keskiviikkona, joulukuuta 04, 2013

A historian on the move in the era of archival transformation

Archivists have traditionally said that they have five fundamental tasks: collect, protect, preserve, restore and provide access. When the Finnish Film Archive was founded after more than 30 years efforts in 1957, it was a private association by a group of film enthusiasts including film makers, film critics, film theater owners and film company people. They may have had some vague ideas of providing access, or restore, or preserve films, but main challenge and concern was undoubtedly to collect films and protect them from disappearing.

Academic interest in film was scarce. Before 1980’s only two doctoral dissertations were made about film. First thesis at University of Helsinki was in the field of aesthetics in 1949 about documentary film, second was an economical and historical view to cinemagoers in Finland at Helsinki Business School in 1971.

In 1958, Finnish Film Archive was accepted to the International Federation of Film Archives, FIAF, thus accepting basic rules of archiving, that is to say policy of preserving. First set back occurred already in summer 1959. Fire in Adams Filmi destroyed, not only company’s own films, but also part of film archive collection and for example propaganda films of Foreign Ministry, collected from embassies all around the world, including all copies of full length nation-film Finlandia (1922). Only fragments and cut-off scenes were found later from Suomi-Filmi collection.

In 1961 national documentary film committee defined, that “still existing” films, recordings and photographs are “national property with cultural heritage that is historically and artistically valuable”. Committee proposed to establish a state institution to preserve this cultural heritage. In 1972 national film committee repeated the same hope. In 1979, the private Finnish Film Archive became a public body operating under the Ministry of Education. Finnish Film Archive was now by law a national storehouse of motion pictures, with some possibility to manufacture film copies, organize special film programs and exhibitions, start cataloging and indexing service plus a massive project of total filmography of Finnish Films, and subsidize study and publication of information and research about film.

A project preserving Finnish film heritage had begun in 1972. Guidelines were drawn by National Archive and National Board of Antiquities. To put it simple: Finnish Film Archive was the instrument for preserving national film heritage. Thanks to the systematic preservation work, about 90 % of all Finnish feature films exist today.

If we look back, we must admit, that some mistakes were made, like in every project. At the beginning some copies were made in wrong format – this was corrected very soon by re-copying long films, but not all short films. Secondly, the process was not noted very well. For instance black-white copying destroyed color information, of which references were mostly not written up. To me as historian, it looks like there was a third problem. The project did not to include making screening copies. If you ask anyone who took part, they would answer, that the reason was simply financial. Ministry of Education gave money only for preserving, not for anything else.

Of course I accept this explanation based on lack of resources. But as historian, I must think also the ideology. Nobody thought that project did not concern on access because it was time of ideology of preserving. For example, in 1970’s studying film was universally difficult because a lack of screening copies. Video changed everything from 1980’s on, but as we all know, very slowly. In the old times, problem was not copyright restriction, but lack of copies. I know that back in times in Finnish universities got easily copies from selected collection of short films and film school could show archive films easily. I also know that they have not been grateful enough for those who made it possible.

Academic research on films started really at the end of 1980’s. Like elsewhere, interests were soon something completely different that experts thought. Classical Finnish films – in law makers’ mind old heritage films – were soon put aside and studies concerned on advertisements, educational and commercial short films, music of short films, censorship and so on. Unlike many countries, Finnish Film Archive had these films or was ready to preserve them. The students, mostly historians, were ready to collect and study films in co-operation with archive that stored almost anything. Nobody could have guessed 50 years ago what it is that students and researchers are interested in future. Who know now what people are interested in 100 years. The problem is even bigger at digital age, when we know for sure that all contents cannot be preserved.

Old school ideologies are covered in Finland by law. Since 1984, legal deposit has provided the archive with a full coverage of domestic film production, regardless of genre or format. The archive's collections will come to include at least 90 % of television and radio production as well. The decree of legal deposit was updated to encompass all domestic audiovisual production before the formation of the new establishment. Protection is extended from films to radio and television on beginning of 2008. A new name was adopted at the same time. This institution was called National Audiovisual Archive, but new name from the beginning of 2014 is National Audiovisual Institute.

Now we believe in digitalization. That is going to change our ideology.  I believe that archival idea of collecting has changed completely. Today our ideology is, with certain and many reservations, an access. We are not so much interested in collecting more film copies but copyrights. The fact is that most of – not all – film copies are soon becoming almost useless because all theaters are to be digitalized. That is, if everything goes fine, no errors, no system errors or mistakes. After digitalization of film, film copies are needed only for archival or museum screenings, that’ll say for next 50 or 70 years at most. Film culture, as we know it, will be a historical issue – but let’s be careful, it is still an important part of heritage that must be preserved. Something might go wrong.

What is ideology of access now? By law, the National Audiovisual Archive's main tasks are the acquisition, preservation and restoration of Finnish audiovisual heritage. Access is not mentioned directly: other main tasks are the promotion of cinema and audiovisual culture in general, and the screening of films of artistic, historical or other significance. Even if not always valued or even mentioned, research is still having its place in the law. But priorities have changed. Ideologically access means more and more access for the people and different audiences, not access for research that is pretty well organized.

So when we talk about access we talk about promotion of cinema and audiovisual culture plus exhibition. To provide access for those who want to screen and see cultural heritage of Finnish films in digitalized film theaters, archive has to digitalize its possessions. In Finland, this has been guaranteed in last two years by buying a considerable amount of copyrights of biggest film companies from cinema’s industrial times. After these financial and juridical operations, archive is able to digitalize and share this digitalized product in all possible ways: screenings, DVD’s, or even public share on Internet. We can help film makers and TV-productions, but only if the price is reasonable. Thus, for Finnish film history from 1919–1963 we have mostly challenges, and only few problems still to be solved. For historian, that’s a paradise, partly because the archive also holds a comprehensive collection of non-feature films.

As a film historian, I’m happy with opportunities this digitalization opens. To exist is not the same than access, especially if we take seriously expression that film could be accessible to, I quote archival wish from America in 1970’s, “virtually anyone at anyplace”. This principle has been important issue from beginning of my work here. With my good colleague Ilkka Kippola we have for many years selected films from vault’s protected preservation shelves, and through restoration, video copying and public exhibitions in our cinema or festivals many of these films have got a new life and access to research or wider use for film companies. Now technical quality in our adventurous and liberating documentary history shows has grown up.

Adventurous and liberating? That is the passion of access. But in a way it’s part of restoration, too. At the beginning I mentioned that all the copies of film Finlandia from 1922 were destroyed in a fire. Films decay and sometimes only cinematic remains are left. What is created is not original film or even one of all of its various forms of originality. Finland Calling, foreign ministry’s propaganda film from 1930’s had at least five different versions? They are all originals. If censorship cut scenes from film, what is original?

Usually we don’t think too much, we only decide what is original. In archive work of restoration it is possible to use not only research but speculation and imagination in fulfilling the missing parts. That is adventurous. But the liberating thing here is that “original” is not a prison. Restoration is always a new piece of art, not copy of original. Restored film is a new type of film. After digitalization it’s even more of that. If it gives you an idea of “first view of the film”, fine. But let’s admit it is not the same.

My work here has been possible only with the help of skillful staff of archive, and I’m not saying we are the only ones to do this job. Among many published DVD’s a good example of that is National Audiovisual Archive’s part of The European Film Gateway. National Audiovisual Archive’s input was practical digitization project: Finlandia-katsaus, that is Finlandia-Newsreel, was digitalized in its whole, all in all 700 newsreels from 1943 to 1964. Let’s hope historians use this, because now its historical context is scarce. There is an access for film education with digitalized material, which is published on Elonet (

New prospects are to be found for historians. Maybe it is possible now to create Finnish film history on Internet, or maybe even introduce archival findings and full documentaries for festivals and TV: better access leads us researchers really to the sources, and I know there are film makers out there that are interested in co-operation – not only because of these wonderful moving images but because of the copyrights. We have not begun to fully exploit the resources within the archive.

Maybe this wish will not come true? Maybe we will become a DVD-factory for Finnish fiction film or simply “content providers” for someone else with more ideas or resources? Maybe we have only watermark in the upper right corner? Archive has to have technical skills and instruments, but does it become somewhat commercial, selling this and that. Archives must have their identity because it is something more than what we simply do in our daily jobs. For historian, digitalization opens opportunities, adventurous and liberating, but they are no way guaranteed.

The job of historian is promoting audiovisual culture. Historians in film archives are bridging the past with the present. I hope we’ll find out how we can shape and reshape the way we make sense of the past. In that way we literally make history in digitalized future.

Jari Sedergren 4th October, 2012, at the conference of BAAC (Baltic Audiovisual Archival Council)