the videodisc and the digital encoding of moving images to the development of new, low-cost storage mediums and instantaneous modes of diffusion, this generation of moving image archivists will still have to apply appraisal policies to prevent the archives from sinking under the weight of accessions, and the researcher of the future from drowning in a sea of redundant, and trivial images.


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