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Revitalizing Black and White Film with Digital Colorization

They were nominated for a BAFTA Award in Visual Effects for their work in the 13-hours TV-series ‘World War II in Colour’ (2009). 

They were the ones who carefully restored the original hand-colored negatives of George Méliès ‘A Trip to the Moon’ (1902) and brought it in 4K for Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ (2011). 

They’ve recently done tremendous work on the documentary ‘Generalissimo, Franco’s life in color’ (2019) by Director Luis Carrizo.

Meet West Wing Studios, a pioneer company in film coloring

We’re happy to present to you West Wing Studios, one of the most respected pioneers of film coloring in the industry. 

West Wing Studios is not only a champion of the art and techniques of digital colorization, but they also carry a mission of transmission toward younger generations, far from the colorization debate that surfaces from time to time. 

In a recent interview, founder Vivek Rao and producer Stanton Rutledge shared with us their story and took us through their coloring process, which is fascinating when we understand that the demands to convert historical black and white footage to color are increasing rapidly these days.

Vivek and Stan have worked together since the company was established in 2002, when digital film color grading was still in the state of improving. As film lovers, they saw a need for better film coloring technology and started to develop their own coloring software. 

The company has offices in Tampa, Florida, Los Angeles and Goa, India, where they have put together an incredible team of 50 color designers and animators. 

George Méliès ‘A Trip to the Moon’, restored and colored by West Wing Studios

Soon, West Wing began receiving projects from Sony Pictures and Columbia Tristar, and the exceptional accuracy of their digital colorizations became well known.

With documentary projects coming from the US, Spain, UK, Greece, Russia, Australia and many other countries, they earned a worldwide reputation, and today we can find West Wing in the film credits of many inspiring productions – such as ‘The Beatles: Eight Days a Week’ (2016) by Director Ron Howard. 

Keep in mind that if you are interested in using digital colorization for your current or next project, the best time to approach West Wing is when you have your final edit in hand. As you will discover here, the process is very complex and there’s no room for last-minute changes, so starting the process with your picture locked film will save you precious time and money.

All you wanted to know about digital colorization

It’s important to state that digital colorization is not only a VFX technique taking advantage of the latest improvements in computerized imagery. Digital colorization also requires the artistry and expertise of West Wing’s dedicated team to create vibrant colors and achieve a natural result.

As Stan and Vivek point out, digital colorization is all about quality and precision. The result needs to look realistic and not artificial or flat. More importantly, it needs to be accurate to the time period of the film.

« We deeply care about the era the archives have been produced. We are trying to give the color of a particular decade and not make it looks like today. It is historically important to stay true to that time period. »

According to Vivek and Stan, it’s all about the design. Once the design is set, the colorization itself can be generated quickly.

But what do they mean by design? Design is, Stan says, « the most important phase », when they make all the crucial decisions about what colors will be used for color conversion amongst the 16 million that are available. 

One might think naively that the software is simplifying everything by replacing the image’s greyscale with the corresponding colors according to the light values, but « the key is the color research ». 

Courtesy of West Wing Studios

How does it work?

Once the West Wing operators have analyzed the black and white footage, they extract one still image per shot based on the edit and the camera cuts, and give it to Stan.

With his 30 years’ of experience and a very trained eye, Stan is then able to figure out, image by image, what pallet of colors is best adapted to every shot before going to the next phase – the frame-by-frame animation.

« I’m like a kid in a candy store. It is fun designing the colors. It is something new every time. »

The clients are involved every step of the way, and receive colorized stills in jpeg format for each shot. If they approve the proposed color design, it will be applied to the entire shot in the production phase.

There are tons of details in one single frame, such as hairs, eyes, fingers, war medals, etc., and the most challenging step of the workflow is to match them with the right color. In order to do this, it is essential to conduct an intensive and manual process of compositing by drawing a mask around every single object present in the digital frames to isolate them. 

Sometimes, with war footage, there can be 900 masks per frame, or even up to 1200 when it comes to parades or crowds! Needless to say, it takes quite a lot of color decisions to arrive at the final image – and thus quite a lot of details to animate.  

None of the color decisions Stan makes together with the client or filmmaker are done arbitrarily. « French uniforms are different from German uniforms, » he remarks, and they need to make sure to use the right shade of khaki.

A research phase is absolutely necessary in order to make color decisions. The production company often provides story inputs and precious historical insights, and West Wing’s team completes it by digging through archives, in museums and libraries. Google can also be really helpful! 

Color decisions are not only based on research: West Wing holds a secret weapon.

Thanks to all the projects they’ve been involved in, the company has compiled a huge library of color references that is constantly growing: medals, costume colors, hair colors, shoes, locations or historical figures… This is an incredible tool that makes their work so unique and impressive.

Take a look! 

Courtesy of West Wing Studios

History didn’t happen in black and white

An experienced team and great technology, West Wing Studios succeeds in bringing to life decades of black and white archival footage and in making colorization of these footage a widely accepted practice.

Digital colorization, when it’s made with historical ethics in mind, reminds us that history didn’t happen in black and white. It brings the past closer and creates a more intimate experience for contemporary audiences. As a result, broadcasters today are developing a growing appetite for digital colorization.

« Young people forgot what history looks like. It allows younger generations to take a glimpse at historical events. We want to be part of the understanding of history for younger generations. Our mission is to make sure it is there for posterity. »

Feel free to visit http://www.westwingstudios.com to know more.

West Wing Studios Digital Colorization

This article was sponsored by West Wing Studios.


Using Footage Without Permission: the Orphan Works Dilemma

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Using Footage Without Permission: the Orphan Works Dilemma

Using footage without permission is not a simple issue and can land filmmakers in very hot water.

Most documentary filmmakers want to find rare and never-before-seen footage, but things begin to get tricky when it’s time to seek permission to use it. Unless the copyright has expired and the creative work can be used freely as public domain footage, obtaining authorisation to use someone’s intellectual property is not optional. 

Now there is a term for this particular case where the rights-holder cannot be found but the footage is still protected by copyright: this is what we call an ‘orphan work.’ Encountering an orphan work causes that dilemma most documentary filmmakers face one day or another: should I persevere with using footage without permission or not? 

This is a real concern and a kind of grey area for many filmmakers. Let’s examine what an orphan work exactly is and the legislative framework around it, so you can better assess how to deal with orphan works, and how to get licensing when possible.

What is an ‘orphan work’?

An orphan work is a copyright-protected work for which one or more rights-holders (in the case of a collective work for instance) are indeterminate or cannot be located. 

Sometimes, it’s impossible to identify a right-holder of a piece of footage because the business who owned it no longer exists, or the rights-holder is deceased and has no heirs, or other reasons. 

Orphan works are everywhere, from flea markets to Youtube. A great number of presumed orphan works can also be found in archival collections since archives act as memory institutions.

According to a survey carried out in Europe in 2017 by EYE, the national film archive of the Netherlands: ‘21% of all film works held in the responding 24 film archives (who responded to the survey) may be considered orphans.’

Using footage without permission: the orphan works dilemma
The orphan works dilemma

What are the copyright and licensing issues with orphan works?

When a documentary filmmaker begins looking for archival footage they may stumble upon footage from all sorts of different online and physical sources, including found footage, amateur footage, and home-movies. 

It’s the filmmaker’s duty to make sure they can gain authorisation to use a piece of footage that is still protected by copyright, and generally speaking, there’s a compensation fee for that use.

Indeed, a copyrighted work can not be used by third-parties without the rights-holder’s consent. So what happens then when there’s no rights-holder associated with the work and you don’t know who or where to get licensing from?

Today, no technological solution exists to trace a work back to its rights-holder easily. This can lead to a very long quest in order to identify and locate the owner of the rights, especially if you lack data and info. 

If your search remains unsuccessful and you don’t want to give up on this perfect footage you find, your use of it in your documentary will be at your own risk.

Using footage without permission is not a decision to be made lightly. Basically, the risks are to be sued for copyright infringement, injunction and other damages – that could jeopardise the distribution of the documentary. 

That’s a big threat, which makes the IDA, the International Documentary Association, argue in 2012 before the United States Copyright Office and Library of Congress : « The orphan works problem remains a significant impediment to documentary and independent filmmaking today. »


Orphan works and Fair Use in the U.S.

For US-based filmmakers, there’s no such thing as orphan works exception, similar to the Fair Use exception, nor a statement of best practices to protect filmmakers, such as the fantastic Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use.

Therefore, independent filmmakers and documentary associations such as the IDA and Film Independent in the U.S. are lobbying the government to create legislation similar to that which is applied to Fair Use for orphaned works.

The IDA have worked extensively to create clearer regulation for identifying orphan works and using footage without permission in this context. They argue that flexibility is key when it comes to legislation around orphan works, and suggest modelling orphan work legislation on Fair use guidelines:

“We have suggested in previous comments and in the Orphan Works Roundtables that Congress and the Copyright Office should approach orphan works reform with fair use in mind. As with fair use, the orphan works problem affects every part of the copyright system, from libraries and archives, to public and private news outlets, to documentary and independent film”.

See here attorney Michael Donaldson presenting the orphan works issue to Congress.


How do orphaned works licensing laws vary around the world?

Copyright laws differ greatly from one country to another, so are the rules that have been adopted across the world to permit certain uses of orphaned works.

For example, countries such as Japan and South Korea have state guidelines for using footage without permission and orphan works.

Canada has created a supplemental licensing scheme, under Section 77 of its Copyright Act, that allows licenses for the use of published works to be issued by the Copyright Board of Canada on behalf of unlocatable rights holders, after a prospective licensor has made “reasonable efforts to locate [holders of] copyright”. We can read on Wikipedia that as of March 2019, the Board had issued 304 such licenses, and denied 24 applications.

Meanwhile UK copyright law is more broad, and cannot be applied for all orphaned works. In recent years the UK government has developed a register where filmmakers can submit orphan works and apply to use them, along with proof that due diligence searches have been fulfilled.

In most of the countries in continental Europe, the authors’ rights are maintained long after the author’s death and passed to family members.

EU has adopted the Directive 2012/28/EU that enables certain uses of orphan works. In particular, it addresses the challenges posed by orphan works where European archives are prevented from digitising their body of works and from making them accessible to the public without the rights-holder’s authorisation.

Available online, The Orphan Works Database is a great response to the orphan work issue in the EU. Here is a video explaining how it works.



Avoiding copyright infringement: 8 tips for documentary filmmakers

Deciding whether using or not using footage without permission in your documentary is not to be taken lightly. While many doc filmmakers are actively seeking orphan works because they are never-before-seen footage that can elevate their films, things need to be done properly in order to manage the risks and avoid legal actions for copyright infringement

Here are some tips to help you in your rights-clearance process:

1. Keep track of the rights-holders as you go

Use a good system like spreadsheets to keep track of crucial info during your archival research and licensing process. You don’t want to accidentally include footage from an unknown copyright holder just because you haven’t made proper note of it.

2. Allot time to find the rights-holders and get licensing when possible

Make sure you have the timeframe (and funds) to carry out a proper investigation. Obtaining authorization for the use of archival footage (or archival material) shall be a priority. Do not wait until post production to find the rights-holders, or you may find you have to discard the footage altogether.

3. Make sure the archival footage is truly an orphan work

Never assume that a video clip you found is orphaned before conducting an extensive research to locate the rights-holders.

If you’ve succeeded in locating and contacting a rights-holder but there’s no reply, that’s not an orphan work anymore; the rights-holders are not obliged to respond to your request, and it’s maybe wiser to find a footage alternative

4. Conduct a diligent search

There is no set procedure to conduct a diligent search and it all depends on the nature of the archival footage. A robust diligent search would imply checking multiple sources including professional associations, copyrights offices, obituaries and so on.

But it’s also like detective work, where you have to find clues and talk to many people, like archivists, to detect potential rights-holders. The provenance of the footage can provide crucial info too, and sometimes image recognition tools work like a charm.

5. Keep evidence of your rights-clearance process

A copyrights-owner can suddenly resurface. Being able to prove you’ve made your best efforts to find them and avoid using footage without permission is key to protecting yourself from copyright infringement. Keep track of all your correspondence and write a report so as to show your good faith.

6. Make sure you account for copyrights in your documentary budget

You must keep aside a reasonable amount of money for compensating a rights-holder who would resurface and claim licensing fees – and have proof that you have done so.

7. Hire an archive researcher

Archive researchers are like the detectives of the film world. If there is an unknown copyright holder, an archive researcher is your best bet for tracking it down. On Archive Valley, you’ll find a unique community of 500 professional archive researchers. 

8. Consult a copyright lawyer

Copyright lawyers are trained to decipher the complex laws surrounding issues such as orphan works. Make sure to consult a professional attorney specialised in intellectual property rights before deciding whether or not to use footage without permission.


Disclaimer: the information provided in this article does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. You should not act upon any such information without first seeking the advice of a professional attorney.



Documentary Productions, Uncategorized

A Look at Documentary Short Films & the Opportunities Out There

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Documentary Short Films : Why they are here to stay and how you can be a part of it.

Some people might think you need a full two-hour documentary to produce an award-winning, emotionally-charged, beautiful work exploring the nuances of the Second World War and its traumas. The must-see short doc Colette (2020) would prove them wrong, winning the 2021 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject).

Directed by Anthony Giacchino and produced by Alice Doyard with The Guardian, it is only the most recent example of a new genre which continues to go from strength to strength with impactful stories that speak to the world.

The Rise of the Short Form Documentary

We often hear that we’re in the golden age of documentary filmmaking, and maybe it’s even more appropriate to say that we’re in the golden age of documentary shorts – as editor-in-chief of Nonfictionfilm.com Matthew Carey pointed out in 2016 yet. 

In the past decade, the short-form documentary has become more and more prominent. Two concurrent trends have facilitated the rise of this format: a widening of the avenues by which audiences consume digital content online, and a narrowing of consumer attention spans.

Indeed, short docs offer a chance to reach wider and younger audiences who are used to digesting shorter social media videos, but are still keen to immerse themselves into engaging stories which stay with them for a long time. 

As the Internet has become an increasingly prominent avenue for distribution for short films, there are a raft of new opportunities for filmmakers willing to make short docs and get them produced and seen, including archive-driven short docs. 

Jean Garner, Executive Producer and mentor for Global Short Docs Forum has argued ‘because the media world is exploding in terms of platforms, short form documentary is finding its home’. With short-docs rising in prominence on Netflix, Prime, Youtube, established news media websites and tailor-made platforms like Field of Vision, there is a vibrant short-doc ecosystem out there. 

While there are limitations that come with having to concentrate narratives into minutes rather than hours, this distillation can spark creative genius. On top of that, many documentaries are ideally suited to the short form, for its quicker production timeline enabling filmmakers to match the contemporary relevance of their story and the immediacy of their access. Sometimes, it’s all about the right time. 

Whether it be hard hitting social commentary like the Academy Award-winning Period. End of Sentence (2018, dir. by Rayka Zehtabchi), or archival-heavy work such as the dreamlike A Love Song For Latasha (2019, dir. by DOC NYC Directing Award-winner Sophia Nahli Allison) or the fascinating IDA Award-winner short John Was Trying to Contact Aliens (2020, dir. by Matthew Killip) – all available on Netflix – the short documentary is here to stay as a key landmark on the media landscape.

3 must-know platforms that help documentary shorts to come to life

To help you best navigate the short-doc world and the opportunities it offers to both experienced and emerging filmmakers, we’ve selected three of the most interesting platforms available to you to fund, distribute and promote your documentary short films.

1. Short form documentaries on The Guardian

In 2016, the UK-based Guardian relaunched its Guardian Documentaries series, commissioning and curating short documentaries from around the world.

Head of Video at The Guardian, Charlie Phillips, who previously worked as deputy director at Sheffield Doc/Fest, describes their process: “we make films of 15-30 minutes – comparatively long for an online video – that take us in-depth into untold stories about real people.”

The Guardian works hands-on with filmmakers of all experience levels and backgrounds from across the world, acting as executive producers in a process which can take up to a year (with an average of 3-6 months). In terms of viewers, the documentaries released by The Guardian reach large online audiences globally, as The Guardian News & Media website network attracts 140 million monthly browsers.

For Charlie Phillips, telling impactful stories to their audience is the main priority, and takes precedence over thinking about film festivals. That said, several of their short docs have also won critical acclaim. Two of the works produced by The Guardian illustrate this brilliantly.

Firstly, there is Black Sheep (2018), directed by Ed Perkins. It is a poignant exploration of identity, racism and violence, which blurred the boundaries between documentary and fiction. Black Sheep went on to win Best Short Documentary at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and was also nominated at the 2019 Oscars.

Secondly, there is Colette (2020). While succeeding in capturing people’s hearts and minds with its unique approach bridging the past and the present, the short doc film went one step further this year as it has been declared the Oscar winner 2021 in the category Best Documentary Short Subject.

Black Sheep and Colette are just two films in a diverse range of Guardian documentaries, sharing a common interest in unique creative visions. They work with filmmakers of all experience levels and backgrounds from across the world, and could be the perfect partner for your docu-short! 

Don’t hesitate to submit your documentary short ideas to them here

2. Short documentaries on The New York Times’ Op-Docs

On the other side of the Atlantic, there is another newspaper with global reach churning-out top-quality video content – The New York Times’s Op-Docs.

Begun in 2011, Op-Docs is a series of award-winning documentary shorts made by independent filmmakers. Op-Docs former producer and curator Kathleen Lingo explains in Documentary Magazine (IDA) that their mission is “to provide a platform for voices from outside The New York Times to give their point of view on issues of the day”.

In the past decade they have helped make around 300 short, interactive and VR documentaries, with a broad range of styles and subject-matters. They help with publicity, distribution, funding and archival footage and music access. 

Each Op-Doc is generally 5-10 minutes in length, although some are noticeably longer, depicting a unique story to spark conversations across the globe. They say they consider “written pitches (…) as well as completed videos” but cannot consider film trailers or videos which have already been posted online. Short-pieces adapted from longer works in progress are also eligible.

Like The Guardian, they strongly encourage a diverse range of directors from all over the world, and they work with first-time doc-makers as well as with established contributors.

Op-Docs collaborates with festivals such as Sundance and have gone on to gain widespread critical acclaim, picking up official selections at leading film festivals, Emmy nominations, News and Documentary Emmy Awards, Peabody Awards, and Oscar nominations. As an example, the vibrant and intimate A concerto is a Conversation (2020) directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers was nominated this year. 

Op-Docs have also gone on to form the basis for later feature films. One notable example is Time (2020) by director Garrett Bradley.

The factual film followed a prisoner’s wife fighting for the release of her husband, who Bradley met when working on her Op-Doc Alone in 2016. Time was meant to be another short film, but the last day of filming, central character Rich Fox gave Bradley an incredible archive of home video footage! The 81 minute film won the Documentary Directing Award at both the Sundance Film Festival and the IDA Documentary Awards, and it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Time is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

If you think Op-Docs is the right platform for your short docs, you can submit your pitches through this form or contact: opinion.video@nytimes.com.

3. Documentary short films on Field of Vision

When it comes to short-documentary specialists, Field of Vision are some of the best in the game. Co-created by the Oscar-winning documentarian Laura Poitras who directed Citizenfour and Risk, they describe themselves as a ‘filmmaker-driven documentary unit that commissions, creates and supports original’ projects (shorts, features and episodes).

According to their submission guidelines, they seek to support work that ‘uses innovative and artistic ways to explore contemporary global issues through a cinematic lens’. They look for work which pushes boundaries, offers unique access or new perspectives on the world, and they support independent filmmakers who are often taking risks with their investigative and journalistic work.

Field of Vision commissions filmmakers to develop stories they have already identified, but many of the films are cold submissions. To apply, you need to fill in their online form.

Of the many notable successes that have come from Field of Vision, Do Not Split (2020, dir. by Anders Hammer) is particularly exciting. The film documents many landmark events in the Hong Kong protest movement, and it received the DOC NYC “Courage Under Fire” award. It was also an Oscar contender for Best Documentary Short Subject this year. 

Since July 2020, Field of Vision has also included IF/Then – previously a part of the Tribeca Film Institute. This is a mentorship programme for underrepresented filmmakers making world-class short docs that ‘break barriers to access’. 2021 is the inaugural year of IF/Then’s partnership with Hulu, where winners will receive mentoring and $25,000 in funding. While applications have closed for 2021, watch them carefully for future announcements! 

Pitching your short documentary ideas in 2021 and beyond

Whether it’s the funding, distribution or mentorship opportunities, that appeal to you most – you need to nail your short documentary application if you want your short documentary project to find success with some of these brilliant platforms. 

With all of them there are some core elements which they will want to see :

  • A one-page proposal : Can you articulate a compelling, timely and original story in a concise way? Did you think about the narrative arc and story structure of your documentary?
  • A rough budget: Have you carefully thought through the costs, taking time to estimate the budget needed to produce your short doc – including potential licensing fees of archival material?
  • Visual elements: How will the story translate cinematically, what is your filmmaking approach to it? Mood boards and 1-minute trailers are great tools to convey the look and feel of your short doc project.
  • Unique access: Why are you the right person to tell this factual story? Who is your main subject or character and what access do you have that others don’t to tell a great investigative or character-driven story ?

Whether you want your short doc to be led by observational material or archival footage – or a mix of both – make sure your story feels like it speaks to the present. All of the platforms above support short documentary ideas motivated by a concern for the contemporary world. 

While there are similarities between the requirements of all the nonfiction video platforms we’ve discussed, not to mention the many other fantastic opportunities out there, make sure you take the time to carefully research each one, ascertain your eligibility and dig around in their FAQ sections. 

There are other opportunities for documentary short films to pitch or submit at festivals, and we’ll make sure to talk about this in an upcoming Archive Valley‘s article focusing on documentary film festivals – so stay tuned! 

Archival Research

How to navigate the tricky terrain of archive research for documentary and fiction film

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Madeline Bates
Article written by Madeline Bates

Madeline Bates currently works as a freelance consultant with arts festivals and regional screen archives in the UK.

Her background is as film curator and festival producer in the UK and Australia and she was director of outreach at FOCAL International.

She trained in visual anthropology and is passionate about bringing screen heritage to new audiences. 

About Archive Valley

The Archive Valley platform connects globally diverse archive researchers and producers with creative companies looking to harness the full power of archival film for their projects.

The team has now turned their expertise and professional networks to archive research masterclasses. A great addition to their portfolio, it will support filmmakers diving into archive waters. It will also help aspiring and practising researchers trying to master their craft.

Archive research in film

Archival research in film and media production is a specialist field that can make an extraordinary contribution to the scope and final shape of a creative project. Archive Valley’s own Archives in Motion blog is a great springboard to explore the reach of archival storytelling, with posts such as: archive producer extraordinaire Rich Remsberg on making “Bobby Kennedy for President”, or Chuck Smith’s “Barbara Rubin & The Exploding NY Underground” on how personal archives can bring to life forgotten pioneers and subcultures. The number of vocational training opportunities for learning this craft are, unfortunately, still rare despite the archive’s growing influence over the future of film and TV.

About the masterclass

The comprehensive overview and expert insights you receive on the masterclass could be a lifeline to many. Whether you’re struggling to understand the notoriously complex world of licensing and third party rights or you want to think about the ethical quagmires researchers may find themselves in when advising creators, the masterclass is delivered in a lively and engaging way and in an easy-to-digest format. It’s also a great starting point or refresher if you’re looking for a centralised resource to widen and deepen your knowledge on the key demands and practices of archive film and media research. Logically broken down into three essential parts the masterclass covers the fundamentals, which could be otherwise paraphrased as: 1) Organisation and creativity – Bringing method to your research 2) Help! I’m not a lawyer! – Best strategies for dealing with licenses and managing your archive budget 3) Evidence vs interpretation or, with great access comes great responsibility – so you don’t fall off any ethical precipices…

Why should you take the masterclass

The class brings together a series of archive producers in each of these areas. Hearing about the colour and context of their experiences and insights is informative, providing animated conversations and expert guidance rolled into one. You may be in the early project stages and trying to wrangle meaning from a creative brief or you may need advice on how to grapple with ethical questions (colourisation, anyone?). Either way, the live sessions and organised video modules are a helpful conduit to becoming more confident and competent as a researcher. Archival storytelling is an established yet evolving field. The masterclass curates industry articles, online tutorials and other suggested resources into one easy to access portal. It calls upon the extensive Archive Valley network of experts to act as tour guides en route, so you can be best prepared to navigate your way through the tricky terrain of archive research.

Everything you need to know
to work with archives.

The course starts on March 16, 2021.
Don’t delay. The number of participants is limited.

Archive Researchers, Documentary Festivals, Documentary Productions, Our Blog, Uncategorized

“Finding Sally”: Exploring Ethiopian Archives on a Personal Quest.

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An Interview with Director Tamara Dawit

This month, we were lucky enough to exchange with the Canadian-Ethiopian director Tamara Dawit about her new documentary “Finding Sally” that premiered on the Hot Docs 2020 selection for CBC Canada in the middle of the COVID crisis.

In “Finding Sally“, Tamara Dawit explores the sudden disappearance of her aunt Sally in the summer 1973, after Sally became a communist rebel with the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and subsequently topped the Ethiopian government’s most wanted list. How did this young girl from an upperclass family get caught up in her country’s revolutionary fervor? How does a family process surviving the loss of someone without knowing what really happened to her?

Tamara Dawit

Going beyond the family’s quest for answers, Dawit’s film raises important questions about identity, idealism, engagement and belonging, and contributes to broadening the dialogue about this tragic time in Ethiopian History.

Thanks to a creative patchwork of family pictures and footage especially from Ethiopian Archives, Dawit paints a sensitive portrait of Ethiopia during the Red Terror in which personal trajectory meets collective history. Archive Valley was delighted to interview her about her work and her use of Ethiopian archives to tell her story.

First of all, congratulations about your film “Finding Sally”. Could you tell us about the story of your aunt Sally? Why did it remain a family secret for so long?

TD : “Finding Sally” is my investigation into the life of an aunt I didn’t know existed and 1970s Revolutionary Ethiopia the period she vanished in. Sally was a young woman who came from a privileged upper-class family who became a communist rebel with the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party. Idealistic and in love, Sally got caught up in her country’s revolutionary fervour and landed on the military government’s most wanted list. She went underground and her family never saw her again.

I don’t think Sally’s existence was kept secret from me on purpose I think it was due to the pain and trauma attached with remembering her. When things are painful you can often subconsciously suppress them and in Ethiopia there is very much collective silence about what happened to many people during the revolution.

A film produced by Catbird Productions / Gobez Media

Why do you think it was the right time to tell her story and open the dialogue about this tragic time of Ethiopian collective memory?  

TD : It is important for Ethiopian audiences to release this film now especially as Ethiopia prepares for a federal election. I want to use the film as a conversation started (between generations) to reflect on the past and to learn from the past in order to move forward.

Many Ethiopian families, not only my own lost relatives who were killed, jailed or tortured under the Derg leadership and thus carry painful baggage attached to that period. In Ethiopia we need more content and discussion and remembrance to contribute to the national healing.

By doing this documentary film, what did you learn about your country and its people?

TD : I spent a lot of time researching the Ethiopian revolution and the Red Terror (period of sustained state killings) that included reading any books, reports I could find. As well as talking to many people especially those who knew my aunt or where connected to the communist group she had joined.
As a result of this I learned about the ideology of the student movement, the role of women, the gruesome details of the Red Terror, the political maneuvering of the Derg junta and also about the lasting impacts of that period today on Ethiopians and Eritreans.

Could you share some insights into how you got the film funded?

TD : The film was funded entirely in Canada via mostly broadcaster and federal film funds. In any case financing a film is a long and slow process. But I spent the time before pitching producers and applying to funds to do the full research on the films period, storyline and also available archives in order to have a clear package on how the story would be told visually.

The film shows a beautiful and realistic picture of life in Ethiopia back in the 70’s. How did you manage to visually recreate that ?

TD : In this respect I think I was lucky to have a large family archive of photos to draw upon and well a good amount of footage in the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation archives and some international sources to draw on.

For much of the film archive in the film we did have to work closely to in some cases totally rebuild the sound design to improve the quality of the experience. As well a lot of the Ethiopian archive is not the raw file but clips which are set against music or with voiceover which is also why we had to rebuild the sound.

Did you work with an archive researcher? Could you tell us about the collaboration between the two of you?

TD : Yes, I worked with an archive researcher in Canada to search internationally for archives and to license some of the international archives that I was already aware of. I handled the sourcing of archives from within Ethiopia. I gave the archivist a list of key date, events and images that I knew or thought may exists to search for.

Strangely the hardest archive to source diverse images of was actually Ottawa, Canada I in the late 1960s early 1970s.

How did you use archives and more specifically Ethiopian archives to bring Sally to life?

TD : We used film archives to illustrate both Ethiopia and Canada in the 1970s. This enables viewer to see the time and places that Sally lived in. I think also for many viewers this is their first time seeing such extensive images of Ethiopia in this period.

I really aimed to show how modern Addis Ababa was in the 1960s/1970s before the revolution in many cases I think looking similar to many European cities in that era. Additionally, I careful used archives to bring the viewer into the room to see the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie and the rule of the military junta which followed.

I also used photo archives to show Sally’s family life and childhood prior to becoming a revolutionary (after which as she lived in hiding there are no images of her) and photo to show the brutality of the state sponsored killings in Ethiopia.

You pointed the fact that it was important for you to preserve an Ethiopian point of view. Did you managed to gather all the archival material you needed in Ethiopian archives? Where did you dig?

TD : Yes, the entire film is told through the POV of Ethiopian characters and more specifically women. This is because we don’t often hear from women when telling the history of Africa and we do often hear about African history from white academics.

The situation and upkeep of Ethiopian archives is something that needs support, similar to many other African nations. We have a lot of photo, film and radio archives but the material is not well sorted, preserved or digitized. So this made for a slow process to access materials for this film but I was able to work directly with the state TV and press agency archives to gather the content which originated from Ethiopian sources.

Again like a lot of African archives it is often housed in Europe as the footage was collected by foreign governments and stringers.

Now that the documentary has been premiered, how do you plan to reach the Ethiopian audience?

TD : I am setting up a large impact campaign to support the release of the film to Ethiopian audiences in Ethiopia and in the diaspora. The film will have a short theatrical run in Ethiopia, tied to discussions and a national tv broadcast.

Part of this work is also to dub the film into more Ethiopian languages to make the film more accessible for school screenings (with a discussion guide), community group screenings and tv broadcasts in Ethiopia on regional broadcasters.

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Key Takeaways: Discussing the Impact of COVID-19 on Archive Researchers.

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Archive Valley’s international panel of archive researchers

A month ago, at Archive Valley, we’ve run our first webinar that was fully dedicated to our international community of archive researchers. We organized this webinar to connect archive researchers across the globe and bring light on what the industry has been experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The panel brought together 5 archive researchers from different countries. And, as it is standard at Archive Valley, we used this discussion as an opportunity to shed an international perspective on current events bridging distance-gaps.

Discover our selection of take-aways, from 5 different perspectives.


Rich Remsberg (U.S.A.) tells us that production has completely changed; the focus is now on editing, scripting, and researching rather than film shooting. And as a consequence many archival dormant projects have suddenly awaken as they recently sold offering new opportunities for archive researchers and archival driven stories. 

That being said, both Stephanie Jenkins and Rich are concerned for the success of smaller archives during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Stephanie, industry giants like ESPN or NBC are powering on, yet smaller archive libraries are finding ways to stay afloat


For Laura Tusi (Argentina), lockdown has proven to be an ideal moment for developing new projects in the documentary, and this, as a result, had brought her lots of new work.

On the other hand, Laura voices how difficult it has been during the lockdown to access the footage. She expressed concerns about closing deals. If nobody is in the office (as archivists work remotely) it is difficult to negotiate and secure a project.


Stephen Maier reported how creative collaboration in Germany has been maintained, even from a distance and through the chaos of lockdown. As a new freelancer, his personal experience of archive research during these difficult times has been full of networking (virtually) and building connections.

In Germany, archive research seems to be moving along as usual with minimal slowdowns. “Because [new] streamers [and broadcasters] need fresh content, filmmakers are selling their old programs…”. Personally, he says, he had lots of work in renegotiating right extensions of old programs for streamers. 


Alessia Petitto from Italy express both her excitement and concerns. She sees that currently in Italy, the demands for archival driven projects is rising. But  COVID-19 has financially affected Italy’s film industry since it is linked to a struggling national capital pool. Alessia points out how the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic might affect the film industry in Italy even well past lockdown.

Alessia strongly believes that home movies will play a major role in archival driven stories. Home movies will be out next week webinar topic.

While the pandemic has seriously impacted the documentary industry, the lockdown brings as well new opportunities for archival driven stories worldwide“.

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