“I Don’t Watch Movies for Free”. A Trip to Archives

13.02.2012, 15:52
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A few days ago, Strelka students visited the town of Krasnogorsk. On Rechnaya Street stands a two-storey yellow building with columns, built in 1947-48 by German prisoners of war housed in the Krasnogorsk prison camp. Since 1953, the building has been home to the Russian National Film and Photo Archives. Natalya Chamayeva, a Citizens as Customers student, shares her impression of the archives.


Buried Treasures 

The Russian National Film and Photo Archives is one of Europe’s largest audiovisual archives. During its 85-year history, it has accumulated nearly 250,000 film reels alone. The earliest film in the collection is the recording of the coronation of Nicholas II in 1896. When the chief technician Marina Anatolyevna Chertilina shows us this film I am able to see for the first time the noble figure of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich in motion, the relatively small-statured Nicholas and the young Empress in a sumptuous hat, nervously turning her head from side to side. What I cannot understand is why this footage is not shown at schools. Or, rather, I can understand this. History on film acquires volume and aroma. It then becomes much harder to flavour it with the spices of a particular era.

History Material 

The archives are open to the public, and anyone can come there to try to understand how it all really was. There are no materials that are secret or closed; everything is available for the viewer. All you have to do is find your item in the electronic catalogue on the website, place a request over the telephone and make a trip to the reading room, which is equipped with fabulous Soviet-era film editing tables. Obviously what you will be viewing are high-quality copies. The originals are kept underground in two special storage rooms where certain temperature and humidity are maintained.

The physical, material basis of history is stored here: daguerreotypes and ferrotypes, photo albums (of which over 900 predate the Russian Revolution, including some belonging to the royal family), seven formats of glass plate and film negatives, 35 mm film reels stored in tin containers, audio material in the same format, only brown and opaque, modern Betacams and documents stored on digital media.

We are shown fragments of the first Soviet colour newsreel, a 1939 parade. The images are bright, sunny and very lively. The film was shot using three-colour filters (cyan, magenta and yellow) and three separate black-and-white films. The archives staff initially thought that these were simply three copies of the same film until one of the staff did an image-by-image comparison of the three flims. This required monumental effort, with the length of the film being seven minutes, at 25 frames per second, with three films of varying contrast and three to four days of work required for every frame.


Archivists Investigate

A separate department is employed in the restoration of films and negatives. Day in, day out, department staff members Annushka and Clara clean, polish and dry the film. Annushka and Clara are preservation and conservation machines: the Soviet A-1 and the French Clara-5. Each of these machines weighs nearly a ton. Looking at the endless reels of seemingly identical images passing at the rate of 25 frames per second you finally realise what movies, or moving images, actually are.

One of the most difficult tasks of an archivist is the transcription of materials, which involves viewing of video footage and photographs (several hours each day spent continuosly watching film!), identifying the persons depicted and describing what is happening on screen. Archivists are assisted by face recognition software, but only the most experienced archivists can solve a difficult case, such as where quality of the image is poor or the face is rare. “I don’t watch movies for free,” Rimma Maksimovna laughs. She says that many of the staff in the research department cannot watch television. And not only because of the decline in the quality of presentation and content. Archivists can easily smell propaganda and any manipulation of the viewer’s perception. The archives contain many thousands of hours of Soviet-era newsreels; compared to these, present-day news programs are put together in a much cruder fashion. But also because their over-stimulated brains cannot for a minute stop looking into faces, comparing, searching for similarities. This is the work of a researcher who must determine the fragments of which footage a particular film, say, on the First World War, is made. Who are these generals, what is the location, what is the real date, where else the original images have been used.


“Palming” Enemies of the State

Photographs from the Soviet era tell an even more interesting story. When the Soviet Union unveiled the war on “enemies of the state”, archives frequently received instructions to destroy images of a person who has fallen into disfavour. The archives have a negative that depicts Lenin standing “surrounded by enemies of the state”, amongst a group of shaded figures. Rimma Maksimovna tells how unwanted images were erased and other images, of palm trees, for example, placed in their stead. It is unknown who first thought of “palming” (as it is called here) enemies of the state and why the palm tree was chosen for this purpose.

In the majority of cases, restorers working today are able to clear negatives of the palm trees and the shading. Work to restore photographs to their original state is ongoing. Unfortunately, the appearance of a photograph before it was restored is not specifically recorded. However, a palm tree on an old Soviet photograph is a good reason for a researcher to investigate whether a persona non grata may be hiding behind it.


In the Best of Times and the Worst of Times

We are watching Soviet New Year newsreels. Moscovites are celebrating the New Year in restaurants, dancing swing and raising champagne glasses against a background of the notorious palm trees. One wants to believe that here the palm trees are simply a typical element in the interior design of a luxurious restaurant of the period. The film ends with images containing text that makes you both laugh and quiver: “Next year life will be better! Happy New Year 1973!”

There is also unique, perception-changing footage from the World War II. War cameramen filmed on the frontline, and one in four did not survive the war. Film was developed in puddles and swamps, so that it could be quickly passed on to headquarters and shown to commanders, with edited versions later shown in cinemas to homefront workers. The Germans are advancing, you have to retreat, but your tape has finished (one tape was enough for approximately 2 minutes), you have to change it. You have to choose whether to abandon your rifle or your camera. Footage exists of war cameramen Vladimir Sushinskiy, who was postumously awarded the Stalin Prize. Sushinskiy was killed at the front in February 1945. While he was filming, he was hit with a shell fragment and fell to the ground, while his camera continued filming.