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Friday, 23 February 2018

Archiving - More trouble at the mill or "how can we do 'less with less'".

The National Archives of Australia will cut 40 jobs in two years as the institution that describes itself as "Australia's memory" looks for savings amid budgetary pressures.”

That’s the opening para from this Canberra Times piece published on 21 February. The Times is now about the only paper that carries any coverage of public sector and public service issues. You can only hope that someone there will be keeping an eye on the issues raised. History however tells us that almost any issue dies pretty quickly as a matter of public controversy or even interest.

What might be overlooked, even in the article linked above, with all the focus on the NFSA, details of which can found here and on the links therein, is that there are other repositories of film that are likely to be facing demands for reduction of activities not agreement about the provision of additional funds.

The National Archives of Australia holds all of the output, sound and vision, of the ABC and SBS as well as of other Federal government film production. The Australian War Memorial and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders institute also have substantial holdings. Threats to preservation, conservation, digitisation and access loom large and across the board. The Canberra Times report on the National Archives gives some pause for thought. What is the implication of the Director-General's statement quoted by the Times in which he says: "As I have often said, it is only because our budget is being reduced that we must look constantly across the services we provide and ask how we can do 'less with less'.

But, we should be warned. As Peter Galvin said about the NFSA, and it applies to some at least of the others, in the post linked above  

“(1) no one knows it's there

(2) No one understands its value

(3) No one can access its treasures casually and

(4) Its curatorial powers are so limited. 

Over the years they have produced many exhibitions - there's a good one now! - and many videos. But its purpose is felt deepest by historians/academics/filmmakers/researchers...and this, for Canberra is too small a club to pay attention too!”

Thursday, 22 February 2018

War on Film - Mark Pierce contemplates why war produces great cinema

General Sherman was undoubtedly right: war is hell. War, however, also used to provide the makings of great cinema. Now the half-hearted praise for Dunkirk and Darkest Hour has dissipated, and we can admit how relentlessly lugubrious those films were, we should ask why war and cinema have parted company.

When I grew up, admittedly not yesterday, going to the pictures gave me a chance to revel in The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson), Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean), The Horse Soldiers (John Ford) and The Vikings (Richard Fleischer). I have picked four films about quite disparate wars, with different weapons, enemies and causes at stake. The selections by film-makers were just as eclectic and eccentric as my own. War had it all: drama, adventure, moments of farce, bonding, struggle, come-from-behind wins. My quartet of favourites even mixed in a pinch of romance, whether with a treacherous Greek villager (Irene Papas), a captured Christian princess (Janet Leigh), a feisty Confederate belle (Constance Powers) or Omar Sharif out in the Arabian desert.

Now, leaving aside the twenty hectic, bloody minutes when Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg) hits Omaha beach, war red in tooth and claw has been shunted off to one side of the cinema screen. Some films (like Glory) spend inordinate time preparing for battle, a few (Three Kings) teeter around the edges, while others - Land of Mine (Martin Pieter Zandvliet) and The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow) - concern themselves with the conundrums and dangers of cleaning up war debris. The French still regularly portray their historical battles, but only in period dramas long on fussy costumes and full cleavages. Swords and sandals war epics continue to be made, but not seriously; those films are the tumultuous, all-singing-and-dancing tear-jerkers in Bollywood.

Why should this be so? After all, wars have not disappeared from our earth. Conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been far more prolonged than the Second World War. Aleppo and Srebrenica are modern Calvarys, if not on the scale of Stalingrad or Iwo Jima.

Moreover, film directors could now deploy an abundance of special effects, CGI, to depict a battle in progress. Many have chosen to look elsewhere, especially to science fiction. A fight with light sabres can be staged with a lightness of touch, earning a softer rating for the film, than carnage committed with cavalry sabres. A ray-gun seems more modern but more innocuous than a real gun. Buckets of blood and gore are ladled out in noir detective films, not for war stories. CGI is too often wasted on comic-book clashes of titans (those in Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson), for instance) or other imaginary, benignly alien worlds - that of Avatar (James Cameron). Special effects are tossed around in disaster movies, instead of films which depict the real disasters we have inflicted on ourselves.

Perhaps some segments of the film industry do not want gratuitously to offend past enemies? Surely that cannot be the case; Germans are as unsparing in forensically dissecting the Nazi past as anyone else. For all civilised viewers, Nazis comprised the platonic form of evil and fighting them was the classic illustration of a just war. In the same vein, the Confederates in films like The Horse Soldiers were fighting for a heinously vile cause. As Mr Lincoln noted: “if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong”.

Maybe the issue has to go with our sense of right and wrong. Goodies versus baddies might seem a retro trope. Possibly we have seen the enemy and he is us. Perhaps our palette overdoes shades of grey, when a treatment of war demands black and white?

Fur audiences pining for a dollop of war, two correctives are to hand. One contains no battles, only a handful of deaths, but a compelling justification of why people should fight. That is Casablanca (Michael Curtiz), which trumps La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir).  The second is the six series of Un Village Français, intricately woven television in which the characters are presented with exquisitely troubling dilemmas before the opening credits roll. What happens in the village is not just emotionally wrenching but morally consequent. Rick and Captain Renaud, Marie and Mayor Larcher, all stand ready for the re-start of a beautiful friendship.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The National Film & Sound Archive – more comment on CEO Jan Müller’s visionary plans.

Jan Muller
Editor's Note: An interesting debate has been opened up by the new CEO of the National Film and Sound Archive Jan Müller. The debate centres on Müller's already expressed desire to get the NFSA into a fit for purpose building and to get the Federal Government to put up the money to digitise the collection and thus make it far more accessible to the Australian people.

The discussion started with a front page report in The Canberra Times which you can read in the online edition here. You can read more on this blog if you click here and some additional comments from seasoned observers here 

Estimates are around that the total cost of digitising Australia’s total film heritage, not just the NFSA’s holdings, may cost $100+ million. The other archives holding film and audio include the War Memorial, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and the Australian National Archives, the last mentioned holding all Federal government production including the ABC’s archives. The holdings are substantial.

Other costs to be factored in, (and Dominic Case once mentioned the difficulty of attracting qualified staff to Canberra), would be the cold start-up of the currently absent infrastructure to do motion pictures, and the ongoing costs of data storage, migration and analogue cold  storage.

More than half of the NFSA’s 2.5 million items are on paper.

Jan Müller would know that the Dutch spent and will continue to spend nearly the equivalent of that $100 million for the work that Amsterdam’s EYE Film Institute and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision did and do. They already had job ready companies able to do the scanning.

Other concerns relate to maintaining the copying standards in the face of any push to do the job on the cheap. 

As for Jan Müller's public advocacy, this is not unknown in the sector. The most recent example was the way the Art Gallery of NSW commissioned plans for its new modern art wing and simply operated on the assumption that sooner or later the money would be/will be stumped up. It had no advance commitments but its relentless PR machine has been most effective.

Whether the bean-counters of the Federal Government and indeed the Ministers grappling with a giant deficit and a desire to give  tax cuts to business and individuals in the run up to the next election will be at all sympathetic is a key question.

Other views found on Facebook below

Mishy Dunleavy (Writer and cinephile)
I have to categorically agree with Jan Muller regarding a move. 

The Anatomy building is better suited to art. They should move some of the NGA and/or possibly other collections there and put the NFSA on the Acton Peninsula exactly where he proposes. That will create a natural extension of the current new precinct.

Visitor numbers have been low for  years in that location. It was always like an idea that wanted to work but only ever half - realised. It is like a curse ! 

It’s a lovely Art Deco building with completely the wrong feeling for Australian film collection.

Peter Galvin (Scholar, critic, teacher, cinephile)
The NFSA as such is not quite an 'old' public service institution - its modern independent formation began in 1984. Before that it was within the National Library of Australia (NLA) and was formed in 1935 as the National Historical Film and Speaking Record Library. 

It has had frankly a stormy history - a constant tension as regards budget/policy/purpose/leadership/audience. The issues are very complex and anything I say here will sound somewhat misleading...but essentially much of its problems surround its high cost - its profile remains unhappily not great and over time there has been much discussion that many of its core services might be better delivered by either other departments or - worse in my view - private enterprise. 17 years ago they tried changing the name in order to stimulate a profile - to little effect. 
The problem is value - our keepers in Canberra have pointed out that a national treasure of sound and image is essential but what contribution can it possibly have to the national experience - the way the National Gallery, the Australian Museum and the National Library do.
So...(1) no one knows it's there (2) No one understands its value (3) No one can access its treasures casually and (4) Its curatorial powers are so limited. 
Over the years they have produced many exhibitions - there's a good one now! - and many videos. But its purpose is felt deepest by historians/academics filmmakers/researchers...and this, for Canberra is too small a club to pay attention too!

The tension between the archive and the Federal Government in Canberra is I think a matter of record. One of the isues with any archive is the constant race against obsolescence of method in access/retrieval and storage since the basis of its practical value is supported by essential technologies designed to deliver core goals of its brief.