Searching for Hidden Treasure

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by Rachel Baron | January 27th, 2021

When Rachel Antell and Jennifer Petrucelli met, they were completing graduate work at Stanford University’s Documentary Film program. “In some ways, I would say our collaboration began then,” said Jennifer. Now, they run Sub-Basement Archival, which serves a range of documentary productions in search of archival material. “The universal thing is that we try to accommodate the needs of the producers, to get our heads around the content. It can be a little like this sidecar on a production.”

Together, they lead our upcoming Unearthing the Media Archives workshop (February 9th). In anticipation of this fave workshop, we chatted with Rachel and Jennifer about their experience culling archival material, the need for conservation, and how productions are pivoting to the archive in the pandemic.

Rachel Baron: What is your process like when you start a new project?

Jennifer Petrucelli: It varies so much depending on the project. We’re brought into projects at different phases: sometimes right at the beginning, sometimes in the middle, sometimes just at the end to do the licensing and clearance work.
Rachel Antell: No two films are exactly alike. There might be different versions of things. If we start on the project at the beginning, we can have a much more global approach. There are some projects where we’re really integrated into the production and vision of the whole thing.

RB: What are some of the challenges in archival work right now?

RA: There are definitely a lot of places that aren’t working at their full capacity. Especially universities, libraries and government archives. So we’ll be working on projects over the course of months, or years even, and screener material will get incorporated into the film, and it’s just just not possible to get the master. So that’s definitely come up.
JP: There are times on some projects where we might go into archives, but certainly that’s not an option now. That’s more challenging and part of strategizing is what we can get for productions, and coming up with alternative strategies. It is a little trickier now. Also, allowing more time and making sure our productions know that we need more time, both for research and licensing at the end of the projects as many places are not working at full capacity if they’re working at all.
RA: At the same time, during COVID, the demand has grown incredibly for archival material because people are stuck at home and finding it not possible to go out on shoots. They are thinking of how to tell their stories with existing material. So we’ve just been fielding multiple calls a week from people who need archival producers and researchers.

RB: What do you think differentiates archival research for documentaries?

RA: It’s really a combination of the visuals and the content.
JP: And sometimes we are using audio too so there’s the visual and audio elements we’re working on. Currently we’ve been looking for a lot of oral history. As Rachel is saying, we would look at the audio or listen to the audio not just for the content, but for the delivery and the way in which the story is told.

RB: Do you have favorite examples?

RA: There are certain ones I feel have been used in different interesting ways. Crip Camp certainly used archival to the fullest.
JP: Yeah absolutely.
RA: I think Dolores did as well.
JP: Dolores used it in a traditional way. Some archival is used more as metaphor.
RA: I thought I’m Not Your Negro was very creative in how they used archival. Jay Rosenblatt also used archival in ways that are really inspiring. He used found film reels and then created the audio separately in this interwoven way.

RB: Do you have any favorite archives or material?

JP: It’s certainly fun when a project allows us to be creative. Whether it’s the content that’s needed or the schedule allows us to find really unique material that hasn’t been seen before. Sometimes you want the most iconic recognizable shot or image to quickly express something to an audience. It’s really fun to find hidden treasures.

RB: Any ongoing projects?

JP: We’re working on one for National Geographic. The working title is Red Summer, it’s predominantly about the Tulsa Race Massacre and looking at other race riots from a few years prior.

RB: What's something you hope students will take away from our upcoming workshop?

RA: I hope that more and more people will get involved and feel empowered to enter the world of archival. It’s such a rich resource for story telling and there’s so much history that can be lost. One of the things that’s challenging about archival work is that a lot of material hasn’t been saved or isn’t accessible. We always run into this thing of local news media just not having the capacity or ability to preserve their materials and a lot of it could be lost. So I feel like the more people who get involved in this kind of work the better. Because it’s a way of keeping history alive. We’re looking forward to the workshop. And I’m excited to have Jennifer join me for this one so I think it’s going to be even better.

Interested in taking Unearthing the Media Archives with Rachel and Jen or another DCTV filmmaking workshop this winter? Check out our roster of offerings at dctvny.org/workshops/all.