How did you become an archive researcher?
I feel as though I was born to be an archive researcher. Ever since I was a child, other people’s photo albums have always fascinated me and I’ve always had the urge to search through them. While studying for my BA in Film Studies and Literature at Tel Aviv University, I started working for the Open University of Israel. They needed a visual researcher and a clearance coordinator for their books. At the time, in 2000, there were very few online catalogues and archives, and all of the work was done by fax, phone and airmail. I felt like a real pioneer. I did research for many different subjects that still amaze me today: dance, theater, opera, ancient archeology, genocide, earth studies… It was very rewarding to get transparency from the Vatican Library. In 2005, I left the OUI and started my first archival work in TV for A Duck’s Journey directed by Gabriel Bibliowicz. The film was about the late comics artist Dudu Geva. After that I continued my work in archival research at a frantic pace in Israel and abroad – where anything goes – I can take up to 7-8 projects simultaneously.
What are the specifics of being an archive researcher in Israel?
Being an archival researcher in a small, young (68 years old) and frantic country such as Israel is quite a roller-coaster experience; it’s a vocation that requires strong nerves! In fact, in Israel we have very few footage archives but more still sources. The fact that there are few available sources makes my work challenging and daring, I’m on a perpetual quest to enlarge my sources and find new and unseen materials. We have to deal with censorship on sensitive materials such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, defense and military subjects etc. The Israeli Broadcast Authority archive, the most important footage archive in Israel between 1970-2000, has been suffering greatly because of its reorganization, which creates impossible situation for us archive researchers.
The budgets for documentaries are very small. If you think yours are small, you haven’t seen the Israeli ones. The only positive side is that we are half a dozen archival researchers in Israel and usually we are seen as talents so we sometimes get our names written bold and large in the opening sequences and not in the roller. I think that archive researchers from all over the world should fight and insist on this important matter, their work is usually the essence of the film. Without them there is no film, so why should they agree to appear only on the roller and hide in the dark. We should all insist on that in our contracts.
You were head researcher for the Israeli Home Movie Project, what is it? Can you tell us more about your expertise in home movies?
I worked for almost 3 years on the series and film Israel: Home Movie. I met many families and individuals, as well as some digitization specialists that were an important source as they helped me learn more about the collections. Most of the time it was detectives’ work: a name led to another name, a thread led to a bundle. Arik Bernstein, me and a few other researchers have collected and rescued collections of 8mm home movies: these hundreds of boxes of film rolls from forgotten basements, locked drawers, damp crates, and attics, contained countless hours of footage that tell the story of Israel from the beginning of the twentieth century up to the end of the 1970s. It’s a sort of alternative and yet untold narrative of Israel in the twentieth century.
My special mission was to find the most rare and hard-to-find materials: meaning Eastern Jews (Sephardi) from Yemen, Morocco, Algiers, Tunis etc., but also Jewish settlers’ in from the west bank and occupied territories during the 70s. New Russian immigrants and Israeli-Arab home movies. The collections I found were very important as they told the story of silent voices, of transparent people, of footage lovers from poor families that magically got their hands on 8mm cameras and shot their whole life story (vacations, weddings and Bar-Mitzvahs).
In 2013 we won First prize at the FIAT/IFTA Conference in Dubai. In a small country that suffers from shortage in archives, sources and low funds, home movies become the best and most creative solution to archival needs. Both sides get a good deal in the business: families get their materials digitized in high quality HD or 4K and producers get unseen materials for free or almost for free.
You met many families that own home movies and helped them with the digitizing process, what is your favorite memory from these encounters?
The most cherished memory from that project was finding Dr. Avinoam Zabari’s collection. Zabari was born and raised in a transit camp called Rosh Haein, in a Yemenite family. He always loved photography but by sheer will-power and talent he saved money and bought an 8mm camera and started documenting his life: Yemenite traditions, holidays and even his army service in Hebron in 1972. His collection was diverse, large and not yet digitized. We watched it together tearful and excited as the production had digitized the whole collection. I felt touched and Zabari’s family too, they invited me to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with them (Jewish New Year) and I happily accepted. That one story of a family brought to life from the reels truly embraced my work. I cherish many more emotional and touching stories like this.
You recently worked on the documentary film Lilian. Poetess (2016) that won First Prize at the Haifa Festival; can you tell us more about this project and the story behind your research?
There is actually a direct link between the home movie project I worked for and the Lilian film. One of the greatest collections I found in my first project was the Eli Mariuma films, which were shot during the 60s and 70s. Mariuma worked in an 8mm equipment store in Tel Aviv. He too came from a fairly poor family from Jaffa, however thanks to his job he had access to free cameras, materials and a developing lab. Producers and directors of the documentary Disappearing where Lilian is in the first scene, saw one of Mariuma’s films on Youtube and they “fell in love” with a young woman in a store who made a brief appearance. We hadn’t a clue who that woman was, zero, null, no idea! They therefore decided that she was “Lilian” and that I had to find her. The home movie was taken in 1964. We quickly assumed she was probably dead, but we wondered: “Who is she anyway? A shopkeeper, a girlfriend, the owner’s daughter?”
Although it seemed like an impossible mission I started my quest. I decided I would find her dead or alive. You’re probably wondering: “Well what’s the problem, just ask Mariuma directly who was working there at the time”. As a matter of fact he didn’t remember anything, his mind was blank, total amnesia!
Ilan Peled, Yair Qedar, Lilian. Poetess, (2016)
I began investigating the exact address of the store and started by finding the name of it. I hoped to find the owner’s name easily but it brought me to a dead end. No one knew or remembered who owned the shop as it was more than 50 years ago. I only had the owner’s first name, Israel, but it’s as common as Joe.
Then I had a “Researcher’s Eureka” and I dug into the municipal archives in the historical business license section and finally YES! I found a family name, but alas, the handwriting was not yet deciphered and even the clerk wrote a note about it. I had 3 options: Filer, Shulem, Schuller; I searched all three names and found that only Israel Schuller was a match with 2 results, one especially had great potential. My adrenaline skyrocketed! I called up the first Israel Schuller but he was too young and never owned a store in Tel Aviv during the 60s. However he was interested in my quest and asked me to keep him posted if I found the “right” Schuller.
Let me remind you that at that point I started searching for a woman… I tried a fast Google search which was striking – an obituary a week earlier showed the death of a certain Rachel Schuller. I was devastated, I felt like I was too late, maybe that was her? I decided to call the other Israel Schuller near Jerusalem, to pay my respects and at least solve the mystery. A young woman’s voice answered the call:
Me: “Can I speak with your father?”
Women: “My father? Who are you looking for?”
Me: “Israel Schuller…but before that (I hesitated, my voice was trembling) did you by any chance operate a store in Allenby Tel Aviv in the 60s?”
Me: “Are you by any chance Rachel Schuller?”
Woman: “Yes, and who are you?”
Me: “Bless you my darling, you’re alive. I think I found you.”
Rachel and Israel Schuller are 82 years old and they are husband and wife, living happily near Jerusalem. And so began the most exciting and emotional chapter in my whole career as a visual researcher. Everything evolved beyond my wildest dreams: not only were they the owners of the film shop in which Mariuma worked, not only was Rachel the mystery woman in the short film we needed, but they owned a zillion of home movies in black & white and color, home movies of great quality, and all they needed was digitizing! We financed the whole digitization process, and used the home movies to give the fictional Lilian a visual biography that of Rachel Schuller. To sum it up, Rachel, the mystery lady, gave Lilian the vanishing lady, a visual life in our documentary.
We ended up winning first prize for Best Documentary at the Haifa Festival last month! (October 2016). In the end the young Israel Schuller met the older Israel Schuller and they found out that they are distant relatives and actually share a great-great grandfather in Hungary. Their families were both killed in the Holocaust but here 2 remnants of the big Schuller clan found their way back to each other and this reunion happened thanks to my work.