How I’ve come to know and love film archives: By Trainee Nell Cunningham

How I’ve come to know and love film archives: By Trainee Nell Cunningham

Date: 26/08/2016 10:54

As a Media Archive Trainee through Creative Skillset, I’ve spent the last 10 weeks working with the Digital Film Archive, learning all I can from the archive content and the team that puts it all together. My time has been spent editing archive films together, researching topics related to newly digitised content, and generally learning a great deal about local history. The experience has been a fantastic one and has allowed me to see Northern Ireland through a new lens. 

Coming to archives from the academic standpoint, my Traineeship at Northern Ireland Screen has allowed me to experience first-hand ideas that I’d been aware of only in theory. I believe strongly that film archives allow people to explore their own cultural history and identity through a more ‘everyday’ kind of experience. Loaded with tourist and industrial film as well as personal home movies, the film archive offers a view of history that encourages people to challenge what is written in text books.

Upon my arrival in Belfast I was woefully ignorant of much of Northern Ireland’s history, a view dominated by images of the Troubles. The Digital Film Archive offers so much more than that, and by watching a great number of films and listening to the diverse commentary offered in voiceovers, I now have a much better idea of the broader history of Ulster. I’ve worked with all kinds of different footage, from royal visits to motorsport to documentaries made by Northern Irish filmmakers such as David Hammond ( Steelchest, Nail in the Boot and the Barking Dog 1986) and John T. Davis ( Power in the Blood 1989.) Watching films from the archive, for me, is like being presented with little puzzles, that can reveal facts about what people looked like, the clothes they wore, the way they behaved, but also how people and institutions in the past looked at the world (this idea comes from theorists such as Richard Chalfen in "Snapshots "r" Us: The Evidentiary Problematic of Home Media").

Some of my favorite footage consists of rushes. Rushes are the uncut footage of films or television broadcasts. They are like a glimpse at what was outside the film, as if by watching them you can get a little more information about what the day was like when filming took place. Rushes are often shots that are technically flawed in someway, but a lot of times that is what I find so captivating. An awkward moment where a woman looks directly into the camera and then roughly readjusts her young daughter so that she ‘looks better for the camera,’ those are the things we don’t get to see when we view a finished film or broadcast. That’s what I love most about the archive. Initially I was drawn to home movies, for exactly the same reason, they are so often, imperfect and accidentally beautiful. 

A particular favorite of mine is the film ‘Dwight Eisenhower in Hillsborough and Assorted Scenes’. It’s a film created by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board in 1959, and has shots of fishing, motorbike racing, the former US president, and the shots that originally struck me, a ferry ride to Warrenpoint. The juxtaposition of the stark castle ruins with a colorful stand selling odd hats, is exactly the sort of material that gets me excited about archive film.