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Life as a media archive trainee

By Emily Richards

The excitement begins...

Emily RichardsHaving never been to a festival that didn’t involve mud, wellies, or a general fear that someone would set my tent on fire, I arrived at Sheffield Doc/Fest hesitant but excited. Founded in 1994, Sheffield Doc/Fest is amongst the largest and most acclaimed documentary film festivals in the world. Knowing this, I felt exceptionally fortunate to have been granted access to the festival by Creative Skillset, who run the Media Archive Traineeship on which I am currently enrolled.

A traineeship with real work experience 

The traineeship itself is a paid 24-week scheme aimed at equipping new entrants to the media archives sector with the skills, experience and network needed to enter the industry with confidence. Here, we’re given real work experience, not just coffee orders. After training as a Video Editor at Science Photo Library, I moved on to train in the archive department of Sky News, where I learnt a huge amount and gained valuable professional experience, and have since been fortunate enough to be offered a permanent position.

14 TraineesBut back to Doc/Fest. At the beginning of June, all 14 trainees were bussed off to Sheffield and granted delegate passes in an electric shade of turquoise, which gave us unrestricted access to all films, industry talks, and masterclasses the festival had to offer. In addition to the all-you-can-eat documentary screenings, a flash of our passes also opened doors to after-parties, a virtual reality arcade, and of course, a Saturday night roller disco (for the braver delegates).

Considering that a significant portion of the work conducted by media archives is supplying footage to documentary makers, attending Doc/Fest was a perfect chance for us to see how archival material is used once it has left the archive. The documentaries themselves varied hugely in subject matter; on the same day I viewed gorgeous scenery from Japan’s sacred forests in Masaaki Miyazawa’s In Between Mountains and Oceans, a harrowing portrait of riots, racism and police brutality in 1980s Britain in John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs, and a bright, upbeat biopic of gospel-slash-soul icon, Mavis Staples, in Jessica Edwards’ Mavis!

The importance of archives

The films themselves were fantastic, but the real delight for me was seeing the credits roll and finding that I recognised so many of the media archives. Seeing these organisations linked with such interesting, relevant, and powerful documentaries was a welcome sight for someone like me, who aspires to earn similar credits myself. Media archives are a funny thing; if the material is used correctly, you should hardly be aware of the work of an archive at all – instead, the material is meant to illustrate stories from the past and present day, making the story flow seamlessly. Most viewers won't give a second thought to where all this material is stored, how it is found, or the process by which it is sourced. Yet here at Doc/Fest, archival films hold a pretty strong presence, occupying an entire category.

Heavy stuff! 

In the Archives Showroom we saw John Akomfrah in Conversation; a discussion between Francine Stock and Akomfrah regarding his archive-heavy approach to filmmaking, his experience of racism in the UK, and the importance of encouraging young people to create by any-means-necessary. For me, a highlight of Doc/Fest was discovering Akomfrah and his body of work. Handsworth Songs brilliantly shows Akomfrah's use of archive footage of the 1985 riots in Britain and contemporary newsreels, and allowed the audience to see events unfold through the eyes of people at the time. The Stuart Hall Project shared this same powerful approach, and convinced me more than ever of the value of audio-visual archives. In the talk, Akomfrah spoke with heart and eloquence about how storytelling should come 'from the source', and I couldn't agree more. 

The Stuart Hall Project

There's so much to learn

How to Change the World: An Archives Masterclass provided a welcome window into the world of archives from a producer’s perspective, detailing the experience of making the documentary exploring the early days of Greenpeace.

documentary exploring the early days of Greenpeace

Revealing a peek into the tricky world of funding agreements, James Scott, Al Morrow and Jerry Rothwell reported their struggles to barter their way up to an allowance of 70% archival footage to feature in the final release. They raised some interesting points about the importance of maintaining a trusting relationship with archivists when producing a film. Filmmaker’s level of freedom to access an archive (not to mention the price of using the material) can differ hugely depending on your relationship with that archive, and how responsible the archivist believes you to be in using the material. As an archivist in training, it was useful for me to hear this side of things.

A glimpse into the future

Virtual Reality ArcadeBeyond the screenings and talks, Doc/Fest’s Virtual Reality Arcade provided an interesting opportunity to experience a more interactive element. Fellow trainee Halina Hickford and I strolled around the bright yellow room and tested everything in sight. This included the Oculus Rift, a headset that covers your entire peripheral vision and immerses you in a virtual reality. At the back of the room was a swing, I put on the headset and was suddenly trapped in a dark, empty room that sensed my motion as I moved on the swing. It all felt a bit lonely and creepy, but altogether straight forward – until I turned my head. Behind me, through the Oculus Rift, I saw an open door. If you swung backwards, the door led to open space, and you felt that if you stepped outside of this door (which didn’t exist, but felt like it did) you might plummet 1000ft. I left the arcade a little unsettled, but it got my brain ticking. Halina and I pondered the potential uses of this new immersive technology in other venues. Perhaps it will be used by museums to engage their visitors even further? What would it feel like to step inside a painting? I look forward to seeing what’s next.

A secret key

Sheffield Doc FestAside from experiencing these great events, Doc/Fest was important to me because it was there, at the infamous annual roller disco, that I discovered the secret key to the mysterious art of networking. After entering the building, renting my skates and immediately rolling to the bar to get an enormous drink, I eventually felt comfortable enough to try circling the room. And this is when I discovered…

Networking = Talking to people. 

I know, I know, minds blown – but if you’ll allow me to explain this crackpot theory. At the roller disco, I bumped into some other archivists… Literally! Even though this tended to be an innocent accident caused by general skating wobbliness, it was actually a very effective ice breaker. After apologising for grabbing someone’s arm, you can quite easily ask them “so what brings you here?” Before you know it, you’re talking about your professional past, present and future, and you’re knee pads deep in a successful networking exchange.

Remove the skates from this scenario and the same thing applies; people are happy to talk, and are delighted when someone takes an active interest in their work. I think it’s good to remind yourself of this when you’re in a room full of strangers and feeling a bit vulnerable; just imagine that everyone is wearing skates and roll straight on into their conversation.

Emily Richards is a Creative Skillset Media Archive Trainee. The programme is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and by Creative Skillset’s Film Skills Fund, funded by the BFI. Our partners are Film London and FOCAL International.

The Media Archive Traineeship will open for applicants to the 2016 programme on Monday 25 January, click here for more further information

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