Open City Documentary Festival

Insights: Dylan Howitt & Elizabeth Haines – Lifeblood Update #1

Over a series of articles, the recipients of our 2018 Border Crossings award – an initiative connecting documentary filmmakers with academics in order to make non-fiction films based on research projects – Dylan Howitt & Elizabeth Haines will report on how the first stages of development for their project Lifeblood has been going. In this first update, they report on their first look into the archives of a state owned mining company in Zambia.

The overhead lights flickered on and there they were. Hundreds of 16mm film cans stacked from floor to ceiling. The air smelt faintly of vinegar. Some titles caught my eye: ‘And Rocks Must Be Melted’, ‘The Participant’, ‘Ordeal at Mufilera’. This was a unique collection of industrial mining films made between the 1950’s and 1980’s in Zambia’s Copperbelt. Never digitised, uncatalogued, and unseen in decades, they held an intriguing promise of riches both cinematic and historical.

In 2013, historian Elizabeth Haines was conducting research for her PhD in the archives of state owned Zambia Copper Consolidated Mining (ZCCM), when she came upon this room. But without projection gear, there was no way of knowing exactly what the cans of film contained. Fast-forward to March 2019 and Elizabeth and I returned to the archives, this time carrying a 16mm projector and video equipment. We’d been awarded Border Crossings development funding for a project we called ‘Lifeblood’. Our idea was to re-mix these found images and tell radically different stories with them. To this end we’d put out an open call through Zambian writers groups and picked six with whom we’d collaborate to re-imagine the films – an experiment in participatory history.

Elizabeth began to catalogue the films while I set up a rough telecine, essentially filming off a screen. We’d been advised by Jez Steward, a curator at the BFI, on how best to handle old 16mm film stock. He’d pointed us to a wealth of online resources, especially the archivist community AMIA.

There were lots of issues. Films were dusty and scratched, buckled or torn, with missing leader or broken sprocket holes. Splices had decayed and needed fixing. ‘Vinegar Syndrome’ aka Acetate Decay was easy to detect, releasing an eye watering acidic cloud on opening a can. Those films had to be separated out and isolated as they can infect others if storage is poorly ventilated. Colour on some films had faded or turned to (sometimes quite pleasing) shades of red. Optical soundtracks were fine for transfer, but we were not set up for magnetic sound.

But it was exciting to prise open every can and thread every film into the projector to find out what it was. Most were in excellent condition.  Films like ‘Twenty-Four Hours’, a beautifully shot black and white day in the life of a copper mine. Another treasure: ‘A Man and his Money’, a drama on the dangers of not keeping money in the bank, while ‘Unheeded Warning’ was a melodramatic safety film. ‘Ezekio the Pastor’ had a more ethnographic approach.

We spent a fascinating week cataloguing over 600 films and digitising nearly 50. We also met with four writers and began to discuss what stories we might tell with the images we were finding. This collaboration will continue over the coming months as I edit this first batch of material into a short film.

Funded development has offered a rare opportunity to take the time to explore the creative possibilities of this film collection. Our next step is to develop a proposal to raise funds for a longer documentary, as well as a more comprehensive digitisation of the archives. On our next trip to Zambia we are planning a workshop with local filmmakers in the Copper Belt region to open up the archive further to different voices and approaches. Thus the Border Crossings money will have enabled the production of various films, a creative writing commission, and helped give new life to an important film archive at ZCCM. Seed money indeed…