Archive Researchers

Featuring: Mauro Tonini, Venice

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How did you become an archive researcher, and what excites you about being a researcher in Italy?

I started working in this field when I went to Rome to work with a well-known production company, GA&A. I had just graduated with History of Art at that time, and did not have an exact idea of what I wanted to become. I just loved documentaries, art, and old footage, and had some experience in photography and shooting. At the beginning I just did everything people needed during the production of their documentaries, and it was a very good school in the professional production industry! Then they worked on a project co-produced by the History Channel regarding the history of Trieste, the city where I had lived before. The producer asked me to research footage of the beginning of the XXth century, and it was so exciting. I discovered an amazing underground world of amateurs, collectors, restorers, and some unknown, wonderful footage lost in the background of the regional archives. I came back to Rome with this material, and the producer said, “That’s what you are, a researcher,” and I agreed. 

You are based near Venice. Do you go to libraries, or solely use the web when researching for visuals?

For general research I mainly use the web. You can find a lot of material online, also out of traditional archives. I go to any kind of virtual place that could be related with the subject I’m researching. What a producer or a director wants is the same as what the researcher looks for: to be surprised with unexpected images.
It isn’t very difficult, but it takes a lot of patience and determination. You email everyone, and when people get involved in your research, they often feel happy to help… or this is what I assume through the web. So, person to person, you can reach treasures!

How is it different working with locals on a project in Italy as opposed to internationally?

When the research regards a specific territory, for example an Italian region, web searching is just the first step. Calling on the phone is just as important as web searching. When people hear your voice and can explain to you what they know and who they are, everything becomes easier, at least in Italy. Sometimes I have to physically go into some archive to screen the material or just to verify if anything exists. This is the most exciting step of my work. Unfortunately globalization is bringing everyone and everything online, and it becomes everyday rarer to get surprised by new discoveries. Internationally you work differently, much more through the web, and emails become more important then ever. Writing a good email to get an archivist involved in your research is an important skill. How can I know who is the person at the other side of my laptop? How can I become his/her friend in a couple of words? How can I get her/his trust? You see, in different ways the matter is the same: relationship between people, because we work together.

You specialize in archive research in many sectors of Italy. Is there another region in the world you wish to look more in depth into?

Yes, a lot! I love discovering lost footage, so I would like to work with regions where recovery, restoration and archiving is not so developed as in Western countries. Countries that became at the close attention of the world just in the last years or decades, as some Asian countries, or that opened to the Western world recently. I have worked twice with the Russian Krasnogorsk archive, just outside of Moscow: Can you imagine how much material they keep? And a lot still unknown. If possible, I would love to stay a couple of months inside screening every meter of film. 

What future goal(s) do you have for your researching skills and projects involving your Italian background?

All the researchers I know have a very high education. Doing research improves our knowledge on many subjects. Due to this, I think we should try to expand the concept of research in a wider idea. Our experience and education make us able to suggest original ideas, themes, visual solutions, and to write valuable treatments. Researchers should be recognized as cross- disciplinary, and a guarantee for quality in the media industry. About Italian heritage, it would be a good project to create a network of Italian researchers and archivists to promote Italian footage, and make it easier for producers to access the archives. Not all producers know that we have a lot of small but rich archives in Italy.

Can you share a nice anecdote about one of your research on Italian culture, history, and the arts?

Once, a producer asked me to find any Italian living witnesses who migrated in Australia in the Thirties (80 years ago) traveling on an Italian merchant ship called “Viminale” that was later sunk during the war. Nobody remembered the ship, and the owner lost its archives. I needed to find very old people who traveled as children, but most of the passengers died, and women changed their surnames when married. Unfortunately, there were no diaries, letters, or postcards. I wrote and called every archive, public and private institution and hospital in the Australian phone book. It took me weeks searching every database calling municipalities, anybody that could have any information. It was an almost impossible research. But then the miracle happened. A small migrants association of Melbourne called me and said: we have two very old women, never married and lived together alone from 1934 in the same house. It was a success.

Can you tell us a bit about your current project?

I’m working on some projects starting local and becoming international. One is an idea of mine about the First World War and tells the story of the most famous revolt that happened in the Italian army during the war. I started researching images just a few weeks ago, with the help of Archive Valley too! The other one is a Polish movie about a Polish triathlon champion of the Eighties. I am starting a new research for a documentary about the Italian poet and director Pier Paolo Pasolini. In this case I will work closely with the director, and it’s a good combination to avoid useless work. Unless there is enough understanding between us, of course.

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