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“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.

Archive Valley’s community boasts 500+ talented archive researchers in over 60 countries. If your production needs an archival researcher/producer, you can sign up and find the right person for the job in just a couple of easy steps.

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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.

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