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World Congress of History Producers 2004 - FOCAL International's Report

1 November 2004

The 2004 World Congress of History Producers attended by over 400 delegates from the documentary history industry was hailed a resounding success.

Hosted by Canada’s History Television, an Alliance Atlantis network, the Congress was opened with a keynote address from Lord Black of Cross Harbour, who spoke to delegates on his comprehensive research of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his relevance in the world today.

The 4 day event was filled with numerous content-oriented seminars, workshops, screenings and pitching slots, plus many opportunities to meet and interact with commissioning editors, producers, footage library managers and image researchers. For FOCAL staff, it was an ideal opportunity to meet existing Members, attract new ones, and let the audience know more about the many valuable services offered by the international audiovisual trade organisation.

  CTV's Director of Archives
  Carole Ashurst with Russian
  film archivist Evgeny Nagaytsev
  at History Congress


Amongst the topical sessions was one entitled History TV & the Middle East. Producers from Israel, Egypt, New York and Al Jazeera engaged in a lively debate on such subjects as historical bias and the problems of finding crews to go to these areas, not to mention the problem of getting suitable “slots” for the finished product. Despite the inherent problems, as Jihan El-Tahri, French author/director of The House of Saud commented, documentaries are a vital bridge between news and reality in these troubled regions.

  Jacques Bensimon, Chair of the
  National Film Board of Canada



Jacques Bensimon gives away a valuable prize of $10,000 CDN worth of NFB Stock Shots to lucky winner       Jihan El-Tahri, French author/director of footage rich The House of Saud. It was screened at the Congress and has now been entered for the FOCAL International Awards 2005.

Other Congress highlights included: The Great Debate a spirited, brilliantly presented contest in which luminaries from history television challenged or championed the resolution History TV is but a Fable Agreed Upon.

CGI – Making or Faking History? dealt with the issues and controversies surrounding the creation of visuals where none previously existed and what it means to the future of historical re-enactments. Delegates repeatedly examined how far a project might go for the sake of entertainment before it risks distorting historical fact. The controversy over Tiger Aspect’s Virtual History – The Secret Plot to Kill Hitler, where archive footage has been “made” to attract a target audience of 15-35 year olds, raised its head at this, and several other sessions.

Taylor Downing, MD of Flashback TV admitted to being fascinated by this innovative use of CGI emphasising the need to be inventive to bring the past alive. However, he felt that the audience needed adequate signposts when effects are being used. In her defence, Dunja Noack, the programme’s Producer claimed that there was no intention to mislead the audience by using non-actuality material. She felt that a warning at the beginning of the programme should be sufficient - they cannot signpost every clip and the audience is assumed to be intelligent enough to know the difference!

Whilst acknowledging its exciting and seamless transition between actuality, drama reconstruction and CGI, Virtual History – The Secret Plot to Kill Hitler left many of the audience feeling “uneasy”. One delegate went as far as to quote from Orwell in pointing out the danger of “lies passing into history” – not so extreme a view when one considers the possibility of such CGI clips ending up as tomorrow’s stock footage!

Whose image?

Despite the overwhelming interest in the ethics and factual accuracy associated with using CGI and re-enactments, the valuable role of actuality footage was not ignored. In a session entitled Whose Image Is It Anyway? chaired by Michael Kloft, Head of History, Spiegel TV, leading advocates and researchers of “genuine” (whatever that means these days!) archive images discussed various methods of accessing footage at the best possible rates.

  Taylor Downing,
  MD Flashback TV,
  History Congress



History Producer Taylor Downing aims to make archive footage look ever more interesting. “I like archive – it takes    you there. It’s real and immediate!”

He admitted that the cost of library footage can be high and he would like to see a move away from minutage rates to more inventive deals with libraries. In the meantime, however, he always finds ways to accommodate this valuable content resource. When Flashback TV are making a one-off co-production with a large budget, they can take time to seek out the best images, but for lower budget history series they tend to compromise by sourcing as much public domain material as possible and negotiating one-stop-shop deals with key commercial libraries. Archive footage, he argued, need not be sacrificed on the grounds of price except when, for example, CGI footage of JFK’s assassination might be cheaper to access than the famous Zapruder material!

Bonnie Rowan who specializes in accessing royalty free public domain footage from the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was keen to point out that although it is a cost effective way of obtaining footage, it needs a professional to access the right material. Warning that it is a complicated process: not everything is on the ARC database; it can take 3 weeks to access material; viewing copies may be poor,so, “Can you afford to send an amateur to the only rights free archive on earth?” asked Bonnie. “Time and an experienced researcher or producer is the key to sifting through and finding gems at the US National Archives,” she declared. “First find what’s in the public domain, then splurge on other sources!”

  Image Researchers Elizabeth
  Klinck and Bonnie Rowan,
  History Congress panelists


Use a pro

Elizabeth Klinck, one of Canada’s leading Image Researchers gave her tips on getting the best from archives within a limited budget. Archive stills and audio had often helped her out of a tight budgetary situation and, used effectively, could sometimes add more emotion. Elizabeth admitted that it is not easy to find images “never seen before” but, given time to delve deeper, it is possible to source unusual clips from NARA, and perhaps join chat rooms to get ideas. “What’s online is just the tip of the iceberg,” she reminded the audience. Another means of ensuring that library footage costs are kept in check is to employ a professional researcher who, with time and involvement at an early stage, can always suggest alternatives to expensive images such as those of Martin Luther King etc.

Relationships are key

Speaking on behalf of conventional commercial AV libraries, BBC Motion Gallery’s Sales Manager, Sandra Murphy based in Canada, supported this view saying that she prefers to deal with an experienced Image Researcher like Elizabeth Klinck. All too often interns are asked to call and license clips at the last minute - they then get shocked at the prices, but in truth the BBC’s rates have not increased in 5 years. Not bad when you consider the vast amount of money required to preserve, store, digitize and make available such media heritage.

As Sandra said, and this was echoed by representatives of APTN and ITN in the audience, there is always room to negotiate for a better deal providing more time is allowed to discuss the project, and of course the greater the quantity of footage required.

…and on to Rome

The Congress drew to a close with a much-anticipated keynote address by the controversial and outspoken Lewis Lapham, Editor of Harper’s Magazine. This was followed by an announcement from Robert Montgomery, CEO of Achilles Media, the event organizer, that next year’s World Congress of History Producers will take place November 2005 in Rome, hosted by RAI Educational.

For further information:

World Congress of History Producers

FOCAL International