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?
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.
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.
“Diego Maradona” is the latest Asif Kapadia documentary, and it is fully archive-driven – more than 500 hours of never-before-seen archive footage were used. The documentary explores the man behind the icon and it was in the spotlights at Festival de Cannes 2019. The archival production is a result of a joint effort of Archive Producers Fiammetta Luino and Lina Caicedo, and Argentina-based Archive Researchers Laura Tusi and Rita Falcon. Fiammetta and Laura are part of Archive Valley’s community of professional archive researchers and it was a great opportunity to get some insights about one of the most anticipated documentaries of the year.
The project has involved a “small army” of archive researchers. How did you all end up working on this film?
Lina: Before this I had been working as a researcher at a television production company where I had been lucky enough to work with Miriam Walsh, an incredible Archive Producer who not only had a wealth of experience under her belt, but who also taught me to see archive in a different way. Doing archive research with Miriam was never boring, I was always learning something new and through her support and guidance, I started developing my own taste and eye for what I felt worked well visually in a story. Perhaps it was the space and confidence she gave me that allowed me to develop the curiosity and appreciation that I have for archive today.
After working with Miriam, I decided that it was time to spread my wings and look for something different. I had been a huge fan of Asif’s work and I was particularly inclined to work with him after watching a Film4 interview where he discussed the filmmaking process of “Amy”. In this interview he spoke about the forensic research that had been carried out, the layers to the story and the importance of archive. But what caught my attention the most, was the fact that he didn’t know much about his protagonist at the start of the process and it was only along the way that he started to figure out who she was and what the story was. To me this sounded like the sort of creative process I wanted to be part of. A creativity journey and deep filmmaking of sorts.
I reached out to Asif’s company and didn’t hear back straight away. About 6 months later, I received an email telling me that Asif was developing his third feature doc and whether I wanted to come in for an interview.
Fiammetta :I started working on the project as a translator back in 2016, when they were cutting a teaser to raise the money for the film. Some Italian footage needed to be translated into English, so a friend put my name forward as an Italian speaker who could do the job. At the time I was leaving behind a career in the art world to follow my dream to make documentaries. I knew about Asif’s work, I had watched and loved both Senna and Amy. So I gave all I could on that first assignment and communicated quite strongly my interest in the project! Then came more translations, then a work experience, then some research and in the end… everything that had to do with Italy, from the research of the story, to the relationships with all contributors there and the sourcing and delivery of all the Italian archive.
Rita: I met George Pank, one of the producers at On the Corner, in Buenos Aires, in a bar, back in 2015. We started talking casually, and he told me he was interested in going to Fiorito, the neighbourhood were Maradona was brought up, for a project in development he was working on. A friend of mine helped out with this Fiorito visit, and we stayed in touch over email. George already knew I worked on film archive research and distribution. In 2016 during Berlin Film Festival we reconnected and he asked if I could send my CV because they needed archive researchers on the ground to bring in material from Argentina. I immediately thought of Laura to partner up in this because she is on of the most experienced professionals in the field and I knew it was going to be a very intense journey.
Laura: I have been working as an archive producer and researcher for a decade, Rita and I had worked together before and we trusted each other. In the first interview we had on Skype I felt that the OTC recruiting team saw that we were well prepared to do this. I had seen Senna and Amy, when they hired us I couldn’t believe it, but quickly it felt both right and daring.
Director Asif Kapadia has gained a huge recognition with two others archive-driven stories – Senna (2010) and Amy (2015). What was different, in terms of gathering archive footage, in this film?
Fiammetta: From an archive perspective, Diego Maradona presented some specific challenges that maybe were not so predominant in Senna and Amy. The language is one: everything is either in Italian or in Spanish, so everything had to be translated. On top of that, Naples is a city with a unique, strong identity and culture. Part of my job as an Italian mother-tongue Archive Producer also became a matter of being able to convey to Asif and Chris King, the editor, the flavour and nuances of the language being spoken in the archive and the cultural context behind the images.
The other challenge we encountered was that hardcore fans in Naples had told us at the beginning that everything concerning Diego had already been seen! So Lina and I had to delve into a vast array of secondary and unconventional sources of archive, in order to find unseen archive material, crucial to the story Asif wanted to tell. This meant that we were often dealing with individuals and institutions not used to license material, a process that has demanded a lot of perseverance, care and creativity !
Lina: I didn’t work on Senna or Amy – but as Fiammetta said one of the huge differences was language.
Asif didn’t speak Spanish or Italian, so it was very difficult for him to build up a direct personal relationship with Diego and the key contributors. So he had to trust in both Fiammetta and I to create the links, build the relationships, set up the interviews, get access to personal archive and finally negotiate the deals. It was a huge collaboration.
The other difference was perhaps a cultural one. Although I am Latin-American, I do not live there and so it took me awhile to get used to the fact that the archive sector isn’t as developed as it is in the US and the UK. There isn’t a whole structure of people exclusively dedicated to archive, who can give you clear answers with solid results. Everything is quite elusive and you sort of have to find your own way. Everything is case by case and there are so many grey areas. This was something that was constantly playing against us, which I don’t think was the case on Amy and Senna.
Laura: Although I read about the archive research methods applied in Senna and Amy, I didn’t take part in those films so I’d rather refer to the overall process of covering a celebrity like Diego Maradona: we had a very long career to document, 4 decades of registers in many countries, as a sports man, a family man and a celebrity, so the sources for footage were definitely too many: from long standing TV networks, sport institutions, to his relatives home movies, (to begin with)… All in several supports, with different levels of access and licensing terms. Chaotic at first glance. Rita and I set up a map of archive footage providers and an access approach plan. When we got the first screeners everything started to fall into place and we started to work with Lina. That process took three years and we faced different challenges along the way. I was amazed with their level of organization, Raquel Alvarez, production manager, was very helpful. She worked in both Senna and Amy so she knew!
Rita: I didn’t work in the previous films either, so I couldn’t compare. It was very challenging because Maradona’s career was an incredibly rich story to tell and we were driven by the desire to find different footage of Maradona than the images we were used to seeing on TV or on the hundreds of documentaries made before. We started our process by getting our hands on all the biographies written on him, in order to jot down significant events that would have been taped and broadcasted from Argentina, which is were our research took place, or that could be in hands of fans, or collaborators of Diego. We also did many informal interviews with people that had worked with him or covered sports for different media, in order to secure our sources of archive. So we pretty much covered all the angles: press, radio, photos, broadcasters. We became addicts to Maradona’s footage and at the end of the process we felt like we knew him deeply!
One could say that he has a very personal and modern way to create doc portraits out of archives. How did you collaborate with him in terms of archive ?
Fiammetta: Working with Asif on this film has been an amazing experience. Asif’s documentaries truly emerge from the existing archive and from the interviews he conducts; they are distilled through a long process of watching and listening, of observing and reflecting. For that reason, he likes to watch and work on the footage on his own Avid, while Chris, the editor, cuts the film on a nearby station. So while Asif and Chris were discovering the footage and cutting the film, Lina and I were in the room next door, doing our own parallel review of the footage in function of the evolving cut of the film, looking for new archive footage when new directions in the cut required new images or simply helping Asif and Chris to find the right material among the thousands of hours that we had gathered.
That meant that we were in constant dialogue with Asif throughout the making of the film and that has been an incredible privilege for me, as it has allowed me to peer straight into the creative workings of Asif’s filmmaking.
It also meant that impossible footage requests landed on my desk regularly! But I like challenges. And thanks to Asif’s relentless optimism, we did end up finding things we thought we would never find. So that was a precious lesson in itself and I am grateful to Asif for having taught me that.
Lina: The collaborative process with Asif is an ongoing conversation. Very open, constantly moving, constantly changing and a lot of trial and error. At times it drove us crazy, but the journey was always interesting. Asif is obsessive, so he needs and wants to see absolutely EVERYTHING, hence our research had to be very expansive. Fiammetta and I read many books, spoke to many people and pulled in tons of archive (from my end, with a lot of support from Laura and Rita, who were always on the ground to help). Throughout the process, we would be discussing ideas with Asif at all times: in the edit, over email, through Whatsapp or team meetings. For Asif, it was important that he was to be able to watch any footage that came in on a timeline, He is very curious and finds appreciation in the smallest and most nuanced things, so we always knew that we could throw in anything that we personally found interesting and there would always be a fruitful discussion.
Laura: Asif delves into the psychology of the character in a way that makes you, as a researcher, approach the subject from multiple angles. I’d say every archive production is one of a kind. However, a movie that is made with only archive footage is a very different thing. Once Asif told us something like “I don’t use cameras, so you are my eyes”. Then our mission was crystal clear, we had to “show” him Diego Maradona.
How did you manage to gather 500 hours of never-before-seen archive footage? Where did you dig? What was your process?
Fiammetta: The production of the film really took off when the producers James Gay-Rees and Paul Martin secured access to the archive of cameramen Juan Laburu and Gino Martucci, who had worked for Diego during his years in Naples. I came onboard when that archive footage had already been secured. It included mostly football, albeit shot from the side of the pitch and with a special eye on Diego. And it also included some really great family videos. It was an incredible starting point, but we knew there were many gaps we needed to bridge and, indeed, some of the most memorable scenes that are now in the film were found later on, via other sources.
I’d say that rule number one was: research, research, research. You’d be surprised by how many crucial archive cues are buried in books, articles or random YouTube posts!
Second rule was: meet the people. We cast our net very wide and we met and talked in person to as many people as we could. You never know what people may have recorded and then forgotten about it.
And the third rule was: don’t accept ‘no’ as an answer. There were so many instances in which, had I stop at the first ‘No, we don’t have that’, ‘No, we can’t licence this’, then we would have missed some great moments that are now in the film.
Lina: As Fiammetta said, when we started on the project, On The Corner had just got access to the archive footage of two cameramen who had closely followed Diego’s football career between 1981 and 1991. So when we began, there was already a good foundation for us to get a taste of Diego’s time in Napoli. The archive footage had tons of great football and some fun home family footage, but it was also quite disorganised. There were duplicates, things cut in half or different versions of the same thing. So, we had to go back to basics – that is, create a very tight timeline and as Fiammetta said research, research, research”.
The research allowed us to get a better understanding of the footage that we were logging, but also helped us decipher what was missing or what we thought could be interesting and didn’t have yet. Once we knew what were looking for, we would reach out to various sources in order to try and trace it. A good example of this would be a clip we released last month, which Asif calls “The Gladiator Walk” of Diego’s arrival to the Napoli stadium in July 1984. This sequence alone, came from three different archive sources. We had read about this conference over and over again and nobody seemed to have it. But we kept on digging and finally were able to piece it together through various sources.
To conclude, the footage was a mixture of broadcast, personal footage (which included Diego’s camera men, family and friends) and private collectors. Every single person that we spoke to or interviewed, we would ask them archive related questions. It was like piecing together a huge puzzle.
Laura: I mostly worked with Argentinean audiovisual and graphic archives, where we eventually found some archive footage coming from news agencies or international services as well. As mentioned before, Maradona’s life in media is 40 years long and we had plenty of time to work, which made the whole difference. In general as a Latin America based archive researcher / producer, I am given an average of 4 months to cover an entire project, be it film or series. Working with On The Corner was awesome in that sense: they know how to make good archive productions and they allocate the means for that to happen. We had enough time to work on a highly complex licensing process, which was vital.
What were the biggest challenges you had to face…
Laura: Easy: keeping it confidential. Diego Maradona and his entourage are very active in all kinds of media in Argentina. We were constantly careful of not leaking any sort of information because it could damage the production. Fortunately we managed to get along with everyone involved and it all went on in a respectful way.
Fiammetta: The biggest challenge I had to face was… not having worked in Italy for a long while ! I forgot how convoluted systems can be there, how longwinded and improvised some processes are, how hard it can be to have your emails answered. You really need to be on the ball and be ready to persevere to be able to work there.
But I was also very quickly reminded of how genuinely friendly people there can be. I had the chance to find a few incredibly kind and helpful people and that made up for all the rest of the struggle!
Lina: There were many challenges, but I would have to go back to what I was saying earlier about archive processes in Latin-America. Although Argentina has a long history of great filmmaking, the archive sector is totally underfunded and under developed, making the archive research and clearing process extremely slow and very bureaucratic. There is no clarity on copyright either, so sometimes it felt like you were jumping through a black hole. There was actually a very frightening moment in post production when we had 2 weeks to pull in all the final masters for the film and at last minute, one of the Argentine broadcasters told us that we couldn’t receive the masters because the archivists had gone on strike and the issues were not likely to be resolved until the following year. I think I didn’t sleep for two days, trying to find all possible solutions.
… and your eureka moments ?
Laura: My personal eureka moment was at America TV archive, where Rita and I saw the footage of Diego about to die being carried in an ambulance, Claudia Villafañe, his then ex wife, is with him and asks the journalists to stay out. It was so shocking, I could feel Diego’s pain and that helped me connect with the character. This happened during the first weeks of work, June 2016!
Fiammetta: I think the best feeling of this job is when you have spent months of research and tricky conversations to get to some archive and then you watch it for the first time and something jolts in you and you just know it: that image will be in the film.
It happened a few times to me on this film and every time those specific images come up on the big screen I’m reminded of the very first time I encountered them.
Lina : Ummm. After so much research, there is archive that you come across at the beginning of the process and perhaps don’t think is relevant. But later on (maybe two years later) it becomes relevant and it suddenly it’s like “aha! I know where that is”. And it’s heartwarming, because it makes you realise how important the process is.
How was this experience unique / different from working with other directors?
Fiammetta: One of Asif’s greatest qualities is that he is incredibly curious and an extremely active listener. While many directors may only be interested in telling you what they think, Asif’s approach is diametrically opposed: he comes to you with a thousand questions, to start with. That creates a very collaborative atmosphere in the team. He is also a die-hard optimist. If an obstacle arises, he will keep pushing – and expect you to keep pushing – till it has been overcome. I found that incredibly motivating and energising. Finally, he has an incredibly fine instinct when it comes to suss personal character and the hidden workings of a story, like the one of Maradona. It has been amazing to be able to watch him find his way into this story and make sense of it.
Rita: Participating in the recording of interviews in Argentina was definitely a lesson in documentary filmmaking for me. Asif’s way of phrasing the questions, some of which were very delicate; how he managed to make the interviewee feel comfortable to speak from the heart; his obsession in understanding this buildungsroman story of Maradona; his attentiveness to the small anecdotes which at the end were what created this sense of intimacy that is so powerful.
Lina: This is the first director I have ever worked with so closely and so intensely. But from previous short stints and observation, I would say that Asif is one of the most open directors I have ever come across. He is up for and not afraid of a challenge and there is always good dialogue with him. He is compassionate and a good listener. More importantly, he gave both Fiammetta and I a voice and trusted us intimately and I thank him for that, because that’s ultimately what helps you grow
Laura: All things mentioned above and… The unique opportunity of being Asif’s translator! Rita and I participated of many interviews as simultaneous translators, so that made me see AK’s storytelling method. He interviews with a narrative arc in mind, because he knows the characters so well that he can anticipate to what they are going to say, and then he manages to make people to open up a little and say something new. I really appreciate the opportunity of being there, I learnt a lot.
Do you think Diego Maradona still has secrets from you? Did you develop any special emotional connection with the person behind the icon?
Rita: I can definitely say that I now have more empathy towards Maradona. Before getting involved in the film I was far more judgemental about everything he said or did. After so many months of digging into his fascinating life story, I have developed a sort of fondness that won’t go away easily.
Laura: Definitely, he’s unpredictable. However, I don’t feel the need to know more about him, working in this movie made me understand him as a highly mediatized person, sort of a prisoner of himself, both positively and negatively. I did enjoy getting to know the people who love him, his family, Fernando Signorini, Daniel Arcucci, they were key for me to empathise with both Diego and Maradona.
Fiammetta: I personally never met Diego Maradona. I only got to know him by watching and listening to the archive and by talking to the people who met him and knew him in Italy. And, in a way, I prefer it this way. I feel the world has demanded him to be a specific person before he could figure out for himself who he truly was. So, to have gathered an impression of him through stolen moments that survive in the archive, little slips in the footage and the inconsistencies he expressed here and there, seems like an appropriate way to have ‘met’ him.
Lina : I’m sure there are millions of secrets. But if you want to know the truth, don’t ask him. Haha.
I met him a couple of times with Asif, but I wouldn’t say that I built a special emotional connection with him. Perhaps more one of curiosity. I think he was often baffled by this Colombian-Anglo girl and Indian-Anglo man. But there was always respect. In a funny way, I think he found Asif quite charming.
More than 2000 TV/Film professionals use Archive Valley for their archival footage needs
In recent years, audiences have been captivated by new exciting documentary films about the lives and music of famous musicians and performers from The Beatles, The Grateful Dead and Nina Simone to Amy Winehouse and Nirvana. Jessica Berman Bogdan is a veteran archive producer and the CEO of Global Image Works, where she works together with Cathy Carapella, as music rights and clearances professional. As a team, they have worked on some amazing archival music documentaries, finding and clearing the images and music that made the films possible.
In this episode of our series, Jessica and Cathy discuss the ins and outs of sourcing and clearing material related to the music industry for documentary film and television productions. From budgeting to understanding the multiple kinds of rights associated with music and live performance footage, they shared some key advice for producers and archive researchers looking to create lasting works about the music, it’s creators and the performers that bring it to life.
More episodes from the masterclass series to come soon! If you want to be the first to know when the next one will become available, simply sign up on the platform and get exclusive early access to all our weekly updates, interviews and videos dedicated to the world of archive research.
‘Bobby Kennedy for President’ is shaping up to be one of Netflix’s biggest documentary releases of 2018. The four-part series is not only a fascinating study of American politics during that period but also an intimate portrait of the complex Robert Kennedy. We had the chance to catch up with the series’ Archival Producer, Rich Remsberg, who is also a member of our international community of professional archive researchers. We spoke about the monumental archive research and production that made this series a true achievement in historical documentary.
How did you get involved in the project? There are plenty of films dedicated to the Kennedy’s, what made this one unique for you?
From the initial phone call with the producers, it was clear that this project would go deeper than the usual treatment of Robert Kennedy. For starters, the four-hour format allowed for the archival to breathe in a way that is not possible in shorter docs. The intelligence that the director and producers conveyed in talking about the story suggested that they understood RFK’s complexities and contradictions and that this story would be told with a good deal of dimension.
Considering the enormous volume of archives coming from multiple sources, how did you manage to organize the workflow?
Largely by relying on colleagues! During the research phase of the project, I was focused on finding material; our archival co-producer, Brian Becker, sorted and tracked it all. We used color coding and a couple of pretty straightforward spreadsheets on Google Docs, and Brian had a lot in his head. Our assistant editors ran a very tight ship, and our story producer, Elizabeth Wolff, had total recall for every aspect of RFK’s history.
For managing costs and licensing, I had a more complicated set of linked Excel spreadsheets to accommodate the four individual episodes and project totals. I came to see spreadsheets as something like crossword puzzles, where the game is to fill in every square.
What was the most challenging part of the process?
Without question, the most difficult part of the project was the effort to get footage from archives that would not grant access or made it difficult. There were several, with varying reasons and importance to the project, and they resolved in different ways. For political and politeness sake, I won’t go into details, but it was extremely stressful and we lost a lot of sleep over it. My hair was actually falling out in clumps.
Negotiating terms to meet our budget and ironing our contract language for so many different sources was also a challenge. Because we started ordering for the first hour before we knew what we were using in the fourth, it was especially awkward. I’m grateful to the archives who were willing to work with us on this.
What was your ‘eureka’ moment?
Hard to say, the production schedule didn’t leave much time for savoring in such things. Certainly, finding the footage of Marian Wright Edleman testifying before the Senate committee was an important moment. She speaks so unbelievably beautifully, and she laid out most of what we needed for the exposition of RFK’s southern poverty tours. It also alerted the team to her as a contemporary interview, and she added a lot to the film in that respect.
Another important moment was finding Howard K. Smith’s critical commentary on the Kennedys. There wasn’t much in the way of television news commentary in those early years – Smith and one other commentator were about it. I went through a lot of old TV listings to find references to the original aired programs, but the films were not in the ABC archives. There was a moment of panic, but then I managed to find surviving reels of enough of the programs at the University of Wisconsin. We were able to access from UW and clear with ABC.
Is there a specific piece of footage that you are the most proud of?
There are probably bigger moments to point to, but I liked a lot of the small details, mostly from local news archives, that helped paint a very human picture of Bobby – both the ways people connected with him and their deep dislike of him: Paul Newman’s terse comments from WTMJ, the woman with the excellent bouffant hairdo from Southern Methodist, a dozen different pieces from University of Georgia.
Did you use any international sources to bring fresh new perspectives to the story?
Only a British Pathé newsreel and a British interview that is now in an American archive. This was mostly a US-focused story. For the bits on RFK’s travel to Europe and South Africa, we mostly relied on coverage from the National Archives and the networks.
Could you tell us a bit more about your relationship with the director? How did the script evolve over time with the footage you found?
I worked with Dawn Porter, the director, and Laura Michalchyshyn, the Executive Producer, mostly on big-picture aspects of the project: tone, overall story, the nature of Bobby’s character, key elements, and so forth. Also on budget and legal concerns. For the more specific development, I worked closely with Elizabeth and Brian, considering how to fill story beats, figuring how best to use different pieces of archival, how the archival could build the story structure. As Elizabeth developed the script, there was a lot of her hitting me with requests and my finding the footage quickly to get it into the edit.
Everyone on the project favored using the best footage we could and figuring out how to clear and pay for it later. That made for some long days toward the end, but I think it paid off on the screen.
Netflix is putting a strong focus on heavy archive-driven projects, proving that there is a real demand for the genre. What was the key to creating an immersive experience for a broad audience? How do you think the film appeals to a younger generation?
I think we’ve recently entered a golden age for archival documentaries. One of the best things about that is the platform allows for greater integrity of archival material. Rather than dropping bits of illustrative archival into one- to six-second slots during interviews, there is time for the archival to breathe, to create a more cohesive immersive environment, to convey subtlety, to suggest mood, to express more complex thoughts, to live with contradiction, to get a visceral feel for the atmosphere of the time. OJ was great about this, so was Wild Wild Country. We’re seeing it more and more. I’ve been saying that four hours is the new hour.
Another is that by virtue of being archival-driven it can be less mediated. Interviews can still offer some perspective and keep the story on track, but allowing the archival to carry the historical information leaves more space for the viewer to bring his or her own understanding to the story. I think the best films leave the audience with a complex understanding of the subject and room for different viewers to have different understanding.
I don’t know how many meetings I’ve been in where an executive producer says that young people just aren’t interested in history. I’ve never believed that to be true, and what I’ve found from talking to actual young people is that they expect the visuals to look good, and they don’t want the film to tell them what to think.
How do you think the movie resonates with the audience considering the current political and social developments in USA?
Hoo boy, this really merits a much longer rant, but in the interest of space, I’ll say that 1968 was a node in history where we might have taken a better path. It can be dangerous to play with counterfactual what-ifs, but it’s hard not to entertain at least a thought of that road not taken. I don’t harbor a simple belief that Bobby would have taken us into a beautiful sunlight-bathed world of compassion and justice, but he was an extremely powerful voice – arguably the best voice – for growing in a more mature way as a country, in understanding what it means to be an American citizen.
But here we are, a half century later, with the path taken, a selfish decline to the end of empire. At the same time, there are also other forces at work, and it’s right to ask where in that Bobby’s spirit dwells. It can certainly be found in much of the political resistence, of course, and I think it can be found in our individual sense of decency – not only in committed activists or people who even identify as especially political, just regular people whose conscience says, No that’s not okay; I recognize a different responsibility, and I feel something kinder.
We were never able to fit it into the film, but we tried working with the Dion song, “Abraham, Martin, and John.” It’s a romantic piece that misconceives the killing of Lincoln, JFK, King, and RFK. The part that still gives me chills, though, is the bridge where he asks the simple questions, “Didn’t you love the things they stood for? Didn’t they try to find some good in you and me?”
Rich Remsberg is part of Archive Valley’s community which 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.
More than 2000 TV/Film professionals use Archive Valley for their archival footage needs