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Responses to NFSA Draft Strategic Plan
Martha Ansara 30 June, 2014

Caveat: the following response to the Draft NFSA Structure was put together hastily as I was in the middle of work on the eve of leaving the state, but wanted to contribute something to the process. I hope my comments contain some useful points and not too many stupidities/irrelevancies. Had I been able to participate in the Sydney Meeting, I'm sure I would have written something different. In the meanwhile, please consider this as a preliminary set of impressions and ideas to be reconsidered in the light of further information as the discussion continues.

Martha Ansara

The NFSA Draft Strategic Plan describes a problem which, in the time since the de-stabilising period of the AFC takeover, past Archive directors/management have been unable to adequately analyse or address. Over these past eleven years, the NFSA has tried to meet expectations that it can take on all responsibilities, activities and programs deemed good and worthy (or merely convenient) for an idealized vision of an archive. Not the least of the consequent pressures on the NFSA has been the responsibility of responding to a rapidly evolving digital environment without any diminution of its other activities.

At long last, but unfortunately under adverse political and financial circumstances, the NFSA’s “problem” has been recognized as a serious crisis which must be addressed before it deepens further. Michael Loebenstein and his colleagues are to be commended for responding to this crisis, even if initially the process of doing so (in my view) has been flawed and in some ways counter-productive.

As is now recognized in the Draft Strategic Plan, it is essential in meeting the present crisis that the Archive consult with, develop and draw on the support of its community, including staff. Hopefully, as this consultation continues we, as members of the NFSA community, will be able to provide constructive ideas and support to the NFSA. The Archive has a truly a formidable task ahead of it: the NFSA must digitize or, in effect, die.

In reflecting on my experiences of the Archive in recent years and reading the papers for this consultation, it seems evident that the NFSA has sprawled in too many directions within a structure which needs radical revision. As the Draft Strategic Plan spells out far too mildly: “…having sufficient funds to be able to adequately invest in critical digital infrastructure and programs that promote preserving and sharing the national audiovisual collection over the next few years will be a significant challenge”.

A challenge, indeed! I would go further and question whether the NFSA can fund both the move to the digital environment AND the programs “essential to preserving and sharing the collection” without making more restrictive decisions than those outlined in the Draft Plan.

We must remember that the NFSA is almost unique among world ‘film’ archives in having responsibility for sound as well as image and online material (plus, of course collecting extensive documentation). Added to this, its holdings contain a very high proportion of its own national material relative to those of many other archives and this raises expectations that it ought to accept and preserve ALL Australian audio-visual material. Yet, according to the latest NFSA Corporate Plan, in 2011-12 approximately one third of our 1.7 million collection items had not yet been accessioned and only 41% of these 1.7 million items were available on the NFSA online Search facility. And now these items, which keep pouring into the Archive from an ever-expanding audiovisual society, are to be preserved in their native format AND in the latest digital format (which evolves!) PLUS being shared -- presumably including being catalogued online -- through a range of public programs!

In considering the task ahead, I can’t help but remember the decision which the Archive made in the face of its first big existential crisis of bringing the collection under inventory control and proper storage conditions. In order to deal with this task, for two years during 1991-1993, the Archive was shut down and the outside world was largely ignored so that staff could concentrate on cataloguing and other internal activities.

Without going into details (as there were also some debatable de-accessioning decisions), we can be grateful that this step was taken. (In comparison, in the same period and beyond, 90% of the British film archives lay un-catalogued and therefore unknown and/or inaccessible.) But, as Ray Edmondson has pointed out, the NFSA paid a price for its collection control program. The withdrawal of access services alienated clients and an inaccessible NFSA which was not acquiring material dropped out of sight of the cultural community. As I well recall, this fuelled the contempt that the AFC officers subsequently showered on the NFSA in constructing a grand plan for its cultural flowering under their control.

I mention this history because, especially in the current environment of increased cultural expectations, clearly the present NFSA management cannot go down a similar path in a similarly severe crisis. Yet, it seems to me that even Blind Freddy can see the need for a calculated retreat in program delivery in order to consolidate, re-organize and lay the groundwork for later development. I urge all Archive supporters to think about this carefully. I suspect that the Draft Strategic Plan does not state its case strongly enough. To me it promises too much.

I have many comments and questions on particular points in the Plan which I may be able send (if useful) towards the end of July. Unfortunately, I have pressing work which prevents my doing so now. For the present, I will not refer to my notes on the Plan but rather express some responses which are foremost in my mind.

Finance – raising it from non-government sources

I agree with those who say that the Federal government “ought” to finance the Archive properly. Unfortunately, this is not going to happen at present. And it certainly is unlikely to happen in the future without a large and noisy case being made for such support in a very big way. Adequate government finance is something that must be worked towards in a longer time frame. In the meanwhile, we must help the Archive raise its profile sufficiently to attract what sponsorship and philanthropy it can. And in doing so, hopefully the Archive will work in a way that encourages governments to WANT to be seen to give support – the philistine mentality requires prestige for itself rather than mere public good. And, of course, requires effective lobbying.)

In my view, some things that could help include:

• publicising a small targeted number of limited but potentially high profile programs/activities (beyond the NFSA’s new improved online presence) which demonstrate the value of the Archive on earth, even if this means a moratorium on other programs/activities that we all believe are also important. These can always be restored. They are not gone forever. Selected regional/capital city activities will have to be maintained for reasons which should be obvious. There needs to be consultation about what these programs should be.

  • developing a group of prestigious filmmakers, musicians, composers, broadcasters, and especially actors who are asked to step up and give very public support during this interim period. The NFSA must, as well, use them well in a variety of ways. It should be a group which gives prestige to those who are asked to belong.
  • making the NFSA premises, including the cinemas, former exhibition spaces and courtyard, one of THE Canberra venues for functions, events, (exhibitions?), etc including those which attract the elite of Canberra and also presumably national screen/sound events/conferences. Old Parliament House has become such a place, but the Archive may have more to offer! Even if there is not much profit in this (or there may be), profit is not the only issue.
  • mounting a well-publicised, well-run national fund-raising campaign for digitisation, akin to the Last Film Search.
  • using the sort of techniques borrowed from state art galleries, museums and classy cultural organizations (well, classy to us plebs without the dosh...) to develop a group of elite “friends of the NFSA”. (National or based in Canberra?). This has to be handled in a professional and well-informed manner and is entirely different from the NFSA’s true good old “friends” (us). Bequests are wanted. Movie stars required.
  • working carefully and professionally to get company sponsorship (as the ACS does, largely because of Ron Johanson’s work) while being cautious about compromising the Archive’s integrity. In considering the potential for sponsorship, we have to ask what the NFSA can offer companies in return? This has always been the sticking point….and may still be a problem. Again, we have the question of making the Archive a prestigious organization with which to be associated.

All these points I am making above feed into each other.  One of the reasons efforts in this direction may not have succeeded in the past is the necessity of hiring appropriate staff for the tasks. I hope the current financial limitations and public service structures are not too great an obstacle to contracting the right people.

A word of caution about external professional fundraisers – I have observed that it is often people on the inside of a field or industry who have the connections which make sponsorship and fundraising succeed. Hence the potential for help from an industry reference panel (about which we have all spoken before).

The NFSA Board is something different from a reference panel, of course, but it too requires people with prestige, excellent connections in appropriate areas, and the willingness to do some hard yakka for the Archive. The new government will want to make new appointments and it is important that it consider each and every board position and start to work asap on maximising the effectiveness of the next NFSA board.

Finance – products, sales, and charges

I feel caution should temper expectations in this area. Making money out of marketing non-copyright material is, I suspect, limited by the likely low volume of sales (I feel) in an environment where there is not sufficient interest in old Australian films or film history. I don’t know if the same thing is true with sound. In the past, the Archive has tried to develop and sell products constructed from actuality material but as far as I know, these haven’t been significant money spinners, and not just because of marketing problems.

As for VOD, there ARE items to which a charge could be applied and perhaps a profit can be made here with a clever selection of material. But again, how big a revenue spinner can this be with the non-copyright material? (I don’ know) And is the NFSA really equipped to compete as an unproven distributor/aggregator in acquiring the rights to producers’ copyright material? Even if it were to enter into a partnership with an existing aggregator, again would the NFSA share of revenue be worthwhile? These issues need to be explored. Sorry about my doubts! I assume that there have been or will be market research before any initiatives are launched.

Re increasing charges for use of footage: if the charges to the industry are too high, then the Archive gets a bad name. Perhaps it is better to keep things as they are and earn a good name for cooperation??? The industry needs to feel an “ownership” of “their” Archive and feel happy about deposit.

(A word about deposit: perhaps now is not the time to work hard on making legal deposit a reality.)

Finance – public and private-public partnerships

Of course, there are all sorts of partnerships that can be pursued with other public institutions in the interests of the Archive doing its job and being seen to do its job. I agree with the Draft Plan that these need expanding and improving. But I wonder to what degree this will ease costs to the Archive? I’d like to know more.

As for the statement that the NFSA should “leverage the competitive advantage of private-public partnerships” in “service delivery with the distribution sector, education providers and retailers”, I should say first of all that I appreciate that a lot of the jargon in both the corporate plan and the draft strategic plan may be aimed at talking in a way that the government will like. But what does it really boil down to? (Especially as in the real world these partnerships often end in tears.) Perhaps this “private-public partnership” jargon is merely an admission that the NFSA does not have the internal expertise or initial capital to deliver marketable material to the public (if it can be shown that the public wants this material to a sufficient degree to make the effort worthwhile, which I suggest testing first.) And fair enough. As for private-public partnerships in the delivery of services: what services specifically? This is really a big question mark for me – full of pitfalls?

Working with other organizations, including educational organizations

I agree with the Draft Plan, as I understand it, that this is a priority. Creating a public appreciation of and a demand for Australian film and sound material held in the Archive is a long-term but essential project and working with other organizations is one way of doing so. Obviously, the increased profile that results from promoting the NFSA in these partnerships ought also in time to have benefits for funding.

I believe that in order to develop an interest in the heritage held in the Archive, it is important to work with educational institutions and committees:

  • to find ways of introducing courses and course elements at a tertiary level that deal not only with contemporary Australian screen and sound but also their history. It is not easy these days for academics to introduce new courses – but such courses need to be fought for.  One thing that might assist is if the NFSA convenes an academic advisory committee for just this purpose.
  • to work with educational curriculum groups over a range of subjects and at all school levels to identify and include material from the NFSA as teaching resources. I believe to be effective this would require a full-time NFSA staff position filled by someone with sufficient expertise.

In terms of working with other institutions and groups, some organisations have been identified in the Draft Plan but I would particularly single out AIATSIS which doesn’t get a mention despite a lot of talk about indigenous initiatives (more about that later).

I believe that someone needs to sit down and examine the cultural scene with a fresh eye to identify all the possible and even improbable public organizations with which partnerships could be created. And go after them persuasively. Again, this is, at least initially, a full-time contract for someone with the necessary talent and creative, lateral and entrepreneurial thinking.

I also recall something being said in the plan about working together with relevant institutions on – something like?—policy/mutual issues. Yes, cross-institution initiatives are important, and presumably give guidance rather than making much additional work.

And in this regard, I think that despite everything I have said about cutting back, the regional international work of the NFSA cannot, in all conscience, be let go. Relatively speaking, the NFSA is an extremely rich and well-resourced Archive. (I will never forget my visit to the Vietnamese film archive in Hanoi in 1981 – it was heartbreaking. I believe the NFSA has been a good friend to them in the intervening years.)

Selection of material to be acquired, digitised and otherwise dealt with

I understand that no one can second-guess history but the reality is that not everything in the archive can be acquired, catalogued, digitised or otherwise dealt with. I have seen this problem close at hand with oral history where the FBIOHG has tried to work from a priority list but the reality is we can’t possibly interview all those who ought to be interviewed before they die. Their stories effectively disappear. (Just as uncollected films likewise often disappear). But even though we never interview everyone who ought to be interviewed, at least we do have selection criteria and thus, hopefully, we obtain something like a representative sample.

(On the other hand, a couple of years ago, a decision was made to put resources into the Heath Ledger program - interviews with young people who do not necessarily fit the FBIOHG criteria. This was triggered by a bequest to the NFSA – but I suspect that the bequest does not cover all the expenses, including staff time, involved in acquiring these interviews. And thus time and resources are diverted from priorities. I think there was some idea that this program was a matter of prestige. False prestige is one of the potentially treacherous demarcation zones that needs to be negotiated in catering to sponsors and donors while trying to raise the profile of the archive. I just thought I’d mention it. I don’t think this is a good example.)

A related but somewhat different issue, which also sheds light on the problem of selection priorities is the current way in which the transcription of interviews is taking place outside of the priority criteria which the FBIOHG at one point spelled out. As I understand it, these priorities were discarded once the old analogue tapes which might deteriorate had all been digitised. (And I do hope I have not been misled about their digitisation.) To me, the interviews for transcription seem at present to be selected in an almost random way, and I believe it would be better to apply criteria for selection. A leading selection criterion would be to give priority to the potential use of a transcript – especially where there are requests for access to a particular oral history. And yes, this is a dangerous principle if applied improperly to the selection of other material for treatment in the Archive, eg for acquisition or preservation. Popularity is a two edged sword. But again, I just thought I’d mention it.

I AM TALKING ABOUT PRIORITY CRITERIA BECAUSE I BELIEVE SOME HARD SELECTION DECISIONS WILL BE MADE, ARE BEING MADE AND MUST BE MADE. This obviously must be so with the coming digitisation effort. Selection criteria need to discussed not only by staff but by the wider archive community and made clear to the public. Not only to have the input of ideas, but importantly also for public relations. I have recently heard someone bitterly complaining that the NFSA didn’t want to take his film material and while I don’t know the real truth of this, it is a clear warning about potential reactions.

I don’t doubt the intellectual capabilities of the NFSA staff (even with the recent loss of a number of highly qualified people) but we have only to look at some of the current and jingoistic uses of history relating to the First World War to remind ourselves of the dangers of a simplistic and nationalistic selectivity. I note the specific reference in the Draft Plan to attaching the Archive to the WWI anniversary. It all depends on how this is to be done whether this degrades the Archive or allows it to insert some of the complexities into the debate. In a parallel way, we should be aware of the pitfalls of the use of “celebrity” figures whom we also want to harness to the NFSA’s public awareness campaigns.

The indigenous proposals – and a multi-cultural archive

I was pleased to see a few general statements in the Archive documents which I read as beginning to acknowledge Australian society in all its complexities of class, ethnicities and subcultures. “An archive for everyone” is hopefully a starting point for concrete policies regarding multiculturalism, although I think this must go beyond the theme of  “Australia’s immigration history and its ‘memory trace’ ”.

After several decades of not enough progress right across Australian society, despite the introduction of “multiculturalism”, I can’t help but wonder in concrete terms how inclusiveness is to be realised at the towards certain ethnic groups. What is the NFSA actually committing to?

(In terms of current state of actual multiculturalism, rather then more comfortable memory traces, I refer you to Nazeem Hussain’s SBS sketch comedy show, Legally Brown. Many of the sketches are on You Tube – albeit you have to appreciate popular culture for some of them. Here’s the team’s latest if not the most relevant, response: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2X-qQ-uMW8. But all of these sketches taken together express a pervasive deep reaction to existing Australian racism amongst many wogs.)

The Draft Plan makes more specific proposals and promises in relation to indigenous material and activities, with “Indigenous connections” as a key principle of the Archive’s new vision. Frankly, I’d like to see something equally as fleshed out for multiculturalism and inclusiveness.

Having said this, in my view, it is appropriate and necessary for the Archive to continue in its direction of placing Indigenous life and work in all its variety at the centre of the way it presents Australian screen culture. To me this means integrating this consciousness into all appropriate activities of the Archive, as well as maintaining a specific indigenous collections team to handle “appropriate systems to manage intellectual property information, including Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) information”. So I’m happy to see this spelled out.

Nevertheless, I was concerned that the Draft Plan:

  • makes no mention of AIATSIS with its overlapping responsibilities and wonder what the NFSA intentions are in this regard.
  • promises to build private sector support for for programs targeting digital literacy and heritage management on country. This is a big ambition which may consume more effort than the Archive ought to expend in the near future if the digitizing crisis is as severe as has being described.  In any case, what private sector groups, I wonder, does the NFSA have in mind? I’ve certainly seen some terrible programs, particularly in the NT where money is poured into the schemes of white carpetbaggers with relatively little beneficial effect. The needs of NT indigenous communities underpin a white industry that is, to me, too frequently quite repulsive. In this area, I think caution is required – and thoughtfulness and careful knowledge as well. Likewise – and it should be obvious -- as with any community, not all black entrepreneurs are above reproach either – at least in my experience. Having said this, I have seen some initiatives which stand as good models -- albeit almost all of these programs, private as well as public, rely on the public purse.  To sum it up, some hard thinking is in order.

The Draft Strategic Plan seems to make the following statement as a promise rather than a principle to be worked towards: “A first for the national collecting institutions, our audience engagement programs integrate Indigenous and non-Indigenous program delivery under senior Indigenous leadership.” I usually find the trumpeting of “firsts” somewhat crass in the face of the divide that continues between the mass indigenous grass roots people and some of these “firsts”, but nevertheless I congratulate you if this is a principle that you can maintain. As a former panel member and acting manager of the AFC’s Women’s Film Fund, I would agree that in some cases it requires preferential quotas and preferential programs to redress serious inequality and to change attitudes and perceptions.(nb: we eventually disbanded the Women’s Film Fund as no longer needed but never addressed the root causes of the inequality which continues to this day.)

Presumably, the NFSA has determined that the most suitable people for the job of the Archive’s audience engagement programs – black or white – are indigenous, not only in terms of perspectives but in terms of skills or skills that the NFSA can develop. I believe that success in addressing inequalities depends on robust and long term measures that are neither tokenistic nor patronizing. The NFSA has identified or is capable of creating a sustainable pool of suitable indigenous managers, regardless of who might be in that position at present.

The Draft Strategic Plan suggests initiating a new program of  “developing and delivering an Indigenous program stream that will focus on providing a national platform for Indigenous voices to tell their own stories and interpret, analyse,and comment on how Indigenous people and perspectives have been represented within Australia’s audiovisual heritage”.  I assume that this is just one among many online initiatives that are to take the place of on the ground programs? Fair enough, although as I have said, I believe that a well-targeted real world presence for the Archive is still important. What bothers me however, is that this proposal is not placed within a more specific integrated design suggestion for the Archive’s online presence overall.

Finally

And now I am running out of time to write more. There are many things I haven’t commented on: the impact of the supposedly simple (hah!) consolidation of back office functions amongst the several cultural institutions, the relative value in the prizes sponsored by the NFSA, the necessity for community and expert comment on an overall plan for the NFSA’s online presence and much, much more. As an example of why consultation might assist the online presence,  the AFC-initiated ASO entry credits still project the impression that the relevant creative contributors to Australian films are limited to producers, directors, writers, “music”, and every cast member, however minor, including the baby.  Particularly stupid omissions are cinematographer and editor. What sort of history is being purveyed by this site when a search for “McAlpine” yields Chips Rafferty’s character in The Overlanders and a few references to an English Lord who appears in a not particularly important documentary from 1990 but nothing for a cinematographer whose work has contributed significantly to Australia’s most successful feature films – as well as wonderful documentaries and news items. The films are there on the ASO but he is not! This would not have happened in the first place had consultation with the industry and/or knowledgeable historians occurred.

So for many reasons, I hope the Draft Strategic Plan consultation continues in some form over time and allows for more than the hour and a half allocated in this round for each city. Likewise, I hope that the NFSA is able to draw together the necessary reference group/consultative committees to ensure that there is good selection and prioritization of all the many ideas floated in the Draft Plan. If the process continues and concrete proposals are made, I would be happy to submit further comments.

Specifically, as I have said before, I hope to see the institution of a reference committee consisting of representatives nominated by the various NFSA’s user groups. If this committee eventuates there are particular people in particular organizations who might be identified as engaged and useful allies to be approached to volunteer.  It is a difficult period for volunteer workers, especially amongst more active younger people and strategic encouragement is in order.