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Opening Up the Archives to Student Filmmakers

Guest post by Shane O’Sullivan, filmmaker and lecturer in Filmmaking at Kingston University.

Kingston University London recently partnered with BFI Education on a new pilot scheme, which challenged first-year filmmaking students on our undergraduate Film degree to produce creative responses – in the form of video essays – to one of twelve short documentaries from the BFI National Archive.

By integrating archival representations of London into their own contemporary stories of life in the city today, students gained a unique insight into film and social history while exploring how a ‘punk-infused’ documentary about 1970s racism connects to the current debate on immigration; and how the career prospects for 16-year-old girls have changed since 1963.

Creative access to archives
The Kingston pilot marks the first time that the BFI has licensed its archive for reuse by university students on a course-related project in the UK. The project grew out of my interest in Paul Gerhardt’s pioneering work to open up creative access to archives – from the Creative Archive pilot he ran at the BBC to his recent initiatives as BFI Director of Education. It was also informed by my own practice as a filmmaker, creating archive-driven feature documentaries.

After interviewing Gerhardt about his work, I pitched a proposal for the Kingston scheme, inspired by a recent BFI collaboration with BBC Learning, in which 7 to 11-year-olds interviewed wartime veterans, illustrating their stories with BFI archive footage. The BFI’s Future Film programme was also involved in the European Cultural Foundation’s ‘Remapping Europe, a Remix Project’, in which 50 ‘migrant media-makers’ from the UK, Poland, Turkey and Spain remixed and deconstructed media images of migrants across Europe.

The Kingston BFI pilot
The pilot ran from January to March 2017, in the second semester of our year-long Documentary Production module. Students were asked to make a 5-10 minute video essay as a critical and creative response to one of the short documentaries from the BFI collection, with the amount of archive material used capped at twenty per cent of the running time.

The 12 documentaries I chose from the BFI National Archive are mostly set in London and loosely themed around youth culture and immigration. From the Free Cinema movement of the late 1950s – Nice Time (1957), The Lambeth Boys (1959); to the films of John Krish like Return to Life (1960) and Mr Marsh Comes to School (1962); and Divide and Rule – Never! (1978), which is described by BFI Player as a ‘punk-infused documentary by the Newsreel Collective [which] invites young working class Londoners to discuss their experiences of racism.’

Eight of the films are owned by the BFI or were created by the British government; four were approved by third-party rightsholders, including Kodak and BP. The BFI provided QuickTime files of the films under an educational license and ten of the films were available for free online on the BFI Player (UK only), so I encouraged students to dip into them over the Christmas holidays. There was over five hours of archive material, so I screened a 30-minute taster reel to help students find the inspiration for their projects, asking each group to watch their selected film on the BFI Player and send me timecodes of the clips they were interested in using. I then gave them watermarked high-resolution clips for their edit.

Divide and Rule – Never! (1978). Image courtesy of BFI National Archive

The Student Films
Students were assessed on their competence in documentary filmmaking techniques; and their ability to tell a story and explore a subject through the editing and juxtaposition of archive and their own original material. Three of the nine resulting student films took their inspiration from Divide and Rule – Never! In Newsreel, students interview Paul Morrison and Joy Chamberlain, the two surviving members of the collective who made the film. Where is the Love? juxtaposes racist attitudes from the late seventies with interviews of black and Asian students, Gogglebox-style, exploring their experience of racism today. Stand up to Racism contrasts seventies activism with an ageing punk’s views at the March Against Racism in March 2017, protesting Trump and Brexit and supporting refugees and migrants in the face of rising intolerance. Nice Time (2017) contrasts the evening rituals of Piccadilly Circus seen in Nice Time (1957) with nightlife in the West End sixty years later, filtered through the memories of an elderly contributor. The Changing Face of Education compares the career prospects for 16-year-old girls in Peckham – as seen in The Changing Face of Camberwell (1963) – with the opportunities available to female university students today.

Feedback from students at the end of the module was very positive. They felt the archive-based project was fun, practical and informative, with an interesting selection of archive material to choose from, giving them ideas and direction for their films.

Creative Reuse in Education
The EUScreen project has opened up access to watching European audiovisual heritage, but it’s time to go a step further by allowing creative reuse of some of this material for educational purposes, building on past initiatives like the EYE Film Institute’s Celluloid Remix project.

The BFI/Kingston pilot shows that it’s not that difficult to clear a small, curated selection of films across a range of contemporary themes that can stimulate student films and help them engage with film and social history through image and sound. Our students have just completed their films, so once the BFI have evaluated the scheme, I hope we can extend the pilot to other educational institutions across the UK.

Shane O’Sullivan’s blog is based on his article titled ‘Opening up the Archives’, published in issue 107 of Learning on Screen’s Viewfinder, May 2017.