Thanks for agreeing to talk to me, Meg. I really appreciate it, especially to have someone from Australia in our collection of voices in the archive. I thought I'd start by asking you about your professional background. When did you start working in the archive? What did you start doing?
I often say I began as a “child” archivist. It was a combination [of factors]: I was an honors graduate, and I had a librarian graduate diploma when I joined the National Library [of Australia] in 1980. So, I went into the system and began in what was then called the National Film Lending Collection as the reference librarian. The Lending Collection was the direct sibling of the then National Film Archive, which lived in the National Library.
And this was in Canberra?
Yes. It was in the days when there were (I think) about seven of us in the whole archive. We have gone up to, on occasion, to round about 230 people. Back then we were very, very tiny. My first job in the National Film Archive was as what was called the documentation officer, the person who was responsible for the collection of all the nonfilm aspects of production—scripts, stills, posters, costumes, private papers, and anything else you can imagine. It was a blissful job. It was something that was, in some sense, quite unformed in those days.
I discovered that even then we had a mountain of posters that lived on top of big map cabinets in the film section, which had come in from a couple of distributors over the years. It was a combination of Australian and international posters. We had a task force that was brought together to sort through them. This was a whole bunch of middle-aged ladies who were seeking some sort of pleasant (and not too demanding) employment. That was the first real push into identifying what is our biggest collections of film posters, certainly in the Southern Hemisphere. It is sixty to seventy thousand posters.
And they [the posters] were already in the collection?
Yes, they had been basically acquired but not sorted. When I say a mountain of posters, I literally mean that it was just a huge mound sitting on top of cabinets, waiting for someone to work on them. They were sitting on map cabinets that contained the actually sorted Australian poster collection in those days. Again, if we are talking about 1980–81, there might have been a couple of thousand of those. There are about twenty, thirty, forty thousand posters in the Australian collection. It was kind of wonderful. I was part of a team, and each of us [seven archivists] was also a one-man team. I represented that entire collection in terms of acquiring it, providing access to it, and, I suppose, cataloguing it as well. That was in the halcyon days of manual index cards, when we had typewriters and a typing pool. I was learning about the public service in those days, learning that you were meant to handwrite a letter, send it to the typing pool to be typed up, and then adjust that. It was a whole new experience.
From that, we progressed into the separation from the National Library in 1984. That was the beginning of the growth of the organization as the National Film and Sound Archive [NFSA]. Really, it has waxed and it has waned since then. We moved over to the Institute for Anatomy just as [the institute] was being divested of its last remnants, so there was its collection in the basement, [with] original wound pieces in bottles, under flapping plastic curtains. The last remaining staff of the institute were still departing the building.
So you have been part of [NFSA] from the very beginning.
Yes. Well, from the beginning of the separation. The official statement is that a form of the audiovisual archive had existed since the 1930s, but it took a long time to form.
Have you stayed focused on ephemera? I do not know if you would call it that—the posters are quite tangible, I suppose.
I have been really lucky. I have been exposed to virtually all aspects of film archiving especially, but also to the wider areas of audiovisual archiving in general. So documentation was certainly my focus for some years. That meant I was working cheek by jowl with the film access people, with the film preservation people, and with the whole evolving principles of what audiovisual archives actually mean. In those early days in the National Library, we were certainly seen as one of the rogue areas. We did not really fit.
Yes, where would you fit? I mean, that was even before [film] entered universities in Australia as an “actual” topic.
Yes, and this is very, very different to especially the American experience, where film archiving particularly was a natural part of the cultural schema in many ways from a much, much earlier time. Here, let me think: when we began working first with the University of New South Wales [UNSW] in the 1990s, that was when we were setting up our first audiovisual archiving course online. And even then, that was a bit of a wild card that did not quite fit anywhere. The UNSW thing finally wound down, and we then connected with Charles Sturt University [CSU]. At one stage, our course was connected with one of their agricultural faculties. I remember going out once for a meeting, and we met the dean, and there were sheep outside, and it was just one of those peculiar things, where CSU was really interested and committed but we did not fit anywhere in particular. AVI archiving has had a fairly peppered identity [in Australia].
How did you begin that? How did you organize materials? You talk about working with the posters, and then you moved location, and you must have expanded then.
Well, when we expanded in the 1980s—especially in the Institute for Anatomy site—we began to have more projects actually coming together. It was where, in staffing numbers, we were beginning to build. It was building from the core and not really from trained, focused archivists, curators, or librarians. Especially at that time, a lot of people were coming in almost serendipitously. There are still a lot of trained musicians on staff, people who had an interest in that side of the arts. Quite often people who had a history of being unemployed came to us through a [government-]supported [work] program. We had a number of people who joined us that way and stayed with us for ten, fifteen, maybe even twenty years and built up some fundamental skills. That was very much learning on the ground. Some of these people were certainly university graduates, but in Australian terms, you did not necessarily come in[to the archive] with a relevant archiving qualification, let alone AV qualifications. There was a lot of adapting. If people had a natural inclination, they began to blossom. That was partly because at that time, the organization itself was evolving a lot. The 1980s and into the 1990s was when policies were being developed and published for the first time.
And were you involved in that process as well?
Yes. But that was because, again, if you think about the organization still being relatively small at that stage in terms of our leadership, they really needed input from the informed staff because it wasn't something that any small group could do off its own bat. I am thinking about the gender balance in those days. It was one of those things where there was not any conscious effort (I think) being made, but the balance of things was pretty even for a long time. In terms of senior management, it was all male for quite a while. But general employment and opportunities tended to be pretty equal from those very early days on.
What about the materials? What was the policy like? You were expanding, getting people involved in a whole lot of different ways—in training or whatever—and you must have been getting more managerial. So that is in the early 1990s, and I imagine that is when the shift [in the archive] goes toward the digital.
On the digital side, in AVI archiving terms, the real, dramatic early push was happening on the sound side. Digitization was far better developed and more easily applicable from that side of things. So we were advancing in leaps and bounds. I cannot remember exactly when it started, but certainly in the 1990s the mutation of the sound recording collection toward a digital resource was way ahead. In terms of the moving image, we'd had years and years of acquiring videotape for television, but the real move toward born-digital (and so on) happened much more in the 2000s. I remember, in the early 2000s, the big debate was about when cinema would go completely digital. There were all sorts of suggestions and notions about that. Nobody really knew. But when it happened, it happened really swiftly, as we know.
Maybe five or six years ago, I was in Norway, one of the countries where the full digitization of cinema went across the country in one fell swoop. So 35mm projectors were pulled out and digital equipment was put in. And really, it was only at that time that the archive was in the position to really address mass issues about the moving image and digital absorption. And that means our systems as well as our content. I mean, are our collection management systems geared to actually receive digital material in a smooth, effective way?
Our system, which is now called Mediaflicks, which came after many other systems over the years, has been up and actively running for the last couple of years. It is basically built around an industry concept of ingest[ion] and delivery through one contained system. We have not completely exploited it yet, but it means that as the world becomes completely digital, we receive files, we absorb files straight in. We absorb metadata along with content. It can become a more automated process than it is even now. The copying or delivery of material from that [system] becomes a more streamlined arrangement as well.
What about preservation and conservation? Obviously, if the platform is already digital, we are talking about the digital apparatus (I don't know what you would call it). But what do you do about preservation and conservation? You say sound was obviously important.
When I talk about sound, that is really talking about the access side of things. If we are talking about some of the core principles from an archival perspective—for example, with preservation, we are identifying original material in an analogue form—then our commitment is still, up to this point (i.e., 2015), that we will preserve in analogue format first. And that principle is based on the fact that we still get the best results from that approach. In audio terms, that has moved on massively because pretty well everything now is digital. In terms of loss-less digitization of an analogue recording, that is pretty spot on. In terms of the moving image, with film-to-film preservation, we still get the best and most long-lasting results [with analogue preservation].
If we are talking about what we are doing now, which is some film preservation in some formats, it is limiting by the day. Let's say we've got a 35mm feature film that has been preserved on analogue and is stable, but it is inaccessible for use. We have to create a digital platform. This allows us to create what we call digital preservation/duping masters, which means that ideally we have (again) loss-less copying, and we produce the components that allow us to produce digital cinema packages or whatever. These would be used for screenings. But we also have the intermediate files we've created, which means we can be copying again to whatever format we might require. So whether or not we need to go down a path where we create a product or deliver something online, that's all being put into place [by the NFSA].
So you preserve first in analogue form or as best you can?
If the original is an analogue production.
Of course, with film history, we are dealing with that. And then there is the cinema platform and the intermediate files… .
Yes. Basically, what [our preservation] does is parallel the analogue preservation path. If you've got, let's say, a film print that has survived, we'll create a neg[ative] and then we'll create a positive, and then [the positive] will be intermediate. Then we will create prints and so on. In the digital world, we are creating things like a digital intermediate file from which you then create the formats like the digital cinema package, or we might create a DVD master file or something like that.
What kind of material is this? How do you even decide [what to preserve]? Are you part of the process of trying to decide? Which material gets preserved, and which material is available?
Those [questions] cross both eras, really, analogue and digital.
You have to make decisions about preservation.
Yes, [we have to make decisions about] titles or content or whatever. There are a couple of different approaches to this. One is to look at the vulnerability of the original material. If we don't do something, are we going to lose the content because the film will disappear or the file will turn in on itself? That is one part. In content terms, [decisions about preservation] relate to known demand or priorities at a particular time. It can relate to knowledge of the field and historical or curated knowledge of the significance of particular titles. In some instances, [decisions about preservation] can relate to—and this does not happen too often—a personal and financial interest from third parties who want to help us to invest in something that could be copied and is of interest to them. So that is something we are really looking at more in the future, getting partnerships happening where, philanthropically, we can actually engage [with our collection]. As you know, Australia is a very different world than what we look on enviously in the United States. [In the United States,] it is just a whole different kettle of fish.
I suppose perhaps because I am Australian, I see the NFSA as very much determining national cinema.
Bear in mind that we are looking at sound, we are looking at broadcast television, and we are looking at film production as well. In terms of the national interest or the national experience, there are so many elements that are not purely Australian or that are not Australian at all, as well as what we have produced for ourselves. Over the years, there has always been the point about Australian stories [that there is so much we need to tell] about ourselves. This is fundamentally true. The balance between saying the archive collects and preserves Australian production versus the archive collects and preserves Australian experience has shifted over the years.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we had a repatriation arrangement. The pragmatic and quite justifiable point was made that that we have so much (particularly nitrate material) collected over the years that we would never be able to preserve it all. At that stage, the perceived time limit before nitrate film was thought to decompose was 2000. Therefore, [it was thought] we needed to partner up with related archives around the world. [We needed to] let them know what we held, [what material] came from their countries, and to negotiate if they wanted to take that material and preserve it. That was more responsible than us keeping it in our vaults but never getting to it.
And that is what actually happened.
It happened. Certainly we have some regrets now, because we gave away some utterly fabulous things that, if we had the wherewithal and the knowledge that we have now, we would probably say, “Well, let's hang onto that, because that is an exploitable gem that we could be closely associated with and which would help the archival message.” But at the same time, I do mean it; [the repatriation of film titles] was a genuinely pragmatic and sensible thing to do.
What did you do with all this analogue material that you then had to preserve?
We said then that we have so much truly Australian nitrate material. Remember, that was toward the end of the “Last Film Search,” so we were exploding with nitrate.1 We were saying that [we had] to deal with what had been identified as the top priority: Australian nitrate. We had to plow through it. We had to understand what was there; we had to make sure that it was actually preserved, and then we could start planning to copy it and then deliver it and so on. We [thought that we were] never going to get to this next layer of films, these relatively unknown and potentially hugely valuable [foreign titles], which are more valuable to the countries of origin and therefore on a higher priority list with them than with us.
Did those [issues] come to the fore the moment at which materials, especially film materials, were being digitized? Was that the point at which you really began to think of these issues?
No, this happened well before digitization was really on the go. This was in the days when we had our own laboratory facilities. We were farming things out, we were looking at the maximum productivity we could achieve, and we were looking at the mass [of titles] that was never going to be addressed. Now, in digitization terms, this is really interesting. Right now, we are still sorting ourselves out in the new world in terms of what we can manage digitally. And that is about marrying up the equipment that we need, the skills that we need to have, and the funds that we need to source the equipment, along with the things that realistically we can't achieve ourselves, so we need to partner up with external skilled laboratories and so on.
We then look again at your question: What are going to be our priorities in pumping [preservation] through, based on the resources that we have? Right now—this is where it gets interesting—with some of the distribution companies that are working in the field, they will be working on a fairly tight financial turnaround, let's say five to ten thousand dollars to produce a DVD package and maybe a DCP [a digital cinema package]. For us, we are looking at a forty- to fifty- to sixty-thousand-[Australian-dollar] budget to produce what I was describing before. Not just a good enough outcome, but all the intermediates and the exhibition and the product outputs as well. But also, with that mixture of components, [we would have] the ability to then migrate, when the time comes (which will be in only a couple of years), to whatever the next digital platform is. So we're bedding in with the set of master digital components that allows us to keep moving. That is entirely different to the film days, when we created our preservation components and they lasted for one hundred years and you simply had your duping masters that allowed you to keep making copies along the way.
What about making materials available online? You say you make your digital master copy. Do you then upload it? What do you do about access?
That means you have the capacity to upload. We do have the capacity—and this is what we'll probably get cleverer about fairly soon—to load files into our own system. The files that we create live in our master system. [With] some of them, you may be able to connect to a viewing copy through our catalogue, but not to everything. So we still need to get smarter about that side of things.
If you look at going from our catalogue—our live catalogue onsite—to what you're especially interested in, being able to get at that online, that's where a couple of things have to happen. One is that we need to have more of our master set of digital material available in the right format to be uploaded. Two, we need to have, across the archive, an agreed approach to the risk-management side of things. That means identifying how far the archive is confident to go in allowing as much material as possible to be released. In some instances, we may be talking about orphan works that have no perceptible source. For this situation, we build in processes, which means that if someone does appear out of the woodwork, we respond to them and either absorb their details or recognize their rights or pull the work down if there is an issue there.
So is that the major issue? I was quite interested to hear that EYE is very accessible. [For example,] their Mashups are accessible online. It seems, in a sense, that they have a unique online presence.
They are a really good example of taking a good “at the ready” approach. Their approach is not relaxed. It is an approach that means they let out as much material as possible and are ready to deal if and when formal concerns are expressed. But they don't let that stop them from putting material up. We're sort of in the middle ground. While there is certainly a willingness on behalf of the organization to release much more material, not everybody is comfortable yet with that concept. And the other part of the question for us now is about building in the [balance between] what the archives sees as its need for association or identification as a source and its need to be as open as possible for use and reuse by others. We were talking with ACMI [Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne] the other day about exactly that same question: How far should organizations move from a traditional concern (which is about attribution) toward a more citizen-centric approach (which is really about our service)? The opening up and delivery of material for others are important. Ideally, the tracking will lead back to us at some stage, but it should not be the driver or the constraint.
I suppose in terms of early film, [delivery is important]. I feel that's really necessary somewhere like Australia, where you just don't have the audiences you get in Europe (and in North America now, too). It is really is about citizenship and awareness of materials. How do you promote this?
Yes. As we both know, something like the Corrick Collection2 is a prime example where, to a degree, there have been a number of years where the archive's exploitation of that has been a core issue. But we are, happily, heading to the point where being able to release a large bundle of that [collection] is the next cab off the rank. I know personally, from being so involved with it, that the benefits the archive has [gained] by being able to present and represent have been really important for us.
Yes, in terms of international visibility.
Yes. I was just talking to one of my colleagues here about the Corrick films and that Vivid3 notion of bringing Corricks onto the sides of [public] buildings and having free-flowing musical compositions and so on performing with [the public exhibition of the works]. The possibilities are huge.
In terms of exhibition, yes. I don't know if they are available online yet?
No. Where we are heading, I think, is that we are looking at a product: a mass DVD will become the first delivery point. But it is again about matching up the pace of the archive's exploitation opportunities and recognizing the demand of that growing audience out there.
In terms of what you are deciding to do, that is pinpointing the unique aspects of the collection. The Corricks are a great example. Does gender come into consideration here? I know you won't simply say, “I'll show Australian women …”
A simple, very obvious example [of questions raised in prioritizing and selecting works for preservation] is pornography. We've got some collections of porn where the issues of gender are blatant. But in very practical terms, questions emerge about handling that at an internal level. If we are planning, for example, to extend the cataloguing information about what is here, then who on our team can do this? Are there any issues with individuals dealing with this kind of material? Generally, it turns out that there are real problems for some people in coping with having to sit and watch the material. With others, they are way too eager.
I can imagine.
That is the first stage. The second stage is about what the representation of men or women or animals or whatever in that kind of material is all about. This representation has to happen once we have sorted out the initial, practical side of things. [Regarding] some the decisions about acquiring material like this, it has been interesting over the years. Being in Canberra, in particular, means that we've got ready access (or have had ready access) to what was the thriving porn production side of things.4 I think—and I am trying to think how to put it—we've had fairly conservative management at some points over the years, so pornography in one sense has been seen as being beyond the responsible reach of a Commonwealth organization. But it is a prime and productive aspect of [film] production in the country that warrants representation.
You've made me think of another example from some years back. We were approached by the Censorship Board in New South Wales about footage that was held [but] had never been licensed in any way. Plus, I think there was also footage—evidence—that had come from the police. The question was whether that should be preserved. In that case, and it is an interesting one, we did not buy into it because we were talking about productions that weren't produced as productions. Some were of illegal activities. That was the one time I could see there being exclusions, simply because you could not apply the normal kind of approach. There was no use whatsoever that could actually be carried out with [these films].
This leads into addressing the Indigenous side of things, which is very important. We are committed to preserving what has been (in some instances, especially early last century) an inadvertent record of culture. [Indigenous cultures] have been filmed for anthropological reasons, but [as an archive, we need to] take into account the cultural sensitivities of what has been produced. In some instances, it's about women's business or men's business or whatever. It is a really important and challenging aspect of how we operate. Yes, we might be holding the original material, but we've got an Indigenous curator helping us now. The issues about the conditions under which we should deal with that material are important. I know there was one case where our concern was that even a woman or man holding the can [containing footage of men's or women's business] was problematic for the community involved because of what was in the can [which the opposite sex may not see or be close to]. So [the archive is] understanding how to begin to deal with that side of things.
And that's just the analogue side of things. That is before you even start to talk about what you do with it once you have it online.
Another example I am thinking of is the question of what to do when we've got a film that has Indigenous content yet has a copyright owner who is not necessarily Indigenous. The owner might give permission for someone else to watch the film, yet what was filmed was filmed in secret. The copyright owner might not see it that way, but the community does. That's an area where we still have not got all the answers because the commitment from the archive is to both the copyright holder and the traditional owners. We haven't had a situation we have not been able to solve so far, but you can see where it could lead. Because the copyright owner could say, “I own this. I want it, and I am going to make money out of it.” And the community is saying (for example) that if you show this, then someone is going to die.
These are issues that seem unique to Australia. They are about the actual collection you have. You are talking about the porn industry in Canberra, and then you go from that to Indigenous content.
Yes, it is about sensitivities. I would say this is an interesting point. Over the last thirty to thirty-five years at the NFSA, there have been real benefits in having a very diverse set of perspectives. What are the principles that we are applying? The 1980s were still a sort of loose and low-level period when we were collecting a lot of material. We were giving still fairly contained access at that time. This [access] is now expanding. We know that potential demand is gigantic. Our ability to meet that demand is not yet aligned. Going back again to the principles [of the archive]: what does a national audiovisual archive do? Why are we here? We are not here just to collect and to keep things safe. We are here—hopefully—to be opening doors so that people can actually dive in and start doing things that may never have been possible before. We want them to do this confidently, on the basis that the archive is guiding them toward safe, legal operations and understanding, for all sorts of reasons, whether something is restrictive.
Are any of the programs that you promote or even your preservation materials (the materials that you give priority to preserving) driven by this growing interest? I know the Corrick Collection must be your find; there could not be someone off the street identifying the Corrick Collection, so obviously there is evidence of your knowledge of the collection there. Do you have programs or specific films that you preserve or restore because there is this opening up [of interest in the archive]?
Yes. Again, it is still on a small level in terms of capacity. The obvious example right now is World War I. World War I is where we've been in the fortunate position that we can identify the discrete aspects of the national collection that really have wonderful relevance to that era. Over the last few years, we've been progressively preserving—first in analogue form, but then digitizing—the identified highlights of that era in Australia. Our collection complements the War Memorial, which is more [films of] battles and action. Ours is much more about life in Australia at the time.
That is quite different from the European Film Gateway.
Yes, exactly. Interestingly, we just launched, a couple of weeks ago during the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), a partnership with the New Zealand Film and Sound Archive. We have a site online called ANZAC Sight and Sound that is beginning to open up and show exactly this type of footage.5 There is context and short clips, and people can come back to see the whole thing with us. It is well worth having a look at. That is something that is going to keep growing over the next few years.
There are moments in it—again, if you are looking at the question about the representation of women—that almost by default show women working in the ammunition factories. They are making bullets and goodness knows what [else]. There is another film (from 1915, I think) that shows furs in George's Department store in Melbourne. So you go from one extreme to the other. There is also a wonderful shot—we think it is from outtakes from news-camera work around the time of Gallipoli departures—that leads into the first ANZAC Day in Sydney, taken in Martin Place. It shows women getting funds for the soldiers. There are finely corseted middle-aged women getting money from stern-looking gentlemen. There are also a couple of pretty young girls getting a whole different reaction from the ex-soldiers. There is a wonderful shot of all the shy girls smiling into the camera; I think one is wearing a band saying “ANZAC Day.” So little moments like this [are featured in the films,] which reveal daily life quite simply. Then there are more focused shots showing what the women were doing while the men were away [at war].
Newsreels are big. We are working with silent newsreels such as the Australasian Gazette. We've been pushing hard on promoting—especially for 1914–15—the Harry Julius animations in the newsreels, which are called “Cartoons of the Moment.” Julius was a Bulletin artist and, we think, the first animator in Australia. He did a lot of line drawings, usually starting with him on the beach drawing. There is usually propaganda about the war and great caricatures about the Kaiser or whatever. One of them, my favorite, talks about the hemline and the future of the hemline. This is in 1916. The drawing is of a woman in an ankle-length dress, and then the title comes up, and [Julius] writes: “Where is the hemline in Australia heading to?” And the hemline starts creeping up and up. It gets up very high, and he drops it back down again. It is very simple, basic humor. But if you look at these cartoons, you see a real combination of some pretty heavy-handed war propaganda, but then [also] social and political comment about what is going on at home.
Elif [Rongen-Kaynakçi] was saying that she had films of children. And these films move the gaze a bit away from the battles [of World War I]—which were important, too, but films like these allow us to see women and a whole lot of other things.
You've reminded me: some of the other films that we've got from this period feature families at the beach. They show kids skylarking off the diving boards and Mum and Dad floating around [in the water] or strolling around the parks, parades, and whatever else was going on. It is often really interesting with these films to be looking at the crowds, not so much at the marching.
If you go looking for, say, gender or performance or [women's] visibility, you can see really interesting things that perhaps haven't yet been written up [in reviews of World War I films]. ANZAC is obviously a big part of our tradition, rightly so, but it is interesting also to see other aspects [of wartime Australia].
It is really interesting. I personally have real issues about the whole representation of war and what looks like the interminable four or five years of what we have now. But I am touched by a lot of this footage. There is some of the footage that is of the soldiers going down to Woolloomooloo and getting on the boats. And we think that the boats are getting off to Gallipoli (or to Albany [Western Australia] first). You see the excitement of boys—well, they are not all young—going off on a big adventure. You see them on the boats, and they are hanging around and exercising and having a great time. There is later footage (which we haven't yet preserved and copied, but it will come out) that shows the really sad contrast of the boats coming back with the poor injured people, their rehabilitation, the soldiers with shellshock. These young people have now lost their youth and are really badly damaged. Moving into the late teens and the '20s, we have films showing our rehousing, resettling of soldiers across the board. So that is one example of [our] focus.
If we go back to feature films, an experiment we have recently worked on is the silent film Kid Stakes [Tad Ordell, 1927]. We've created a pretty good in-house DCP. It is looking fabulous, and we are screening it in a week or two. It might even be this week, in Canberra. But that is an example, I suppose, of the slightly harder end of things [in terms of effectively engaging modern audiences with silent Australian film]. Kid Stakes is a delightful film. It is perhaps the wedge in the door to start us producing and developing more of that era of material and bringing it back to a receptive audience.
Moving away from the teens and going into the 1920s and 1930s?
Yes. Because Kid Stakes really does still work. It gives people a belly laugh, it is funny, it is cute, and it is well done. If you get an audience for that, they can appreciate and understand that watching a silent film is not arduous; it is entertaining. The Sentimental Bloke [Raymond Longford, 1919], I suppose, is the other film [that can draw audiences], that is obvious. But then there is a film like The Girl of the Bush [Franklyn Barrett, 1921] and other films that we might want to start opening up. As curators, we've got to have a bit of a think about how we campaign.
At the same time—looking at the first phase of our more current feature films into DCP format—we're piggybacking off the Kodak/Atlab project work that we did,6 looking at feature films from the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. We've produced good analogue materials from which we should now be able to generate good DCPs. That is a bit of an easy cheat because underlying all of [that project] are masses of films. We were talking today about the documentary side of things, which is underrepresented now in terms of easily accessible digital format copies. Unless we or archives or universities are really pressing, nobody is going to push us hard enough for them to become a higher priority.
Who decides that? How do you decide? What is your position or role?
I'll use a documentary example here. Basically, in the first instance, there are probably about a dozen titles that every man and his dog agree are the key documentaries. If we reach the stage of being able to say, “This is the core package that has been preserved and is digitally available now. It is just the tip of the iceberg that you, the public, will want to see,” we need to be able to then build in some of our own funded work and support.
That is where you talked about philanthropy before.
Yes, philanthropy is certainly be one area I am interested in. Crowdsourcing is another; it is one area we have not dipped our toes into yet, but it could build up interest and even excitement about some titles. Why not give it a go? In funding terms, we are not really in a position to be able to achieve even the baseline of what we need to stay relevant. [Funding] is a big question, not just for us but for a lot of the collecting bodies we are looking at. Collaboration becomes slightly tricky because of the interests of the different cultural bodies; these can vary sufficiently that the competition between us is a little hard to manage. That said, I have been able to confidently say to people who know nothing about the archive, “Whatever you're interested in, there is something in the collection that will be relevant and meaningful for you.” Whether or not this material is actually available for you to look at—unless we are talking about winding something over a bench or whatever—is a different matter. But to be able to say that is pretty amazing.
It is. Apart from World War I, what is the archive working on?
As I said, the feature film side of things is a growing one.
Again, that is about developing audience. I mean, any film is in the end. And that would go hand in hand with public outreach.
Yes. On the audio and the Indigenous side, there is a lot of work about sharing our experience with others. It is important that we are able to support communities to look after their own material. Sometimes we can support them to look after it onsite. This is a different perspective on preservation, but it is as important. Quite often what might happen, ultimately, is that we recommend that they place their master material with us but have a digital archive themselves.
Which can support them.
Yes, which allows for copying and sending or whatever, without the hassles or without the reality that those original films are not going to survive. But it often turns around the other way. If a community really passionately needs and wants to keep all the materials themselves, then what help can we provide to make that more viable? Often this is in circumstances that are limited across the board.
Again, that kind of initiative is really interesting in terms of what it opens up, especially digital access. Also, initiatives like this facilitate those kinds of collaborations you were talking about earlier, so the mix of personnel is really interesting.
Yes, you are right. [Collaboration] is very important in terms of not coming across as a heavy-handed government body that is just coming out in order to tell you what to do. I think another critical point is that we are not here to rapaciously swallow up whatever is out there. When there are sensitivities, it is not our job to tell them what they should be doing. It is our job to be available to advise, to sometimes point them in the right direction or whatever, and often just to stay as a connection down the trail. Sometimes that does result in more good things happening for the overall national collection, but there is the real issue of the archive being seen as a participant, not always as a driver. We've got expertise, just as I was saying before, but we can't do everything that we would like to do with the existing collection. Being able to partner and support others to help to look after their part of what is seen as the national collection is as important as any of the more formal stuff that happens within the NFSA itself.
I suppose the relationship you've got with the New Zealand archive is this kind of [collaboration] on a meta level, mirroring what you are doing more locally.
Yes. That is a really interesting one, because that is something where it is definitely a two-way benefit. [The World War I project] is being funded by the New Zealanders but with both of us contributing. So we have gained the benefit of them having money to make something like this happen. They have gained the benefit of our content, which helps to expand their reach across the board.
Yes, and this can be done only now with digital technology. It really is of the moment.
Yes. Even in terms of how we are working on it [the World War I project], this is a matter of exchanging files across the ocean and comparing notes or deciding that that footage is too long or does not look right or whatever. So all of that is just fundamentally part of what we are building. And New Zealand is close, but we also do some of our preservation work with a laboratory in Amsterdam. The way that works is that they will send us a file to look at while the work is being done. Some of the work on the Corrick Collection was conducted this way over the years. So we don't have to wait for snail mail.
Or you don't have to type or send your letters… . I was just thinking back over what you said at the beginning and have an image of someone actually having to write.
Yes, telexes and faxes and so on, those are ancient history. Now the notion that Juan [Vrijs, of Haghefilm Digitaal] in Amsterdam might be saying: “Meg, what do you think about this?” We can just drop something in Dropbox to look at. That means that overnight we might be talking or emailing or whatever, but the job then proceeds, and you are doing that in real time.
Yes. That is amazing. But it also puts a lot of pressure on you.
Yes. I should say, too, that when we talk about “me” here, I am representing a whole range of people who do a lot of this. If we come back to your question about how the decisions are made, basically the organization has spent many years now in policy development. Policy is something you have to consider, digest, and adapt as you apply it. I'd say there are strengths and weaknesses among the archive crew about didactic application of policy versus the intuitive side. I think it's pretty strong across the board, but there will be some healthy debate about policy. I mean, do we opt for more World War I material, or do we say enough is enough? That we now want to focus on, for example, aviation.
In terms of priorities, again I think that the archive is heading into another era of looking at whether we can be the deliverers of really useful product. This can be DVD and/or online materials; we can deliver curated, subject-focused content. I don't know why this one always comes back to me [as an example], but years ago there was something called the tractor factor, which I found amusing but which tractor people loved. It was films of tractors over the years. We had lots and lots of footage of it. That sort of a thing is wins for us. Existing, quite detailed research can be readapted to produce something for the next era.
Have you got a specialist in silent film, as they do at EYE with Elif? She is a specialist silent film/early film curator/programmer. So when you say a “collaborative team,” do you really mean that you work and function as a group?
Yes. You rearrange and reassign people all the time. Now that works really well, although I think some of our people would love to have the luxury of being able to be [working in one area]. I do have somebody who is very much an early cinema person, but she manages a team of five people, and at the moment I think I have got her onto World War I material, too. But yes, that certainly is a popular approach, and I know that in Britain they had it for quite a long time as well. We've never had enough people to be able to do it. Probably the closest we ever came was that we had format-oriented folk. These days, we've still got a film and documents team, and we've got a television, radio, and (sort of) broadcast group. We've got sound/sound-recording people as well. They are facing big issues because everything is converging. So if we are talking retrospectively, those headings are still relevant, but is a multimedia product now a sound recording or a film or a broadcast presentation, or are these one and the same thing? This is still a challenge now; this is a challenge we have not resolved.
The big question now is about games. At this point, however, we don't officially collect beyond a serendipitous inclusion. Sometimes with funding arrangements, we might receive a game that is an associated product of a film, for example. But a lot of games now are literally nonlinear visual and audio productions with multiple endings, beginnings, whatever. It is massively complicated. They are high-end animation, if nothing else. Why shouldn't they be included in the audiovisual collection? It is a really tricky one. Part of the answer right now is that the platforms and the equipment you need are not within our ken. But I still feel it is something we have not really fully addressed yet.
Which is something that again returns you to what you were saying with the collection of posters. You were dealing with the extrafilmic in a way, historically, and now you are dealing with the same issue, but in contemporary terms.
Yes, that is a really interesting one, because the e-publicity package is often the beginning and the end. But are posters being produced? In many cases, they are, but we don't have any legal deposit at this stage. Certainly in my days, with things like the documentation side of things, a lot was about personal contact, chasing people up, making sure they knew we were interested, being open to getting not one but fifty copies of something if they just wanted to unload it, and so on. But now, if you are getting the e-package as part of the deliverable set of material that necessarily comes to us because it has been funded by Screen Australia, then our guys working in that same documentation center won't necessarily have the contacts or the time to pursue that next layer of documentation. Here one of my concerns is what I was talking about before: that private papers and production papers are equally important for us now.
Yes, very important.
And this is much harder to actually track down. It might be that private papers or production papers are on somebody's mobile, and they will wipe it because they are done. That business about keeping the awareness [of their significance] is important.
It also makes materials more fragile. Obviously, you have to know different platforms, and you have to make sure everything can be preserved so that it can be accessed in the future, but you also presume that there is so much more and that it is available online.
I am thinking of a really good example from analogue days. A filmmaker—he'd be in his sixties now—was busy in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s as a documentary filmmaker. He is still waving under my nose his diaries from—especially—the 1980s. He was very methodical. His diaries are basically time-linked throughout every day, whether he was working or not. [The diaries are] really, from beginning to end, a record of what he was doing through those years. So every meeting he had for productions, every travel reference along the way, is noted. This is an amazing record of what went on. If and when he finally says, “Okay, I am done with that,” they will come to the archive.
If you've got the same things in your phone or your iPad or whatever, then does that side of things simply disappear with you and your electronic attachments? I don't know. In terms of ego, I think it is an interesting one. I don't know what I would do. I have never hit that point with electronic record keeping, the point where you think, “I'll just wipe it all.” But now I think about it my emails: we are heading toward e-filing with the archive. This means that everything you create now has to go into an electronic file. Everything that exists already forces you to consider whether you wipe it or hang it up somewhere. I've got decades of documents in there. But I can imagine there could be a day when I think it is too hard: “I am just going to hit the delete button.”
How do you know what to look for, and where? Your files become your own archive, really.
Yes. But before we end, I want to come back to a general observation I made to you just before we started this interview. In terms of my experience with the NFSA—and also in terms of my exposure to archives around the world, especially film ones—I think it has been really interesting to see the gender balance in most places. I think it has been relatively easy for able women to progress, whether that be at a technical/curatorial level to areas they are interested in, or in a hierarchical sense, to climb the ladder to significant levels. This is because the mixture of skills and management ability hasn't been terribly connected to whether you're male or female.
I am thinking about when I first visited the British Film Archive in the 1980s; there were a number of admirable women who were managing the whole thing there. Similarly in France and Germany. Now in Germany, there is a bit of a balance: in one archive, it is very, very, male, and in the other archive, the head curator was a woman for about thirty years. But it has gone back to being quite male now. In terms of the head positions in most of these places, they do still tend to be male.
What I notice at the film festivals—and I suppose I am speaking from my perspective as a film historian—is the visibility of [women in] the programming, the outreach. I mean, obviously the restoration in the end facilitates the festivals, but there genuinely seems to be a collaborative environment. This is not just between women; there is a very real, tangible sense of film history being driven by a lot of programmers, curators, and archivists. I think they are really the leading lights and we are just trailing [as scholars behind them].
You are right. This has often struck me over the years. There are a lot of women who have been involved in film studies or related cultural areas and who have naturally gravitated into curating roles or archiving roles or whatever. In my opinion, the overall archive set-up is still pretty heavily male-oriented on the technical side of things. I begin to see this starting to tilt [change] now. There is a final generation of very, very technical, physical people who are starting to die out. And in digital terms, I think the distinction between male and female is not as powerful. I have to say, however, that there is a still a strong leaning toward the computer-geek side of things, where it is more men than women.
Nevertheless, this has not been something that I have ever felt as a block here. Ironically, I am now called the general manager. I am now deputy to the CEO [Michael Loebenstein]. That climb [to senior management] has not been a deliberate thing on my part, but it certainly has not been affected by being male or female. As I look at cultural organizations generally in Australia, that's probably the case in many of them.
That is kind of encouraging for me.
I suppose it is not necessarily deliberate. It is because of the women who have chosen those careers or those interests. We are just multiple, various, and willing.
Yes. And we get the work done well, which is the most important thing, really. Thank you, Meg.