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Film preservation

The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (1917) is a little known masterpiece of British non-fiction cinema that documents the winter stages of the Somme campaign on the Western Front. The sequel to the famous Battle of the Somme (1916), which covers the opening phase of the campaign, ‘Ancre’ should not be dismissed as Somme II. Although similar to the ‘Somme’, Battle of the Ancre is cinematically the better film  and contains haunting images of trench warfare, notably of the mud that beset the trenches in the winter, the waves of troops advancing into no-man’s land, the use of horses and the first views of the tank – the secret weapon which it was hoped would break the deadlock on the Western Front.

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Image of a workshop at FIAF on the transition to digital technology, l-r Jon Wenstrom (Swedish Film Institute), David Walsh, Thomas Christensen (Danish Film Institute), Sungji Oh (Korean Film Archive)

A workshop at the FIAF congress on the transition to digital technology, l-r Jon Wenstrom (Swedish Film Institute), David Walsh, Thomas Christensen (Danish Film Institute), Sungji Oh (Korean Film Archive). Courtesy of the China Film Archive.

The collective noun for a gathering of film archivists? A vault? A screening? The more cynical might say a confusion. Certainly, at the annual congress of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) held in Beijing in May, in addition to a certain amount of confusion surrounding voting procedures (something of a tradition at FIAF congresses), archivists were understandably confused by the sheer scale and rapidity of the changes to their world brought about by digital technology. And so a good deal of the proceedings set about addressing some of these concerns, not least the workshop organised jointly by the Technical Commission (of which I am the head) and the Programming and Access Commission, where we looked at the digital world from different perspectives and tried to offer some guidance on acquisition, management, preservation and access. (Some of the guidance we offered is now available in a few handy documents on the FIAF website).

Our fellow commission, Cataloguing and Documentation, have also worked hard to push for worldwide implementation of an important new European standard for film metadata (EN 15907:2009), and are hoping that this will become an ISO standard shortly. To boost their case, they had the British Film Institute to present their successful adoption of CEN standards in their new Adlib database (the first organisation to do so). This commission is also working on a revised set of cataloguing rules which will be compliant with this standard.

FIAF retains a very strong interest in analogue film technology, and there are many who view the demise of this traditional technology not just as regrettable, but as something to be resisted at all costs. In this context, when the Technical Commission wondered in passing whether it should investigate the feasibility of film archives manufacturing their own film stock when all the big players (Kodak, Fuji) decide to drop it, the FIAF delegates were understandably excited. Establishing a cottage industry for film stock seems implausible to many, but I suspect that unless we can come up with definitive evidence to support this view, the idea will not rest.

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