Archive Researchers

Featuring: Juan Bello, Canada / Latin America

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Interestingly, you didn’t start your career in archival research but ended up working close to this field. Can you tell us a bit about your career path?

I started my career in the programming and scheduling arena, working for RCTV, one of the oldest TV networks in Latin America. My workstation was located next to the film archive, very close to hundreds of shelves full of old 16mm reels and 2’ and 1’ tapes. I was astonished to have access to those records and spent many hours exploring the collection. One of my findings was a reel containing scenes from Barbarella, images that had been cut out from the film by the internal censors in order to make it suitable for general audiences during the 70s. Since then I became aware of the hidden treasures that an archive might contain and its potential to speak about the past. Later on in my career, I became a documentary producer with the clear objective of exploring the use of archival materials for storytelling purposes. 

Originally you come from Venezuela in South America. How did you become an expert in Latin American archives? How did you build your network of sources?

For many years, I produced independent projects and specials of the Biography series on Latin American personalities: musicians, politicians, film actors, etc. Because there are no commercial archives specialized in Latin America as a whole, and the international news agencies have historically covered only major events, I had to conduct research locally, in certain specific countries. It was of great help that I knew many people in the TV industry across the region, from my years working in programming and acquisitions, but I also had the opportunity of establishing new connections. In some cases, I dealt with the searches remotely. On other occasions, I had the chance of traveling and visiting public archives and specialized collections.

archival photograph of Maria Felix from the coleccion Filmoteca UNAM

Project: The Legend of María Félix, The Biography Channel
María Felix, Film and TV Actress (c. 1944)
Photo: © Colección Filmoteca UNAM

For example, I produced a documentary on Oscar Arias, the former president of Costa Rica, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his work in leading a peace accord that put an end to the war in Central America. Of course there were plenty of photos and footage in sources like AP, Getty Images, Reuters and ITN, which were very useful for understanding the politics in the hemisphere during the Reagan administration, but it was also important in terms of the story to explore the events from a Central American perspective. For that purpose, I was able to locate unpublished materials of exceptional quality, throughout the development of connections with local TV stations, universities, NGOs, museums, libraries and private collectors. Important findings were images related to the abolition of the army in Costa Rica (1948), a historical event of enormous significance in the region that hadn’t been covered by the international press.

From your experience, what is specific to Latin American archival sources? Do you have any tips to share with someone interested in researching sources related to Costa Rica, Venezuela, or Mexico for example?

I always say that in Latin America, more than a traditional researcher, you need to act as an investigator, as a detective. It’s all about following clues, connecting information and deducing conclusions. There are extraordinary archives in countries like Mexico, Colombia and Argentina, but the efforts in the region are mostly oriented to the preservation of historical records, not to its commercial exploitation. One of the peculiarities is that many records haven’t been digitized yet, and electronic databases are scarce or not remotely accessible. In that context, one of my advantages, besides the language, is a general knowledge of the area, and the ability and patience to navigate institutional practices that might not be straightforward. It’s also important to be aware of how copyright issues work in the region to guarantee the use of the materials, in line with international distribution standards.

You have produced many historical projects including El Cerrito a documentary about the history of a modern architecture masterpiece built in Caracas in the 50s. Can you tell us a bit about this project or any others you would like to discuss?

El Cerrito is a documentary on Villa Planchart, the house designed by the Italian architect Gio Ponti for a family in Caracas in the 1950s. That residence is considered to be his masterpiece.

archival drawing of the first letter to Anala y Armando Planchart used for El Cerrito

Project: El Cerrito
Gio Ponti. First Letter to Anala y Armando Planchart, Page 3. (1953)
Letter: © Fundación Planchart

We had the privilege to start working on this project when the house was still inhabited by its owner, so we were able to interview her and get access to thousands of records: family albums, home movies, correspondence and architectural drawings. One of the highlights was the collection of photos and footage of their travels around the world –spanning from the late 1940s to the early 70s.

archival photograph of Anala Planchart taken at Gran Sabana, Venezuela (1935) used for El Cerrito

Project: El Cerrito
Anala Planchart. Gran Sabana, Venezuela (1935)
Letter: © Fundación Planchart

Initially, the documentary was only about the house, but it ended up exploring the friendship between the architect and his clients, and also the historical context that made that project possible. The documentary had many layers, and this has been a characteristic of my projects since then. It was very well received and acquired by the History Channel, contributing enormously to the preservation of the house as a cultural center.
Other projects that I’m very proud of are The Queen of the People, a documentary on how the election of a beauty queen turned into the first democratic experience in Venezuela, Villanueva The Devil, a documentary on Ciudad Universitaria de Caracas, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and The Dominion Public Building, a web-based documentary on a 1930s Canadian heritage landmark.

archival drawing Stained Glass Window by Fernand Léger (1954) used for Villanueva The Devil

Project Villanueva The Devil
Central Library, Stained Glass Window by Fernand Léger (1954)
Drawing: © Fundación Villanueva

archival drawing of The Dominion Public Building, Front Elevation (1934) for a namesake project

Project: The Dominion Public Building
The Dominion Public Building, Front Elevation (1934)
Drawing: © Western Archives, Western University

For many years you taught film aesthetics and innovation in archive images at Western University in Canada. Can you tell us more about it? In your opinion, what is the best way to pass on archival research know-how?

I believe that working with archives requires a strong passion component. It’s a lot about the excitement inherent to any archival quest, and I think that I’ve been good at communicating that in the classroom. In addition to that, visual research is a field that also requires cultivating specific skills: organization, attention to detail, time management and orientation to results. Finally, it’s essential to be familiar with preservation and digitization processes and to have a strong and always updated knowledge of copyright issues.

Can you give us a sneak peek into a project you are currently working on?

I live in Canada and we are celebrating the country’s 150th anniversary in 2017. I’m currently working on a documentary project on Expo 67, the World Exhibition that was organized 50 years ago to celebrate Canada’s centennial. The project is focused on the International Pavilions: the World in 1967, the countries that participated in the exhibit and the impact that the event had on the development of Canada as a multicultural society. I conducted extensive research on the Centennial and Expo 67’s collections at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, and some other sources. The images are astounding, and many of them had remained unseen for decades. It’s been a great opportunity to explore both the tensions during the Cold War and the social transformations that were underway in Canada.

archival picture of the Expo 67 (Aerial View) used for 1967: Canada Welcomes the World

Project: 1967: Canada Welcomes the World
Expo 67 – Aerial View (1967)
Photo: © Library and Archives Canada

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