The greatest luxury of traveling for an entire year is having the time to stay put in one place and engage with the community on a deeper level. Oftentimes this means getting to know the local shopkeepers, traveling to less visited parts of a country, etc.
In Albania, however, I had the opportunity to engage with locals on a professional level, as a volunteer with the Albanian Cinema Project (ACP). The project is an international campaign, “…dedicated to preserving, restoring and promoting Albanian film heritage.” I first learned about the ACP a couple years ago during a plenary session at the Annual AMIA conference and have kept it in the back of my mind ever since. I never would have guessed that I’d actually get the chance to travel to Albania just two years later and spend a week volunteering at the National Film Archive (AQSHF). Before I describe how I spent my time, I need to acknowledge the people that spent a great deal of their time coordinating my visit and figuring out how I could be of the most help to the archive and the project as a whole: Regina Longo and Eriona Vyshka. I also need to thank Skylar for her extreme patience since she had to spend much of the week keeping herself entertained while I worked at the archive.
Before starting my week in Tirana, it was very important to me that whatever project I worked on would actually be of benefit to the archive. I find that many volunteer projects make the participants feel good about themselves, but lack in actual utility to the people/institutions served. That said, I could only set aside a week, so any project would need to be fairly small. Coordinating with Eriona and Regina, we landed on the archive’s collections of documentary and animation posters. The collections are pretty small and had yet to be inventoried by the full time staff. I’m sure that for the non-archivists among you, the thought of inventorying posters for a week sounds like an incredible bore, but for me it sounded like an exciting project that I could really sink my teeth into. Furthermore, it was an opportunity to bolster my paper archiving skills.
**Also, be warned, I’ll probably be using some technical terminology and referencing a few aspects of the moving image archiving field.**
Due to my aforementioned medical issues, I ended up starting work a day and a half later than expected, so I was especially excited to change settings from the hospital to the film archive. Before starting the poster inventory, Eriona toured me around the archive and introduced me to the other staff. To be honest, I was actually taken aback at the size of the film collection when we entered the vaults. For whatever reason, I was expecting a much smaller collection, so being confronted with such a considerable collection was something of a mild shock. It also highlighted the enormity of tasks ahead for the archive and the ACP. The vaults are climate controlled and the Image Permanence Institute has donated several hygrothermographs to monitor and track temperature and humidity. That said, the archive has had severe problems with mold that present a serious threat to the films, as well as the staff’s health. One of the long term goals of the ACP is to transfer the entire collection to one of the literally hundreds of thousands of military bunkers scattered around the country. I suppose one of the few advantages of being located in a former ultra-paranoid Stalinist dictatorship is that there’s plenty of indestructible concrete buildings with relatively stable environments lying around. I’ve been told that a number of good candidates have been found, but that the Ministry of Defense won’t release them for the archive’s use.
After the tour, Eriona and I got down to business with the posters. She told me a bit about the collection and we discussed the information I planned on including in the inventory. Doing full fledged catalog records would have been excessive and outside the bounds of what I could accomplish, let alone deciding on a metadata standard, etc. However, I also thought that simply listing the associated film title and the number of poster copies would be inadequate. Yes, that would constitute a basic inventory, but since no other information about the posters had yet been recorded I decided to also include the dimensions of the posters, an initial condition assessment and any notes that would be useful going forward. A previous inventory of the archive’s feature film posters was organized in alphabetical order, but I elected to stick with original order when it came to processing the stacks of posters. I did so more for the sake of speed, rather than context since the posters routinely jumped around between years and styles in no particular pattern. However, I did occasionally find stray copies scattered throughout the stacks that I later collated with other copies of the same title. Overall, the processing went very smoothly and I managed to finish the inventory despite losing some time earlier in the week.
Here’s a few of my favorites:
Going through the titles, poster by poster, gave me the opportunity to learn a bit about Albania’s Kino Studio. Easily the most interesting fact I picked up was that the studio employed a female cinematographer. Even today female cinematographers are sadly a rarity, so finding one working in the 1970s and 1980s is particularly special. I learned that she had started in documentaries and later switched to animation. Her name appeared in the credits of a considerable number of the posters, which is how I first noticed her as I was working. It also turns out that she was the sister of the archive’s director, Elvira Diamanti.
While I spent most of my time at the archive working on the poster inventory, I actually had a chance to do some film handling, which was an unexpected treat. The archive had recently received several films from the French embassy that needed to be put onto new cores and cleaned. Based on the warping, it looked like they had been stored vertically without cores or reels (Gravity certainly took its toll!). As I went through the reels, I also spent a little extra time examining the edge markings with a loupe since the film was on East German Orwo color stock, which I’ve never had the chance to examine up close. If I say so myself, the film really held its color well despite poor storage.
I also spent time speaking with the staff about the history of the archive and some of the challenges they face. Like nearly all film archives, funding is a major issue, so I’d like to strongly suggest to everyone reading to think about heading over to the ACP website in order to make a donation. If you desire, your donation can even be earmarked for a specific project. For any archivists reading, I encourage you to make the effort to visit the archive in Tirana or even volunteer some of your time. Albania is easily visited from both Italy and Greece and actually makes for a wonderful vacation destination in its own right, so you don’t have much of an excuse, do you?
If you want to know more about my visit with the Albanian Film Archive, please feel free to contact me, I’d be happy to answer any questions or offer further insight.