Preservation & Scholarship Award: The Pacific Film Archive
By Bob Fisher
Virtually every documentary filmmaker hopes that the meaningful slices of history they have captured will be saved for posterity. For Steven Lighthill, ASC (American Society of Cinematographers), some of those slices were captured during the turbulent 1960s, when he belonged to a filmmaking cooperative in the San Francisco Bay Area. One of his projects was Sons and Daughters, an insightful documentary that focused on the anti-Vietnam War movement. Lighthill stowed the film in a basement closet, which luckily was a cool, dark place. About 20 years later, Lighthill decided to entrust his irreplaceable images and sounds to the Pacific Film Archive. Why did he choose that particular repository? Lighthill recalled that while he was working in the Bay Area, the Pacific Archive sponsored screenings of films that weren't available anyplace else. He had fond memories of being inspired when he met Sven Nykvist, ASC, the great Swedish cinematographer, during a retrospective screening on the University of California at Berkeley campus under the auspices of the archives.
"I gave my film to Pacific Film Archive because I trusted them completely," Lighthill says. "Their mission is saving films that might otherwise be lost."
When Pacific Film Archive was named the recipient of the International Documentary Association 2001 Preservation and Scholarship Award, IDA President Michael Donaldson characterized it as a "tribute to many dedicated people who have made sustained and exceptional efforts to preserve an important part of our heritage."
He observed that in addition to preserving many irreplaceable films from around the world, the archive has a long tradition of making that material readily accessible to scholars, journalists, students and fans for both screenings and independent research .
In addition to the some 7,000 titles in its collection, the archive has also researched , compiled and maintains more than 200,000 files about films and filmmakers, including still photos and posters. These files are stored and cataloged in computer memory, and are listed on and accessible through the archive's website (www.bampfa.berkely.edu/collections).
The archive traces its roots to the late 1960s, when Sheldon Renan, a film scholar and author with a special interest in avant-garde American cinema, began arranging screenings on the Berkeley campus. Renan was the founding director when the archive was opened in January 1971 as a department of the University Art Museum (now called the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive). It got a significant boost when George Gundill, a benefactor, funded construction of the 234-seat theater, which provided a home for the archives and a venue for screenings.
"Our mission from the beginning has been to keep the history of cinema alive and a vital part of our contemporary culture," says Edith Kramer, the long-time film curator at the archive. "Our collection includes narrative and nonfiction films, features and shorts, avant-garde and independent film and video works, live action and animation. The films are from many countries, including Japan, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. We have newsreels and home movies, including some that document San Francisco Bay Area history during the early part of the century.
"Around 1974 or '75, we received a $20,000 grant from NEA, which we used to purchase some American experimental avant-garde films," she continues. "The rest of our collection has been built through donation s."
Most, if not all, of the films in the archive are categorized as orphans, meaning there is no studio or other well-heeled content owner protecting them as potential assets for future distribution . Most were probably destined for the dustbin of history.
"We already have lost too much of our heritage," Kramer says. "We can't make up for what is already gone, but we know a lot more today about what it takes to restore and preserve films. Preservation technology is better, and more people are aware of the need to properly archive films and videos. But many independent narrative and documentary filmmakers still need to be educated about these issues."
The Pacific Archive also sponsors public screenings seven days a week, and films and videos in the collection are easily accessible for private viewings at minimal cost.
Kramer has been passionate about film since she was a child. She recalls gatherings of family and neighborhood kids watching her father's 16mm home movies, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films, projected on a white sheet in the dining room.
Kramer earned a masters degree in art history, and taught at several colleges. She moved to the Bay Area during the 1960s, and enrolled in filmmaking classes at the San Francisco Art Institute. She remembers meeting Lighthill, Judy Irola, ASC and others who started a cooperative for producing and distributing their own films.
Kramer taught film classes at UC Davis for several years until 1975, when she was appointed assistant film curator at the Pacific Film Archive. After a two-year hiatus on another film related job, Kramer returned to the archive in 1983 as curator. "We still have a lot of work to do," she says. "If we do the right things today, future generations of filmmakers, scholars and fans will be rewarded tomorrow."
Bob Fisher has been writing about cinematography and other industry issues for over 25 years.