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.
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“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.
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In this interview, we get the chance to get some inside information from director Tom Jennings, a Peabody and Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker. He has written, produced and directed more than 400 hours of programming on a variety of topics, including politics, religion, history, crime, sports, mystery and travel. He has produced documentary films all around the globe, always looking for new ways to tell stories that are informative and entertaining.
Tom lives and works in LA, he’s at the front-row seat of the heart of the industry in the US. This is an amazing opportunity to hear the voice of an acclaimed filmmaker who knows the industry inside-out has and witnessed how it changed and evolved in the past 15 – 20 years.
First, before all the questions about the industry that we have for you – can you talk a bit about you, your work and where it all started for you?
My first job was being a newspaper reporter. I have a degree in journalism from Kent State University in Ohio. I wrote for papers in Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles before changing careers to write television documentaries. I made that change in the late 1990s, right as cable networks were taking off. Production companies needed people who could write and thankfully my background made me a good candidate for telling stories that were to the point and easy to understand. When executive producers saw that I could write scripts without much trouble, they started sending me out to do interviews with film crews. I had no idea how film shoots worked, but I knew how to interview people from being a journalist. The film crews I worked with in those early days taught me a lot about production – how to light, how to shoot b-roll and how to be sure I had the proper coverage to tell a story. Those crews were like my film school. I became a director after that and in 2004 I sold my first series to Discovery Channel and I’ve had my own production company ever since. We do films that exist somewhere between pure journalism and television documentaries. It’s a great fit for me and I really love what I do. I’m very lucky.
You’ve been working in the industry for the past 15 years, what are the big changes you witnessed in the past 5 years as an insider?
The changes going on in our industry are coming very fast. There are huge changes in the technology we use to create films. Editing systems are more powerful. Access to images from around the globe are nearly instantaneous and our ability to do everything in-house, including mixing and color corrections now possible because systems are more affordable. At the same time, selling programming to networks has become more challenging and confusing. It’s always been difficult to find the sweet spot of what a network wants, but with the advent of streaming services and other internet platforms, there’s a certain chaos going on now. Everyone is trying to figure out how to “cut through the noise” of an immense amount of content out there. My job is to constantly monitor who is buying what, what types of programs do well, what is in the zeitgeist for audiences and can I blend all that together to make films that we find fascinating. So far, we’ve been lucky, and I hope we can continue to make the kind of programming we love, whether it be for cable or streaming.
In light of today’s competitive landscape and the rising demand for content: do producers and filmmakers, like you, feel the pressure to produce more and hence the need to constantly find new ideas?
We are ALWAYS on the lookout for new ideas. Fortunately, for me, coming from a journalism background I have a pretty good instinct of how to find them. When I was a newspaper reporter we had a city editor who would say, “Slow news day, get out on the streets and find me a great story”. It was great training for finding ideas for documentaries. However, I know I have to tailor ideas to what networks want. I may find something that is amazing, but if no one is buying that kind of material than it remains just that, a great idea. I often joke with my staff about how we have to strike a balance between great ideas for films and making sure those ideas fit what can sell. “I could have an interview with Jesus Christ himself,” I tell my staff, “And a network will say, ‘Sorry, we’re not doing religion shows right now.’” Regardless of the idea, any idea has to fit to have a home, or it won’t go anywhere.
Do you think that today’s competitive landscape for broadcasters raises the bar in terms of quality (for documentaries) and does it also require bigger production budgets?
This is a double-edged sword, to be sure. Budgets have always been tight. I’ve never talked with a producer who has said, “We had more than enough money to make that show”. For premium content, especially with international travel or purchasing very expensive archival images, networks acknowledge that the budget has to be big enough to handle those costs. However, even when budgets are small, the expectation of quality is high. We’re always looking for clever ways to stretch our dollars to be sure everything is on the screen.
What does it take to have a good idea for a documentary film? Do unique archives play an important role in the construction of a film?
It takes having a great story, unique access, unseen images, great storytellers and sometimes a well-known actor to host. There are dozens of things that go into getting a show on the air and the alchemy in that process is finding the right balance of all these factors. Depending on the story, archive can play a tremendously important factor. But it’s not like 10 or 15 years ago where old black and white images were used as “wallpaper” (as we say) to help illustrate what someone being interviewed is telling us. Today, our use of archive has to be more vibrant, an integral part of the fabric of the story. Many of our films have ONLY archive in them, which makes a lot of what we do unique. We use the images and sounds from events of long ago to bring those stories back to life in ways that no recreation can. But with archive, there is either too much material or too little. We can spend weeks going through images and footage of well-covered events, but when we need to illustrate a particular moment, often we can’t find anything that fits the narrative. Regardless of how archive is used in a film, if you’re going to use it, use it well.
How do you look for new ideas? Have you built strong relationships with archive sources? Do archive sources come to you to let you know about their unique collections? or do you often look for them?
Great ideas are everywhere. I tell my staff that every day in The New York Times there are 25 ideas for documentaries – and they are NOT in the headlines on Page 1. You have to keep your eyes and ears open. Ideas will come to you, but you have to learn how to recognize them – and to dig them out when they are not obvious. Sometimes I’ll just go on the Wikipedia main page and hit the link to “random article”. You would be amazed what can pop up. And though those links aren’t often a perfect documentary idea they can get you thinking about things that may seem random, but suddenly make perfect sense. I’m always reading general interest magazines and newspapers. I listen to as many radio programs and podcasts that I can. I look at what books are selling on Amazon. I keep up with what’s being researched at universities to see if there are new discoveries coming out. I always check in with sources for past films to see what’s new in their lives and ask if they have heard of anything great coming their way. I love going to libraries and just walking through the stacks looking at book titles. I think about all the things happening in the world and wonder what stories are out there that no one has thought to pursue. And suddenly, a light goes off in my brain and says – “That one could work!” And then the hard part starts – research, making sure it hasn’t been done before, and seeing if my bright light moment is something that will fit with the buyers.
When you pitch to broadcasters is the promise of accessing unique archives a selling argument, in order to build original documentaries and captivate a wider audience?
Many of the broadcasters to whom we pitch are extremely interested in hearing about long-lost or never-before-seen footage. The networks definitely use this as a big selling point. I can’t blame them. It gives them marketing leverage in a highly competitive market place. But it pays to know your history when it comes to programming on cable and on streaming. I can’t tell you how many times I see commercials for programs that claim, “never before seen” or “never before heard” and I know that my company or someone else’s company did that same program five or ten years ago. Memories are short these days. Having a background in journalism, I’m always sure that when I bring the networks something special that I know it really is something never before heard or seen. And this works for the audience, as well. If they think they are going to see something new about a story they thought they knew, they’ll be intrigued and hopefully tune in.
Is there a higher demand for documentaries today than in the past?
Yes. A few decades ago, there were a handful of people making feature documentaries. Major network news divisions had documentary divisions and there were places like National Geographic Films, which existed longer before the channel. PBS was also a place to sell documentary programming. But in general, the options were limited (and I have to add the caveat this was before my time in the documentary business). When cable television got really going in the 1990s, places like Discovery, History and others wanted a lot of hour-long documentaries to put on their airwaves. It was a bit of a golden age. I worked for several documentary companies during that time and my work took me all around the world to places I thought I would never go, and to meet people I thought I would never meet. Then reality television came along, and let’s face it reality television is basically a hijacked version of the documentary format. But audiences loved those shows and the demand for long-form television docs started to dwindle. About five or six years ago, we were convinced we would have to start producing programming in the reality space because that was where all the work was. And then something happened. I’m still not sure what, but audiences grew weary of reality programming and circled back to wanting better stories and films that felt more unique. Suddenly, the type of films we make are in vogue again. I’m grateful for that.
What makes a documentary project appealing today for US broadcasters and so streaming channels such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu? (does it need to be international, have already a huge community base of fans, have unique angles, archives etc…..)
Nearly every broadcaster we deal with wants programming that can “travel”, meaning it can be shown anywhere on the planet and people will still find it interesting. To help them with that, we are tasked with often finding new angles on well-known stories that nearly everyone knows. Our film about Princess Diana for National Geographic was one of the highest-rated films the network has ever had internationally (besides doing well in the United States). Her story is one that is known worldwide, so getting people to tune in is easier. The trick is to have a story that is so good that those viewers won’t change the channel. Another network once told me, if you’re going to pitch me a shipwreck story it had better be the Titanic. Even though we have found dozens of great shipwreck stories, many of them with unbelievable archival footage connected to them, I’ll have a much better chance of making a sale if I find something new about the Titanic.
More than 2000 TV/Film professionals use Archive Valley for their archival footage needs
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 “Meeting Gorbachev” being more than a straightforward biopic.
More than 2000 TV/Film professionals use Archive Valley for their archival footage needs
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.
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.
More than 2000 TV/Film professionals use Archive Valley for their archival footage needs