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IDA Preservation and Scholarship Award: The United Nations--The World's Vital Resources

By Bob Fisher

A wide view of Studio H prior to recording of <em>World Chronicle</em> program. Credit: UN Photo

The News and Media Division of the United Nations Department of Public Information is the recipient of the 2004 International Documentary Association Preservation and Scholarship Award. The tribute recognizes the UN’s historic commitment to documenting the role that the organization has played since its founding in 1945. Still and moving images produced, collected and distributed by the UN have informed countless millions of people around the world about issues over the past 59 years. The UN has also preserved those images and the stories they tell for future generations, and as a resource for news organizations and documentary filmmakers.

“This award recognizes the vision of the founders of the UN, who appreciated the importance of documenting and preserving the history of the organization and its initiatives,” says IDA President Richard Propper. “It is also a tribute to the many dedicated people whose work during the past 59 years has made the UN and its archives a priceless resource for the public, broadcast news organizations and documentary filmmakers around the world.”

The IDA Preservation and Scholarship Award is reserved for individuals or organizations that have made notable contributions to preserving significant documentaries as a heritage for future generations, or educating the public and industry about the role nonfiction filmmaking plays in society.

“The UN has produced, distributed, collected and preserved an incomparable library of still images, television programs and documentaries about crucial issues facing mankind,” says IDA Executive Director Sandra Ruch. “Their archives have preserved that history for posterity and as a resource for future filmmakers.”

The UN Vital Resources Archives are maintained in a climate-controlled environment at the organization’s New York headquarters. The vault contains more than 500,000 still images, nearly 23.5 million feet of 16mm and 35mm film and video coverage of Security Council and General Assembly meetings, ceremonies, news programs and events. The oldest images in the archives document the 1945 San Francisco Conference, where the UN was founded; the signing of both the UN Charter and the Statute of the International Court of Justice; the first General Assembly meeting held in London in 1946; the early work of the Children's Fund and World Health Organization; and the vote on the partition of Palestine in 1947.

Production of new content and maintenance of the archives are under the purview of Under Secretary General Shashi Tharoor, whose responsibilities include communications and public information.

The UN documented such historic events as the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, General Assembly meetings concerning the Korean “police action” in 1950, the Suez Canal conflict in 1956, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, on-going efforts to resolve the dispute in Cyprus (beginning in 1963) and the Iran-Iraq armed conflict in 1988. There are also films and videos documenting the role that the UN played in ending colonization, various disarmament conferences, a multitude of treaty-signing ceremonies, and elections in Namibia in 1989 and Cambodia in 1993.

Some of the earliest UN documentaries include First Steps (1948), an Academy Award-winning short film about the rehabilitation of child polio victims, and the Oscar-nominated Overture (1958), a short, black-and-white animated film depicting the horrors of war.     

The archives also contain rare footage of all seven UN Secretaries-General—Trygve Lie (1946-52), Dag Hammarskjöld (1953-61), U Thant (1961-71), Kurt Waldheim (1982-91), Javier de Perez de Cuellar (1982-91), Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-96) and Kofi Annan (1997-present)—as well as various world political leaders addressing the General Assembly. The short list includes Yassir Arafat (Palestinian Authority), Abdelaziz Boutleflika (Algeria), Charles de Gaulle (France), Indira Gandhi (India), David Ben-Gurion (Israel), Mikhail Gorbachev (Russia), King Hassan (Morocco), Vlaclav Havel (Czech Republic), Emperor Hirohito (Japan), King Hussein (Jordan), John F. Kennedy (USA), Nikita Krushchev (Soviet Union) and Nelson Mandela (South Africa).

“All of these films are an invaluable resource today,” Ruch comments. “Just imagine how invaluable these references will be for historians and documentary filmmakers 200 or more years from now, when they are trying to understand who we were and what motivated the decisions that were made.”

The archives also contain such memorable films as Sierra Leone Amputees, Child Labour in Russia and Amazon Gold Rush, which were part of the UN in Action series of three- to four-minute news clips; Hide and Seek in Iraq (1993) and its sequel, Secrets in the Sand (1997), both of which document how the Security Council Special Commission investigated, monitored and destroyed Iraqi weapons of mass destruction; and more than 950 World Chronicle TV programs. The UN has produced 39 World Chronicle programs annually since 1980. Each 28-minute program features a panel of journalists from international news organizations interviewing a notable guest. The issues examined range from terrorism to women’s and children’s rights, disarmament, information technology, disaster relief, AIDS, peacekeeping, health, racial discrimination, humanitarian assistance, the environment, security and the quest for world peace. The weekly programs are distributed free to television broadcasters in the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. They are also accessible on the Internet at

Amhad Fawzi, director of the News and Media Division of the United Nations Department of Public Information, says that current news and “evergreen” documentary footage in the archives are primarily accessed by journalists and independent filmmakers who are working with major broadcasting organizations. He explains that limited resources preclude the UN from making the collection more widely available, but exceptions are made to help further an understanding of the UN’s mission.

“The UN entertains written requests submitted on official stationary that indicates specific footage or photos desired and the purpose of the request,” Fawzi explains. “We will then match the needs of the requester with what is available in the archives.”

Fawzi adds that television networks and individual stations are currently drawing on the archives for program content that will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the UN in 2005.

The UN is also collaborating with the Swedish government and Swedish Film Institute to restore and preserve films documenting the role that Hammarskjöld played in guiding the early history of the global organization. The restored footage will provide the foundation for TV programs and documentaries commemorating the 100th anniversary of Hammarskjöld’s birth in 2005.

Fawzi says “legacy” still photos are gradually being converted to metadata that is loaded into a digital file server maintained in a climate-controlled environment. The goal is to assure that these irreplaceable images are preserved and readily accessible. Fawzi cautions that the ambitious endeavor will be both costly and time-consuming. The completion date depends on the unpredictable availability of both human and financial resources.

As the technology matures, the UN’s Vital Resources Archives intends to convert moving images that are considered the "jewels" of the UN collection to metadata to ensure that they are readily accessible for future generations. 

Fawzi notes that it is also likely to be a slow and expensive process. In the meantime, each day turns a new page in the history of mankind, and the need to document the stories of our times and the work being done by the UN and its agencies continues.

Preservation and Scholarship Awards

1985        Erik Barnouw

1986        Film Dept. of the Museum of Modern Art

1987        Kemp Niver

1988        Jack Coogan

1989        David Shephard

1990        Alan Rosenthal

1991        William T. Murphy

1992        Robert Rosen

1993        Vanderbilt University Television News Archive

1994        John E. Allen

1995        Roger Mayer

1996        National Film Board of Canada

1997        Jonas Mekas

1998        George C. Stoney

1999        George Eastman House

2000        The Film Foundation

2001        Pacific Film Archive

2002        Imperial War Museum

2003        Michael Rabiger

Bob Fisher has been writing about cinematography and other industry issues for over 25 years.