The IFI Irish Film Archive is one of the country’s main repositories for the moving image, and also one of our hidden national treasures.
We recently met with Kasandra O’Connell, the Head of the IFI Irish Film Archive, who very graciously gave of her time to tell us about the workings of the archive.
She has been the Head of the Archive since 2000, having previously spent five years in the conservation department in the National Museum of Ireland, obtaining a Masters in Museum Studies while there. She left the museum to train to be an archivist in UCD. An interesting career change for an NCAD graduate who studied fashion design, albeit with film studies as an electve subject.
The National Film Institute was established in the early 1940s under the direction of the Roman Catholic Archbishop for Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. McQuaid felt it was important that the Church was actively involved in the production and distribution of film thus ensuring the morality of the nation was protected. His main point of reference was The Vigilianti Cura (1936) issued by Pope Pius XI, which stressed the importance of the Catholic Church’s involvement in all aspects of motion pictures
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s the IFI produced public information and safety films, and until the 1980s it also operated as a distributing library, supplying IFI produced material and other educational films to community organisations and schools around the country. Although the Film Institute was founded in the mid 1940s and calls for the establishment of a national film archive had been made by influential Irish practitioners such as Liam O‘Leary and George Morrison for decades, it was not until 1986 that the first move towards achieving this aim occurred – when the IFI established an archive section. Irish interest material was isolated from the distributing library, which has now ceased to operate, and this became the core of the collection. This core collection has developed over the last two decades into a comprehensive resource for researchers, numbering almost 30,000 cans. It endeavours to reflect all aspects of indigenous film production since the Lumière Brothers’ cameraman Alexandre Promio first visited Dublin in 1897. The Irish Film Archive proper was established in 1992.
Since then we have carried out a mission to acquire, preserve and make available Ireland’s moving image heritage and related material and have built up a collection of approximately 30,000 cans of film, and 15,000 broadcast tapes made in or about Ireland, or by Irish people abroad.
The IFI Irish Film Archive holds one of the largest collections of film and film related materials in Ireland. Over 700 individuals or organisations that were eager to see films preserved and centralised in a national archive depositing material. We have non purchase acquisitions policy. Material is accepted from private sources, production companies and professional bodies. In addition to commercial output, we are eager to acquire amateur material, once it falls within our acquisition policy. We also have agreements with the Irish Film Board and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, the two biggest funders of moving image production in the state, and archive a copy of everything that they fund.
The Archive Film Collections & Acquisitions Manager – Manus McManus and myself, but this is done in accordance with our Acquistions policy.
The Archive collection is a unique cultural and historical resource reflecting indigenous film production from 1897 to the present day. The changing landscape of the Irish nation has been captured alongside changing attitudes, customs and social conditions. Amateur films, newsreels, sporting and social events are preserved alongside feature films and documentaries. The work of such luminaries as John Boorman, Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan is held with films made within local communities and by amateur filmmakers. The most important social, political and historical events of the last century are represented, enriching our understanding of this period and enabling us to connect with our past. The material safe-guarded by the Archive is a vivid and tangible document of Ireland’s past and present and chronicles the development of modern Ireland at a time of unprecedented change.
Although we feel all the material within our collections has value, one of the areas of the collection that is particularly important is our amateur and home movie collections. Ireland doesn’t have as rich a history of indigenous professional production as other western countries, which makes these non-professional representations all the more significant. This material gives us an alternative view of Ireland ,one that reflects the personal interests of members of the population and often are the only record of a specific event, places or particular aspects of history, culture and society. Over time these films can often grow in value and meaning; a film of a family or local event may now be a fascinating record of a custom that has died out or of a landscape that has altered beyond recognition, even though this information was incidental to the filmmakers at intention at the time of filming. Although many of the amateur collections deal with the things we ourselves probably record, family life, holy communions, birthdays, the arrival of a baby into the family, holidays and local activities, there is also variety amongst the non-professional genre with material ranging from lovingly shot records of family life and events of personal interest to amateur attempts at animation, travelogues, documentary and indeed even non-professional takes on Hollywood genres. Probably the most famous amateur film in existence is the infamous Zapruder footage of JFK’s assassination, but not all events need be so dramatic 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 its topography, clothing, depiction of transport, contemporary society, and so on, 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.
We take in film and film related material so we have a number of other collections which we describe collectively as our Special Collections. These collections are held in custom-built, climate-controlled vaults at the IFI premises in Temple Bar, which have been designed specifically for their long-term preservation.
Our collection of documents, posters and images is a valuable source of information about the Irish film industry for researchers. The Tiernan MacBride library, which is also part of the Archive, holds a wealth of published material on Irish and international cinema thus completing the range of collections available at the IFI and making it the most comprehensive resource dedicated to Irish Film, either nationally or internationally.
The Tiernan MacBride Library Book Collection
The Tiernan MacBride Library is the most comprehensive collection of film related publications in Ireland. It contains over 3,000 books covering all aspects of national and international cinema including production, scriptwriting, acting, theory, genre and criticism. New books are acquired on a monthly basis, and suggestions are welcomed on future purchases. We invite colleges to submit their reading lists so that all students can be catered for.
The Journal Collection
The Library contains a range of film related national and international periodicals, both critical and production-based. Periodicals in the collection include Cahiers du Cinema, Cineaste, Daily Cinema, Empire, Film Quarterly, In Camera, In Production, Kinematograph Weekly, Premiere, Screen International, Variety, Sight and Sound, American Cinematographer, Screen, Vertigo, Film Ireland, and many more.
The Clippings Collection
The Clippings Collection is a unique resource consisting of Irish film-related media clippings from national and international newspapers, magazines and journals, arranged and indexed by subject, film or personality. Topics covered include feature film, documentary, animation, shorts, actors, directors, production companies, broadcasting, representations of Irish people, Northern Ireland, the travelling community, censorship, television, legislation, and the Irish Film Institute itself. Files of newspaper clippings on Irish film production are maintained and updated on a daily basis.
The Paper Archive Collection
Stored in climate-controlled vaults, the Paper Archive offers primary source material on the history of film in Ireland. Material includes scripts, shot lists, stills, storyboards, correspondence, posters, brochures. Notable collections include the papers of directors Neil Jordan and Tiernan MacBride, producer Lord Killanin, set designer Josie MacAvin, production company Hell’s Kitchen and the Horgan Picture Theatre, Youghal, Co. Cork. The stills and poster collections include nearly 8,000 images in a variety of formats. Researchers can access the paper collection by appointment.
The IFI Irish Film Archive holds, along with its moving image and document collections, an array of objects and equipment related to filmmaking. The Archive does not have an equipment collecting policy, and items have been acquired in an ad hoc manner over the last 20 years, often being deposited with collections of film.
The collection is available to anyone interested in Ireland’s moving image heritage; academics, students, teachers, film-makers, researchers and film enthusiasts are all welcome to avail of our viewing facilities and consult our reference collections by appointment. The Archive not only ensures the on-going preservation of films produced in and about Ireland but also acts as a comprehensive moving image resource, significantly contributing to the film information and research services available in the country. The Archive is Ireland’s only independent moving image archive and is eager to make its collections available whenever copyright and preservation considerations allow and to do so in an affordable manner. We provide access to our collections in a number of ways, including providing on-site viewing facilities for the public; providing material to filmmakers for inclusion in documentaries exploring Ireland’s culture and history; and by undertaking an extensive programme of exhibition on site, regionally and internationally.
The archive also publishes DVDs from the collection and in recent years has produced a popular television series called Seoda featuring selected Archive gems such as Once Upon a Tram and JFK’s visit to Ireland. We are also undertaking several research projects with universities; the aim of these projects is to provide further, and importantly, contextualized access to the Archive collections. The constant process of sharing the material we hold with the public adds an extra dimension of meaning our activities.
This is something that we are currently working on and it is detailed in our DPAS.
As we don’t own the copyright in the majority of the material we hold, we will have to clear use on a case by case basis with rights holders before we can make it available, so it will be dependent on their willingness to make it available.
I think that moving image archiving is unfortunately not as high up the cultural agenda as it should be. As the prevalent means of communication in our age, the moving image is omnipresent, yet outside the Archiving profession little thought is given to fragility of the medium or the methods and reasons for its preservation. Film heritage remains low on the Irish Arts and heritage agenda, this is something the Irish Film Institute has been working hard address. However, acknowledging the significance of film preservation is simply not enough. It is an activity that must be adequately supported by the establishment, the industry and the community in general.
Funding is always an issue within the arts in Ireland. Approximately 70% of the Irish Film Institute’s revenue is self-generated with the remainder coming from grants, sponsorship and our commercial activities; the Irish Arts Council is our main funder. As is common in many cultural institutions the Archive has been under-staffed and under-resourced for much of its existence. However, despite these difficulties the IFA has been fortunate to have an energetic and highly experienced staff that ensure the resources available to them are effectively employed.
Restricted budgets, economic turbulence, the rapid change in digital technologies and the increasing speed of format obsolescence all conspire to make the future an uncertain place for moving image archivists but we feel that we have made great strides in recent years, even considering our limited resources. Last year we undertook a major digital infrastructure upgrade project which radically changed our ability to collect, preserve and make accessible the digital collections which we are acquiring in ever increasing quantities. Thanks to the assistance of the Department of Arts Heritage & the Gaeltacht the installation of high speed fibre optic cabling and new editing and ingestion equipment allowed us to expand our capacity to take in born digital material and to create high resolution digital copies of the film and tape materials that we already hold. This year we published our Digital Preservation and Access Strategy which outlines how the IFI has had to respond and adapt to the dramatic changes that have occurred in the moving image production and distribution landscape. As these activities have become increasingly digital in nature, we have had to face the challenge of ensuring the long term preservation and availability of large quantities of high resolution digital data. Adapting to this massive sectoral shift has not only required the acquisition of new technological solutions, but staff have also been obliged to develop new skills and new ways of thinking about collections management and access.
Maintaining the usability of our moving image collections in a digital context will be an on-going, costly and resource heavy activity, requiring sustained investment in digital infrastructure, technology and skills. Securing funding to achieve this will be an ongoing challenge for the IFI as an organisation but it is vital to ensure Ireland’s national moving image heritage is protected and available for future generations.
How long is a piece of string? Suffice it to say our budget is less than a tenth of that of the National Library or Museum and they are considered to be chronically underfunded.
Supporting the IFI means you are supporting the Archive, the commercial activities of the IFI fund the Archive, so every time you have a burger, a beer or a coffee that money is going towards our activities. To support us more directly we have an IFI Best Members Scheme, the benefits of which include a behind the scenes tour of the archive for those interested.
We would like to thank Kasandra once again for taking the time out of her busy schedule to talk with us, and for her insights into the operation of the IFI Irish Film Archive. The work of the archive is hugely important to our national cultural heritage, and it fully deserves our support.
Thanks is also due to the staff of the archive, listed below, who work tirelessly behind the scenes in preserving and documenting these aspects of our heritage.
– Head of IFI Irish Film Archive: Kasandra O’Connell
– Library and Special Collections Manager: Fiona Rigney
– Film Collections and Acquisitions Manager: Manus McManus
– Datacine and Grading Officer: Gavin Martin
– Film Collections Management Officer: Columb Gilna
– Digital Collections and Access Manager: Raelene Casey
– Digital Collections Management Officer: Anja Mahler
– Digital Collections and Access Assistant: Kieran O’Leary
– Digital Collections Assistant: Eoin O’Donohoe
There also three interns; Fleur Finlay in the Library, Fionnuala Parfrey and Brendan Callaghan in the film collections. Eilis Ní Raghallaigh volunteers in the library.
Lead image, photo of Kasandra O’Connell, and photo of camera equipment courtesy IFI, © All Rights Reserved; all other photos © DUBLIN BUZZ