Op-ed: Kasandra O’Connell, Head of the IFI Film Archive, on our Cinematic Heritage

 

To mark the launch of the IFI’s campaign to protect our national film archive, Kasandra O’Connell, Head of the IFI Film Archive, writes exclusively for the University Observer about the importance of the Irish cinema, and why our cinematic history needs to be perserved

Most people recognise the uniquely accessible quality of the moving image; they acknowledge its ability to speak to audiences in many ways and on many levels. They see that it is a multifaceted medium that can simultaneously be an historical document, an aesthetic work, a means of entertainment and of cultural expression. Yet equally most people give little thought to its physical fragility or the methods and reasons for ensuring that it is preserved. This article looks at the history of moving image preservation in Ireland, particularly the role of the Irish Film Institute and the reasons why it is important that we preserve our moving image heritage for current and future generations to learn from and enjoy.

Why preserve our moving image heritage?

“Film is history. With every foot of film that is lost, we lose a link to our culture, to the world around us, to each other and to ourselves.” Martin Scorsese

In these straitened times when funding and other resources are scarce it is easy for ‘non- essential’ activities such as moving image preservation to become the victim of cutbacks. But this material is fundamental to our perception of history and of our cultural identity. The film and television material that survives from today will affect how our era is viewed by future generations, much as the filmic representations that survive from previous generations have coloured our view of the past. For example, compare our conceptions of the Famine with the War of Independence. Although both are equally rich in written records the newsreel and actuality footage extant from the latter fundamentally enriches our understanding of this period of history, enabling us to connect with it on a more dynamic, visceral and human level. The things we have chosen to record and the stories that we commit to film* tell much about our interests and beliefs, our hopes and fears. Preserving these visual records of our activities and endeavours enables us to examine ourselves through film and explore our cultural identity.

A late starter

Although the value of the moving image and its role in democratising our understanding of society, culture and history has been recognised since the 1930s, when the International Federation of Film Archives was established (FIAF), Ireland has been slow to recognise and address the need to preserve its film heritage. The lack of indigenous production in the first part of the twentieth century has often been blamed for this, but ironically it is this lack of production that makes filmic representations in the period before a national TV station was established all the more valuable and worthy of protecting.

Although the first moving images of Ireland were recorded in 1897 by the Lumière Brothers on a visit to Belfast and Dublin, and calls for the establishment of a national film archive had been made by influential Irish film practitioners such as Liam O‘Leary and George Morrison since the 1950s, it was the late 1980s before any practical steps were taken to address the issue.  The Irish Film Institute (previously National Film Institute) had been founded in 1943 with a predominantly educational remit, producing public information and cultural films up until the 1970s and maintaining a distributing library that supplied IFI produced material and other educational films to community organisations and schools around the country. In 1986, recognising the importance of creating a national film archive and cognisant of the fact that Ireland was the only country in Europe not to have one, the IFI embarked on setting up the IFI Irish Film Archive. The Institute and Archive received an official home in 1992 when the Irish Film Centre (as it was then known) was created in the newly regenerated Temple Bar, and for the first time in its history, Ireland had a dedicated film archive boasting climate-controlled vaults created specifically for the long-term preservation of film and tape materials.

The IFI Irish Film Archive

The IFI Irish Film Archive is one of Ireland’s most remarkable and unique cultural resources; as well providing a record of Irish film culture in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the material we safeguard is a vivid and tangible document of Ireland’s past and present, chronicling the development of modern Ireland at a time of unprecedented social and political change. The cameras of amateur and professional filmmakers have captured the changing landscape of our nation alongside changing attitudes, customs and social conditions.

The core of the Irish Film Archive’s initial collection was made up of selected titles from the Film Institute’s lending library, but it has grown in last twenty years to over 27,000 cans of film, 10,000 broadcast tapes and an extensive document collection which includes original film scripts, production notes, photographs and publicity material, making it the most comprehensive resource dedicated to Irish film in the world. Contemporary Irish film and television production is also held via archiving agreements with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, Irish Film Board and Arts Council.

As a national resource it is important that the material in our collections is shared with the public in as many ways as possible and students, teachers, filmmakers, researchers and film enthusiasts are amongst some of the groups that avail of the on-site viewing facilities and consult the Archive’s reference collections on a regular basis. We provide material to filmmakers to include in documentaries exploring Ireland’s culture and history, undertake an extensive programme of public screenings of material in our collections on site, regionally and internationally, as well as collaborating on research projects with third level organisations, and publishing DVDs of key titles from the Archive’s holdings.

 

Development

When the IFI Irish Film Archive was set up in the early 1990s, it was expected that within a short period the State would recognise the value of the Archive’s activities and that government support would be secured to develop a comprehensive national moving image archive, complete with the necessary financial and legislative mechanisms required to implement a national policy in this area.  However, in the twenty years that have since passed this has not been the case. The State funding the IFI receives is a much appreciated annual grant from the Arts Council, but the amount granted makes up about twenty-seven per cent of the funding the IFI needs to operate. The rest of the Institute’s budget comes from the profits made in the IFI cinemas and café (a means of financing that is wholly unpredictable) and through fundraising and partnership agreements with partner organisations such as the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and the Irish Film Board.

The modest level of funding received and the lack of a state policy on moving image preservation have resulted in the IFI Irish Film archive being unable to develop in the way it had originally envisioned. Although we are Ireland’s national film archive, we still do not have statutory recognition and we operate with a fraction of the resources available to our equivalents in other cultural areas. The Archive’s main building in Dublin city centre reached its storage capacity a number of years ago and we have been seeking cost-effective ways to address this problem for almost a decade. Through an innovative partnership with the National University of Ireland at Maynooth we have the opportunity to build a much needed new Preservation and Research Centre – which would not only provide a safe home for the collections, but would also, through collaboration with NUIM’s digital humanities department, help us find new and inventive ways to engage with audiences throughout the world and allow us to tackle the challenging, time consuming and resource intensive issue of digital preservation.

The IFI Archive Preservation Fund

Unfortunately, although this exciting new project is ready to go, due to the recent economic downturn the State is unable to provide sufficient capital funding to enable us to complete the new archive facility in Maynooth. However, rather than let such an exciting and practical solution to the Archive’s developmental needs pass us by we have been proactive in seeking support from the film industry, our strategic partners and the public. In November 2011 we launched The IFI Archive Preservation Fund, a campaign that asks the public to help us raise the shortfall of €300,000 we need to develop our new home for the Archive on the campus at NUIM.

To launch the campaign a short promotional film featuring Oscar nominated Irish actress Saoirse Ronan was made by Director Nick Kelly and Piranha Bar. The film shows the actress being digitally transported into some of the best loved moments from films that are preserved in the IFI Irish Film Archive, including scenes from Once, My Left Foot and iconic documentary footage such as the arrival of JFK at Dublin Airport. Screened throughout cinemas in Ireland and available to watch on the internet, the aim of the film is to raise awareness of the importance and variety of the material held in the Archive’s collections and impress upon the public the importance of ensuring this material is preserved into the next century.

If you would like to support our campaign and help us build our new Preservation and Research Centre you can donate on line or in person in the IFI; also proceeds from Archive screenings and from the sale of Archive DVDs (which feature red preservation fund stickers) will go directly into the fund. If the campaign is successful and we raise sufficient funds by the spring to meet the shortfall in our budgets the new facility is scheduled to be completed by the first quarter of 2013. We are genuinely excited about this new phase in the IFI Irish Film Archive’s history and we hope you will help us to achieve it.

*Note, film when used in this article means moving image, both amateur and professional, television and cinema.