Film Archiving: The Importance of Enlightening Those Audiences Sitting in the Dark

The theater lights dim, and everyone’s attention turns to the screen as a story comes to life. But what happens after the screenings end and the film is relegated to moviegoers’ memory? Who decides whether, years from now, that film will again grace another screen or be re-introduced to new audiences?

Jo Botting, Fiction Curator at the British Film Institute (BFI) National Archive, can answer those questions first-hand. She helps ensure that the world’s cinematic heritage is never lost. A film lover herself, she understands the “enduring fascination in watching old films–they tell us so much about where we’ve come from but also show that people haven’t really changed. Filmmakers of the past were skilled craftsmen who produced extraordinary works which still have the power to move and entertain.”

Botting’s most important job requires her to select and acquire moving image material into the archive’s collection, from donations by the film industry or the public. “It can take a bit of detective work to discover what’s inside the can of film or on the tape when it comes to us, which is one of the fun parts of the job.”

Part of the archivist’s challenge involves working with different formats that fall under the broad category of “moving image material”. Although archivists most often deal with film, the gauge can range from 8 to 16 to 35 mm. Tape or, more common today, digital files also arrive in the archive. So do DVDs, but they are only suitable for viewing, not for preservation, because the quality of the image is not good enough to project and the format is unstable. Nevertheless, researchers needing to watch that hard-to-find recording are glad that the National Archive keeps the DVDs as part of the collections.

Botting does more than accept artifacts and manage collections. Other typical tasks include overseeing “restorations and the making of new prints for screening purposes as well as curating the material in the Archive for various purposes, such as online access, DVD releases or programming on the big screen.”

As I can attest, yet another aspect of Botting’s job is dealing with questions and requests from the public, which can range from inquiring about one of the Archive’s holdings to proper film handling and storage. Although I live in the US and only periodically conduct research in London, I, along with hundreds of international researchers, often rely on the BFI National Archive for information about historic films or obscure materials relating to a director or an actor.

According to Botting, the BFI National Archive maintains “one of the biggest film collections in the world, containing around 180,000 films and 750,000 television programs. It preserves Britain’s film heritage from the beginnings of cinema in 1896, with probably the best collection of silent films anywhere, and looks after British film and television productions from throughout the 20th century right up to the present day.”

In addition to the collections of films and television programs, “the BFI National Library has been collecting books and periodicals since the ’30s, and the Special Collections contain unpublished papers from over 600 film personalities and organizations. The BFI Library contains a large collection of audio material available to researchers, mostly in-depth interviews with British actors, directors, and technicians.” In short, if it is film or television related and possible to be collected and archived, the BFI’s archives and libraries is the first place researchers should go.

Once an item has been preserved, the National Archive makes it available to the public “in as many ways as possible, whether it be through the BFI YouTube channel, the BFI’s Mediatheques around the country [located at the BFI Southbank in London and in Wrexham, Cambridge, Derby, and Newcastle], in television documentaries or on the big screen at the BFI Southbank and other cinemas in the UK. This way, everyone can have access to Britain’s screen heritage and discover and interpret it for themselves.”

Despite the expansive current collection, the archive has a “most wanted list” of 75 films. Developed in 2010 for its 75th anniversary, the list has yielded some discoveries, but Botting admits it’s often a waiting game. The list generates interest in and awareness of films missing from the current collection, and sometimes film buffs step forward to share a movie from their private collection. That’s what happened last year, when a collector kindly lent a 1933 Gracie Fields film to the archive so that a new 35mm print could be made for future screenings. In November the BFI screened the rare film. Botting enthusiastically noted that “it probably hadn’t been shown in public since it was first released, and it was great to bring it back to the big screen.”

A retrospective of Alfred Hitchcock films will become an important element in the London 2012 Festival accompanying the Olympic celebrations. “Topping the archive’s most wanted list is “Alfred Hitchcock’s second film, The Mountain Eagle, made in 1926. It would be fantastic to find it, especially since our big project for 2012 is to restore the director’s surviving silent productions. All nine of them will be presented as sparkling new prints with original scores.” (The BFI website describes the Rescue the Hitchcock 9 campaign.)

Although researchers well know the National Archive’s value and rely on it for everything from university degree projects to professional publications to background for future television programs or films, the public most often sees the results of archivists’ work when they attend a BFI special program. In 2010 Botting programmed a two-month season of Deborah Kerr films. Although Kerr made more than 40 films during her career, she is probably best known for From Here to Eternity or The King and I.

Instead of selecting films audiences were more likely to have seen, Botting prefers to choose films that “best represent the person or theme… it’s a bonus… to bring to light rarer films.” Because “Kerr had such a long and varied career and she was such a versatile and accomplished actress,” Botting was surprised at how many of her films weren’t available on DVD, and titles such as The End of the Affair (1955) and The Sundowners (1960) attracted good audiences. In addition to Kerr’s best-known films, which also include Black Narcissus and Blimp, the BFI screened Edward, My Son, Perfect Strangers, and The Gypsy Moths, which are not shown as often and audiences are less likely to have seen. Tracking down the films she wanted to show turned out to be only part of the special program, however.

She also helped develop a small exhibition to celebrate Kerr’s life and work. Botting was “privileged to meet [Kerr’s] family, who helped us mount [the] exhibition.” The archivist not only felt thrilled by the project, but was pleased that “we got a great deal of positive feedback from the season, as many people have a great affection for Kerr and her films. She made a big impact on British cinema in her day and went on to become a huge international star.”

Her many duties keep Botting busy, but she finds time to share her expertise in yet another way, too: by writing articles or book chapters. Sometimes archivists are asked to write journal or newspaper articles, as well as regularly contributing to the BFI’s screenonline site, which provides a wealth of in-depth information for film students and fans. It covers the film or television industry’s prominent people, places, and projects, and Botting contributes pieces about a variety of topics. She is also currently writing a chapter for a book about London’s Ealing Studios.

Working at the BFI National Archive is a great way for Botting to combine her many interests (horror and women in film are two). “I’ve been at the BFI for thirteen years now, and every day I learn something new. I have always loved British cinema, and it’s wonderful to spend time at work watching and researching films and sharing my enthusiasm with others at screenings. We all tend to have areas we’re particularly interested in, and it’s nice to develop them and build up knowledge of the people and films.”

Botting, like researchers the world over, as well as the public audiences enjoying the BFI’s range of programs, hopes that the BFI will continue to preserve moving images from the past and reach new audiences. She is passionate about her work—and British film—and finds satisfaction in knowing “that the work we do will feed into future generations’ enjoyment of the moving image, from silent comedies to seventies horror films.”

In Sunset Boulevard, actress Norma Desmond mentions the importance of “those wonderful people out there in the dark.” Those of us who enjoy sitting in a darkened theater, watching films old or new, may more commonly think of the characters, like Desmond, great directors like Hitchcock, or prominent stars like Deborah Kerr when we envision the film industry and its historic significance. Without archivists like Jo Botting, many cinematic touchstones would be lost. She, and the many specialists working with the BFI, ensure that we are not left in the dark about our rich cultural history, but can enjoy those moments when images begin to flicker on the screen.

Photo courtesy of Jo Botting