Marc Taaffe, cigarette dangling from his lips, threads film through a projector, a giant streamlined machine that looks as if it belongs in a wartime munitions factory.
The Junction antique and curio shop owner is screening a mixed bag of 16mm films on a makeshift plywood screen in his store, called, modestly enough, World Headquarters.
The film he is preparing to show to a clutch of interested customers comes from a small can labelled “Hazel 1954.”
The flickering images are startling, morbid: a body of water, a demolished bridge and rescue crews recovering bodies from what appears to be the Humber River. We’re looking at the aftermath of Hurricane Hazel, which left 81 dead as it ripped through Toronto and parts of Ontario in October 1954.
Taaffe refuses to sell this film, which he found at a military antique dealer. The shaky camera work suggests it was done by an amateur. Fortunately, it has ended up in the hands of someone who values this bit of history and will preserve it.
Most homemade movies aren’t so lucky. Many end up in landfills, as people die, family homes are emptied and relatives, for whom the films may be meaningless, throw them out.
Corporate archives are also at risk. Earlier this month, fire destroyed nearly four decades’ worth of film and video footage in Ottawa’s CJOH newsroom; it was a devastating loss, not just for the media organization but also for Canadian history. It was made even more poignant by the fact that long-time news anchor Max Keeping is retiring, and had hoped to take his archive of memories stored at CJOH.
An astounding 80 per cent of the world’s film and video holdings could be gone by 2015, predicts Matthew White, a founder of the United Nations-led group Archives at Risk, which has advocated for the digitization and preservation of film archives worldwide.
“IN SHORT: THE MONEY needs to surface or the imagery will disappear,” he writes in his essay “Film & video archives: Very much at risk.”
While Gone with the Wind will always be around, he says, films documenting regional culture are at risk of vanishing.
Not only is there the threat of destruction, as in Ottawa, or the garbage can, but film, if improperly stored, deteriorates into what is known as “vinegar syndrome.” Video offers its own problems: Many of the technologies used to view 3/4-inch and 2-inch tape became obsolete long ago, and archives no longer have the space to store equipment. The content becomes inaccessible.
The National Film Board of Canada has done an exemplary job of digitizing much of its archives, which date to its inception in 1939. But the cost – an estimated $30 million to $40 million for the NFB alone – is too high for most archives and organizations.
GOVERNMENTS AND private endowments could fund a mass digitization project, but many television stations and other news organizations are in financial crisis, their archives threatened.
Also, when saved, the material must be accessible, says NDP MP Charlie Angus. “What is the value of something sitting in a vault? If we paid money, either directly or through the various systems of taxation to create content, to have them sitting in vaults is of no value whatsoever.”
Angus, an outspoken critic on digital issues, is advocating for extra funding. He says that shoe-string budgets often lead to the hiring of unskilled archivists: “If a photograph is scanned, but the names aren’t catalogued properly, it is absolutely useless.”
The Internet, however, offers citizens the chance to share ephemera. YouTube’s arrival in 2005 made it easy to upload and share video. Buried amid videos of pitch-challenged singers is a grassroots movement to share vestiges of our colloquial past. In essence, the citizen becomes the archivist; YouTube, and other video-sharing modules, its virtual archive.
Toronto resident Ed Conroy is taking advantage of YouTube’s potential. In 2008, Conroy, a collector of film ephemera since the Scarborough Board of Education got rid of its 16mm film library in the early 1990s, launched the YouTube channel Retrontario. Dedicated to preserving offbeat programming, local station sign-on and sign-offs (something we easily forget existed in this era of 24-hour broadcasting), his channel is among the most popular offering such content, with more than 1,400 subscribers.
Conroy’s vault – known as the “16mm graveyard” – includes educational shorts featured in various “scare” film compilations by Something Weird Video; promotional material, one showcasing the McDonald’s at the Metro Toronto Zoo, once the largest McDonald’s in the world; and tapes, some pulled from dumpsters, full of tidbits of local broadcast history.
His favourites include Citytv’s “Great Movies” intro, the Ontario Ministry of Health’s controversial “Drunk Dad” commercial, and footage of stunt-man Dar Robinson leaping from the CN Tower for the second time in 1980.
He hopes his efforts will inspire others to digitize their tapes, or at least put them in the hands of someone interested in preserving them. “The CJOH fire is a timely reminder that, when these things happen to an archive, the only artifacts that will survive are out there on home recorded tapes, which most people see as valueless garbage,” says Conroy.
“WE ARE RUNNING against the clock because most home-recorded tapes probably won’t see out the end of this decade.”
Conroy adds that, before the blaze at CJOH was even extinguished, a call was out on YouTube to upload content from CJOH – especially anything featuring anchor Max Keeping.
“I imagine anyone out there with CJOH news footage has it because of accidental recording; when the VCR was left running to tape a movie and the first 10 or 15 minutes of the nightly news was captured on the end of the tape.” He finds accidental footage is sometimes the most fascinating: “I usually start at the end of a tape and work backwards.”
Charlie Angus has joined the ranks of this grassroots movement. He recently uploaded footage from a 1920 home movie, showing a train arriving in Cobalt, Ont.
When culturally significant material, whether broadcast or family ephemera, ends up in the hands of publicly accessible archives, we can use this information – a giant family album, if you will – to better understand our communities.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on February 20, 2010.