Documentary Festivals

Archive Researchers, Documentary Festivals, Documentary Productions

Interview With Rhodri Lowis On His Work For Werner Herzog & Andre Singer’s Meeting Gorbachev


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Meeting Gorbachev was undeniably one of the standout archival productions on Archive Valley during 2018. As the head of the archive research, Rhodri Lowis found archives that eventually helped to build a very different portrait of Gorbachev, following the unique artistic vision of Werner Herzog and Andre Singer. We had the chance to catch up with Rhodri and learn about his experience working with these two amazing filmmakers and how Archive Valley became an important part of this archival production.

How did you get involved in this ambitious project?

I was doing some research for André Singer’s company Spring Films and he was going into production with the project, having finalised the funding. He took me on in a preliminary research role and I stubbornly stuck around!

When you started the project how specific were the directions gave by the two directors?

There was naturally some specific direction, but I was given some freedom to explore interesting areas. A lot was rather implicit, given that what is most important about Gorbachev’s life were the 6 years during which he was the leader of the USSR. As an international project (we were supported by A&E in the USA and MDR/Arte in Germany) there was a degree of focus on Gorbachev’s international dealings – with the USA, Germany, UK etc. – and how this resonates in present-day geopolitics.

As one might expect, there were some very precise demands from Werner Herzog – for example, a specific aerial shot of the “Baltic Chain”, where two million people across the region linked arms to demonstrate for independence. He also remembered reading of some footage of Gorbachev’s predecessor, the dying Chernenko, voting from his hospital room made to look like an official polling station. To him, these and a few other clips were essential to the narrative, and that was clear quite early on. My instructions from André were more broad, ranging from Gorbachev’s early life under Nazi occupation, following his rise through the ranks of the Soviet system, to the aftermath of the fall of the USSR. We amassed as much footage as possible and periodically would go through images, filtering out generic material to be best prepared for the edit.

Our producer Svetlana Palmer grew up under Gorbachev and worked on CNN’s Cold War series, and so had both first-hand memories and strong archive knowledge of major events in the Eastern Bloc. This really enriched the scope of the archive we could look for and her input was invaluable. Beyond that, as I also worked across the general research and preparation for interviews, that put me in a good position to think of areas to explore for archive footage.

You made quite a few requests through Archive Valley’s platform. What were your goals – trying to bring as much context as possible or finding the unexpected?

Well, both really. We had done some extensive background research and so had a good idea of the footage we wanted for some sections of the film – protests in precise locations leading to the breakup of the USSR, landmark events such as Chernobyl and the Reykjavik Summit, and particular press conferences. But I also put out a few requests hoping for some unexpected material. For example, we came across some little-seen footage of the Belavezha Accords, an agreement to effectively dissolve the USSR between the leaders of the Soviet republics. This was a huge moment that sealed the fate of the Union and decided the future of the now former-Soviet countries, and it was great to find it on camera. The Archive Valley platform was really useful to get these requests out to a broad spectrum of companies and independent researchers
with whom I could then discuss directly and in more detail the nature of our requests so as to ensure the best possible footage could be sent to us.

Is there a specific footage that you personally think stands out?

There’s some wonderful rarely-seen footage from the Russian State Archives in Krasnogorsk, which we used throughout the film but especially in a sequence depicting the funerals of Gorbachev’s three predecessors in very quick succession: mass parades, elaborate hearses and the frail remaining members of the gerontocracy that Gorbachev inherited. Werner also remembered a rather understated coverage of the initial opening of East-West relations. This was confirmed when we dug around local news archives. A clip from Austrian TV news in 1989 offered some gardening advice: to use a mug of beer to entice your booze-loving slug infestation and kill them off… The report is then followed by a somewhat underwhelming announcement that the Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh had ordered the dismantling of the barbed wire fence between Hungary and Austria – the first hole in the Iron Curtain! Werner was astonished that somebody had decided this was less important news than beer and slugs, and it formed an amusing and memorable sequence in the film.

What was your experience dealing with Russian archive sources?

Our project was split about 50-50 between Russian and non-Russian archive sources. Everything in Russia and the former Soviet Union was expertly sourced and managed by our excellent Archive Producer Masha Oleneva, whose encyclopedic archival knowledge found us the best material there was. She is immensely experienced and ensured that negotiating with Russian archives was a relatively painless process.

The documentary is composed of three big interviews with Gorbachev by Werner Herzog. Did the archival research start before the interviews? What was their impact on your research process?

Yes, there was an initial scout to see what was out there, and as the interviews progressed, we had a better idea of what we could search for and use to furnish these conversations that form the film’s backbone. We didn’t have a very orthodox schedule, owing to Gorbachev’s health and availability; this demanded that interviews be carried out sometimes at very short notice or delayed at the last minute. This definitely dictated the direction of the film’s archive research; while we waited for an interview, we collected and refined material, but as soon as an interview was completed, it would throw up many more areas of interest for research and so it was really on a week-by-week basis in terms of direction.

How did you perceive the work dynamics and creative process between these two filmmakers?

This was my first time working with Werner and André, and both had very distinct methods that melded together well during the film’s progression. I was based at Spring Films in London with André and we worked much more closely.

André is a leading anthropologist, and as expected the research was directed with academic rigor. Over 9 months I saw his very methodical approach: we combed through reams of transcripts of dialogue between Gorbachev and other leaders and in parallel looked for interesting corresponding footage. Early on, he had a pretty clear idea of the film’s structure, and that certainly informed the visual material we researched.

Werner’s approach was rather different… He had the ideas in his head and in a small notebook that he took to the interviews with Gorbachev, but it was hard to predict which areas he would explore in the conversations. The same could be said for the edit: we had a pretty good idea of the film’s narrative, but Werner arrived and highlighted many other areas that we hadn’t, and this carved out a different direction.

I learnt quickly to predict nothing with Werner, and to only expect to be surprised!

What was the most challenging part of the archival production?

Our schedule was unforeseeably accelerated during the edit, so this gave us less time to negotiate and finalise deals with archive houses. I’d say the most challenging part, however, was keeping on top of all the material we had coming in – so many spreadsheets! I had to stay on top of where a piece comes from and how to access it, how much we were using from each archive house, all in the middle of an accelerated and naturally constantly changing edit period. It was certainly challenging, but to wish for more time would have been a luxury. This constrained time frame, in fact, helped us to focus more and be a bit more ruthless in negotiation! If something was going to cost too much, we dropped it, and our 6-month old catalog we had assembled often gave us cheaper and better alternatives.

How different is this film from a regular political biopic?

As the film’s title suggests, it is more the “meeting” of Gorbachev and Werner Herzog and the far-reaching conversations they had, rather than a day-by-day of Gorbachev’s life. Having said that, it was important to guide the viewer chronologically given that it was such a short time period (6 years) in which he changed the world. It was also essential to lay out these key moments explicitly for the younger generation – to which I belong – who have little if any memory of his impact on the 21st Century. I think we managed to avoid a regular portrait by highlighting the personal side behind Gorbachev’s political image – his family life, especially his profoundly moving relationship with his wife Raisa, which brings out the human side to a global leader. To add to this, we focused on the lesser-known and arguably pivotal moments of the era – the Hungary-Austria border fence for example. I think André’s all-bases-covered approach to research combined with Werner’s unconventional tendency to pick up on these unexpected areas strongly contributed to this film being more than a straightforward biopic.

Documentary Festivals, Documentary Productions

“This Changes Everything​” World Premiere at TIFF 2018


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Here at Archive Valley, we feel privileged to have among our users some of today’s most exciting and important documentary filmmakers. It is always special when finally the moment comes and a premiere of a production on Archive Valley has been announced. We are happy to share that this year’s Toronto Film Festival will screen the world premiere of “This changes everything” as part of their official selection. Directed by Tom Donahue and produced by Creative Chaos the feature-length documentary explores a monumentally important issue in the entertainment industry – the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of women. The documentary not only provides historical context and empirical evidence about the paradigms sustaining the gender discrimination but also gives the audience hope that change is possible. Here’s the director’s powerful statement about the driving forces behind the production and how he succeeded to show that strong calls to action can be triggered both in the industry and in the society as a whole:

“As a male director, I was keenly aware of the responsibility I had in making this film and that there were too few men speaking up on the issue at all. It affirmed my belief that true change cannot happen if men don’t step up on the issue. As Meryl Streep says in the film, “Change can only happen when men take a stand.” Gender inequality is a problem that our entire society must confront, not just those on the receiving end of the injustice. I intended this film not only as an investigation into workplace discrimination in Hollywood but also as a call to men to be part of the solution. Real and lasting change can only come when grassroots activism works in concert with the powers at the top, whatever the personal or institutional cost. As Melissa Goodman at the ACLU says in the film, “If you are a person with hiring power and you’re not actively working to hire women, then you are part of the problem.

In the first year of making the film, we were introduced to the work of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Through Geena and her team, I came to understand the outsized impact the disparity within the small town of Hollywood has on the larger world. When half of a society’s population does not have a voice, the entire culture is degraded. Leaving it awash in a toxic masculinity that rests power in people who are not working in the interest of everyone.

We were fortunate to have many female and male power players in Hollywood sit before our cameras. We had the added fortune of witnessing a new wave feminist movement explode onto the scene while we were shooting. The movement has galvanized the women of Hollywood to take concrete steps toward change. There is growing consensus that the time for talk is over but this is not necessarily new. The film’s title comes out of my second interview with Geena when she speaks of hugely successful female-driven films that exceeded expectations and that many believed would finally cause things to change… and then nothing did. THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING is not meant as just a showcase of the problem but as a call to action to further the cause of the radical change necessary for us to move forward as a culture and as a country.”

The documentary includes interviews with Geena Davis, Meryl Streep, Rashida Jones, Reese Witherspoon, Jessica Chastain, Tiffany Haddish, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Judd Apatow. Although archival footage was included only in the long version of the film, it proved to be an essential tool for building the narrative. In the director’s words: “Providing historical context is a big part of what we do here at CreativeChaos and Archive Valley proved immensely helpful. It was incredibly beneficial to be able to deep dive into footage from the silent film era, suffragette Movement, second wave feminism…This archive footage helped us immensely with the film’s structure, in bolstering our argument.”

For those of you who are attending TIFF,  “This changes everything premieres” on Saturday, Sept 8, 2018 in Roy Thompson Hall, with a specially organized Q&A session after the screening. Not to be missed!

Documentary Festivals, Documentary Productions, Uncategorized

Sunny Side of the Doc 2018: ​Archives & new storytelling, a history of love


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Let’s forget about OTT and TV screens for a minute, because history is not anymore intended to be told only through flat and linear contents. New ways of archival storytelling at the crossroad of the documentary and digital scenes are popping up all over the internet, driven by a desire to embark the youngest audience on more engaging experiences of the past. This craze became “the occasion” for this year’s Sunny Side of the Doc breakfast discussion « Archives & new storytelling, a history of love ». The panel was moderated by the producer Laurent Duret (Bachibouzouk) and as one of the invited panelists, Archive Valley is happy to share with you some insights into this new exciting trend.

Laurent Duret – producer Bachibouzouk, Bruno Masi – Author filmmaker, Amandine Collinet – chief editor digital productions INA, Yoann Gantch – BnF – Partenariat, Mikhail Zygar & Karen Shainyan – founders Future History, Our CEO Melanie Rosencwajg 

We see today a growing number of content creators investing the infinite channels and media offered by the digital world with new types of archive-driven narratives, largely stimulated by the rise of the short-doc form. And when it comes to short form, the influence of Twitter cannot be neglected.

Already in 2011 while being busy blending archive and innovation at studio ArtchiviumLab, we’ve happily discovered the new-born twitter account @HistoryInPics, managed by two teenagers with one clear ambition: creating the buzz out of entertaining and powerful historical photographs picked on the internet and supercharged with a dramatic storytelling. While one can argue that historical truth and data accuracy were not really their point of concern when it all started, the duo’s first tweets went quickly viral, and as a result, we saw an invasion of archival content in the social media. Eventually, none of the myriads of similar twitter accounts created on the same model could compete with the team’ s great sense of spectacle, neither reproduce their huge success: the still-active account @HistoryInPics boasts today more than 4 million followers.

Similarly, the blog project “Retronaut” (See the past like you wouldn’t believe) started in 2010 with WolgangWild’s idea to share his fascination for the nostalgia by showcasing and curating his own collection of odd and eccentric old photographs in so-called ‘capsules’ of time. Three weeks after the launch, the site got 30,000 hits in one day thanks to a post celebrating wonderful Kodachrome color photographs of 1949’s London. In 2014, the blog’ success led to an exclusive partnership with Mashable and Retronaut’s content became the most shared and viewed piece on the whole website. By now more than 40,000 Retronautic photographs were published, each one carefully chosen for its power « to disrupt the viewers’ sense of the past » and to generate a viral hit, based on what Wild established as the S.P.E.E.D. formula: a unique approach for predicting any archival photograph’s potential for drawing an enormous audience.

Most importantly, a great appetite for archival storytelling (when done right) emerged, and thanks to all the disruption in the way content is being distributed, the rise of social media and cross-media made it work even better. Filmmakers and content creators, as well as newspapers and even archival sources, quickly grabbed that unique opportunity to reach a global audience. Let’s shade a light on some of those standout projects that bring archives and history even closer to the contemporary audience.

As a former journalist seeking for new territories apart from the traditional press and the linear documentary, Bruno Masi is one of the pioneers of the web documentary form with his interactive project “La Zone”(2011), revealing the Chernobyl aftermath. A couple of years later on the occasion of the centenary of the WWI, he creates the project 1914 Dernières Nouvelles(co-produced by Arte and Bachibouzouk), an online newspaper that will set a daily appointment with the contemporary audience. In an attempt to immerse the audience into the daily life and escalating dangers of this crucial year, through the use of a pseudo-live temporality, the project displays one archival photograph per day during eight months, together with press articles and additional textual information that help to bring context in some sort of « popcorn narration ». As a partnership between TV channel Arte and newspaper Liberation, the project has been displayed in different channels and platforms simultaneously in order to multiply the impact of the project.

The author’s latest experimental project “Barricade“(co-produced by INA, Bachibouzouk, and Liberation.fr) is based on a similar process, with a web-series of 20 episodes, 20 minutes each, telling hour by hour May 1968’s most violent day. Based on archival footage from INA’s collections, the series aims to respect the historical chronology of the events while the unusual use of voices inputs a fictional and cinematographic storytelling approach to the narration. Should we refer to it as docu-fiction? Not really. Instead, chief editor at digital productions INA Amandine Collinet is more likely to speak about « documented fiction », a new sophisticated form of storytelling where archives are treated as a pure material of fiction.

“La Grande Explication” is another project recently initiated by the French archive INA together with RTS in resonance with anniversary dates which appear to be the most rewarding strategy to drive audience. Dedicated for a youth target audience mainly active on Facebook, this 10 episodes web-series aims at deciphering ten major historical events, from Hiroshima bombing to Nelson Mandela election, while overlaying the archive clips with modern graphics such as text message bubbles inspired by the smartphone aesthetic in order to «dynamize and desacralize the archives ».

Yet, speaking about repackaging the archives using the technologies of today, a special mention needs to go out to 1968.DIGITAL, the first-ever mobile documentary series. Specially tailored for smartphone screens, this ongoing project takes up the challenge of revisiting the story of one heroic character per week through the lens of their iPhone and the various apps they could have owned in 1968; viewers witness the Beatles exchanging via a WhatsApp chat, Andy Warhol sharing photos on Instagram, Gabriel Garcia Marquez writing in Notes, and Martin Luther King’s funeral is announced via a Facebook’s event reminder.

Created and produced by Russian independent journalists and cofounders of Future History studio, Mikhail Zygar and Karen Shainyan, this project is the result of a prior effort to bring primary sources to the forefront with “Project1917“, a web-project relying on Facebook daily posting style to immerse the audience into the making of the Russian Revolution. In addition to providing a fresh experience of the past, Future History’s projects rely on a very specific mission statement: showing how major events shaped the culture and the society of nowadays while revealing patterns of similarities and clear influences between people across the world, both in the present and the past.

A social media phenomenon, “1968.DIGITAL(The Year that created the world as we know it) has so far reached millions of views thanks to a smart distribution strategy based on partnerships with different news media, maximizing the chance to disseminate the content across a wide variety of channels and platforms… and to multiply the views. The project was initially designed as a three-episode series untitled “Future History: 1968,” which was premiered by BuzzFeed News, the millennial-focused site, and it was released exclusively on Apple News before going to YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Soon additional news publishers have joined the project such as “Liberation.fr” for producing a French version of the series.


All this is actually very representative of what’s going on today with news businesses: they are in a frenzy for original, fresh and higher-quality video content to license or produce, and especially for short docs aiming to recap historical moments while providing context to nowadays world Another great example is The New York Times ‘partnership with the news organization Retro Report, which has produced more than 125 short docs, combining investigative journalism and narrative storytelling to tell the audience the history behind the news.

A mix of digital creatives and journalists, all those highly-engaged creators  are not only working on adding a modern twist to archival storytelling but they are also giving a fresh and unprecedented access to history and archives to the youngest generations via unique video experiences delivered directly to their doors: in Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Mashable, BuzzFeed etc. What an exciting and optimistic time for archival storytelling.

Documentary Festivals, Uncategorized

Archive Topics at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018


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Sheffield Doc/Fest is UK’s biggest documentary festival welcoming 32,700+ visitors each year, including more than 3,500 industry professionals from over 60 countries. In addition to the rich and diverse film screening program, the festival offers tons of great events dedicated to the innovation, craft and business of the documentary industry. Attended by many archival producers and researchers, the topic of archive footage use will be featured in the screening program, in addition to several talks. We’ve prepared a quick guide highlighting everything dedicated to archives at this year’s festival.

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Archive Researchers, Documentary Festivals, Rare footage

MIPDoc2018: Key takeaways from Archive Valley’s panel​ talk with James Hunt and Thorsten Pollfuss


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Archive Valley was thrilled to attend MIPDoc 2018. The event, dedicated to non-fiction programming, hosts 700 participants from over 50 countries—making it a perfect stage for Archive Valley to showcase our passion for archival footage and research. Our CEO Melanie Rozencwajg worked with an amazing team behind the event to organize and lead a panel discussion about the enormous potential of rare archives, and how they empower storytelling through unique global perspectives. The title of the panel was “Archives & Storytelling: Unearthing Unique Footage at a Global Scale.” 
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