Moving history: why we must protect our film heritage

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2005), News, News, Volume 13

When John O’Donoghue, Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, recently announced the composition of the new Irish Film Board, he commented that ‘Film has a unique ability to convey to a wide audience the stories and atmosphere of any local community’. Although his recognition of the importance of film not just as a means of entertainment but as a historical, social and cultural document is welcome, precious little has been done by successive administrations to ensure the survival of moving-image heritage for the benefit of future generations. I believe that the Irish Film Archive of the Irish Film Institute is best placed to rectify this situation in a manner that will serve the best interests of the heritage and the Irish public.
Since the Lumiere brothers’ cameraman Alexander Promio took the first moving-image shots of Dublin and Belfast in 1897, film has been omnipresent in Irish society. The Irish Film Archive’s collection chronicles the creation of modern Ireland and preserves a visual record of our national activities, enabling us to examine ourselves through film and to explore our cultural identity. Yet film is often ignored as a historical document. Although the number of film and media courses throughout Ireland seem to propagate endlessly, the use of the moving image as a means of understanding our past has been largely overlooked by those in more traditional fields of academic study.
Encouraging history students to explore film as an additional resource complementing documents and academic texts, etc., could only but add to the depth of their understanding. The variety of film material at their disposal is astonishing. Political collections, propaganda films, films made by clergy depicting Irish society at work and play, missionary films, even commercial features, both vintage and modern, tell us about societal mores and preoccupations at various periods of Irish life. Archive footage has been successfully used at third level in the UK and as part of the second-level history syllabus via projects like Film Education’s Battle of the Somme DVD.
Since 1986 the Irish Film Archive has acquired, preserved and made available Ireland’s moving-image heritage and related collections. We currently care for almost 20,000 cans of film that reflect the many facets of indigenous production from 1897 to the present day. Our collection comprises a variety of film types, ranging from animation to newsreel, from features to advertisements, and from experimental film to home-movies. Providing a vivid portrait of our changing way of life over the last century, this material is meticulously preserved on behalf of the nation within the limits of a non-state archive.
Documentary-makers have led the way in using historical archive footage as a means of bringing the past to life: from early ground-breaking works such as George Morris’s Mise Eire (1959) and Saoirse? (1960) to recent series such as Louis Marcus’s Years of change (1997), Alan Gilsenan’s Home-movie nights (1998) and Seán Ó Mordha’s Seven ages (2000), archive footage has been used effectively to delve into our collective past.
The changing landscape of our nation has been captured alongside our changing attitudes, customs and social conditions. Whether it is an important historical event that is recorded or amateur footage of everyday life, film often acquires deep layers of meaning with time. Film archivists assert that the moving image has a powerful impact on our perception of history. Compare our conceptions of the Famine with those of 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 our past on a more dynamic, visceral and human level.
Probably the most famous amateur film in existence is the infamous Zapruder footage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, but not all events need be so dramatic in order to be worth preserving and studying. A simple family home-movie, of little interest to those outside a close circle when made, may be valued for what it reveals about topography, clothing, transport, contemporary society, etc., decades later. Amateur and newsreel collections are rich sources for those interested in social history. In addition to other records depicting the life of ‘ordinary people’, this type of material helps to democratise our knowledge and understanding of the past.
Vital to the recognition and hence protection of this heritage is the attitude of central government. Most European countries long ago realised the need to have centrally funded national cultural institutions dedicated to the preservation of film. Britain, Germany and France all established such organisations in the 1930s. Although the Irish Film Institute established the Irish Film Archive in 1986, the argument to designate it as a national cultural institution under the 1997 act, placing it on a par with the Chester Beatty Library, the National Museum, the National Gallery etc., has been unsuccessful.
We must afford our national moving-image collections the same protection and recognition granted to those of the National Archives or the National Library. Yet at present Ireland has no cohesive policy on film preservation, a deficiency that must be addressed in a proactive manner. Central government must provide comprehensive and consistent financial resources and legislative support to implement such a policy. The existing bodies—the Irish Film Archive, RTÉ—that currently undertake this cultural service are perilously under-funded and lamentably under-recognised.
The recent introduction of the Broadcasting Funding Scheme affords the government a valuable opportunity to finally ensure ‘that suitable arrangements are in place to protect this heritage while facilitating access’ (p. 51, ‘Report to the Minister from the Broadcasting Forum’, August 2002). The issue of audio-visual preservation is correctly identified in this report as having a ‘non-co-ordinated approach within the sector and needing a central organisation to co-ordinate, monitor and preserve material’. It calls for all material of national and historic importance to be preserved and suggests the creation of a national archive supported and funded by the exchequer. The report’s suggestion that an ad hoc committee be appointed to advise the Department on this matter has yet to be acted upon. Its other recommendation—that relevant archives such as the Irish Film Archive and Irish Traditional Music Archive be consulted—also remains unimplemented. It would be a shame if this landmark opportunity to integrate audio-visual archiving across the sector and to move towards the establishment of an archive with ‘a role as vital as that discharged by the National Library’ remained regrettably delayed owing to bureaucracy or indecision.
The moving image is the predominant means of communication of our age and must be afforded the same safeguards enjoyed by more traditional forms of cultural output. The Irish Film Archive (part of the Irish Film Institute) is well placed to lead the implementation of a state policy on audio-visual archiving, as we have been carrying out this task with limited resources for over a decade. As the only Irish member of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), the Archive has established relationships with international archives, as well as nationally with government departments, the Irish Film Board and film-makers. Delegation of responsibility to the Irish Film Archive in relation to moving-image preservation would allow a comprehensive and consistent national policy to be put in place to prevent any further loss of this material. It is imperative that we follow the lead of other countries and act now to put in place the necessary tools to ensure the survival of this valuable aspect of our collective heritage.

Kasandra O’Connell is head of the Irish Film Archive, Film Institute of Ireland.



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