Along a desolate highway, kissed by wasteland either side, and a sky that threatens physical harm, we drive. We’re minutes away from entering what the “googles” of the analogue world looked like before the age of digital.
I’m also moments away from realising my agency in the yesteryears. In that moment I’m afflicted by a series of flash backs; being inside a Casspir — a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle inching itself in conflict zones in the dead of night as combatants train on us RPGs. The previous week a number of people had been gunned down. “You do exactly as I say, and don’t leave this vehicle or run”, said the leader as he got us to sign death warrants absolving any blame, should anything go wrong.
Then there was the near fatal fight with a thermocline 50 metres below the murky depths of the Dardanelles, where earlier in the century many ANZAC forces lost their lives warring Turkish forces.
And then as if a dreamscape, lost exchanges with iconic figures in the world of entertainment and film e.g. Quincy Jones, Melvin Van Peebles, and Eartha Kitt, to name a tiny few.
Cue: Marvin Gaye; “Father, father, We don’t need to escalate. You see, war is not the answer”… as bubbles of juddering consciousness tumble out of my mind.
I can’t finish this story today, because it’s not really begun. In what appears the middle of nowhere in an industrial park, forty miles north of London (UK) nestles a complex. Inside row after row, bank after bank of machines convert memories on celluloid into digital. Livelihoods imprinted on “memory cards” the size of bricks, a stark contrast to today when a card the size of a human nail can carry gigas of storage, will reveal truths forgotten.
This matrix we’re entering is where the film world come when they seek to retrieve memories from lost or damaged reels of cinema, where discovered sound tapes made decades and decades ago come to new life, and where this now unique technology acts as a bridge between entities: analogue and digital. The past lives here; it’s like a cryogenic brain of memories.
You come here to collapse the past, present, and future. In my case it’s some of the most epochal moments in my previous life as an international journalist and producer/director, often indulging conflict zones and trouble spots, or otherwise surfing that one big wave of media innovation and stories between the Thatcher to Tony Blair years.
It was a time when, laugh, journalists weren’t either allowed or didn’t have the skillset to film and produce their own reports. It was not humanely possible the news industry said.
Both the size of the equipment and conventions made it prohibitive, they said.
They would soon be proven wrong with the launch in London of the country’s first videojournalism outfit. Us Vjs giggled at the industry’s hubris.
It was an enduring time too when being black significantly reduced your chances of making it in journalism. It was depressingly difficult before the 90s. It’s still pervasive today. Back then, against many odds you scrimped and scraped what you could and hauled yourself into story lands, often dangerous or exciting zones to show what you could do.
I used to joke on foreign assignments that my life was worth £140 — often the payment of a freelance report.
We’re here. My friend and archive producer unload crates of tapes, sourced and logged from being discovered in my garage during lockdown.
José, a multi-hyphenate and I met when he worked at IBM on AI systems. It’s an area I geek out too and over a period we’ve become friends. I mentioned I had this history in my garage and then one day José flights a suggestion.
Each year a global outfit @FIAT_IFTA #SYA — a coalition of the world’s top media hold an open competition for institutions to save their archive. The institutions are production companies or state broadcasters with hidden treasures. So from our remotes studios at home, in the midst of a cataclysmic tear in society and a deadly virus forcing lockdown, we pitched.
Seven other finalists from Zimbabwe, Columbia, and the Albania National Film Archive put forward their ideas to a panel. Ours labelled “Black Lives”, sourced mainly three different international stories of significance.
Months later, and under embargo, we discovered “Black Lives” won. It’s a collection of stories from the UK, Ghana and South Africa in general.
A pre-occupation with the present, amplified through social media networks like TikTok does many things, not least it diminishes collective memory.
There exist no space as we go about our lives to consider nothing other than now. Timelines from yesterdays, particularly for Black and diverse stories which exist, are broken, disappear, or are otherwise suppressed. A relationship with the 1990s has a similar duration-width between the 1990s and teutonic 1960s, but they seem like a century ago.
Yet within each decade, month and day, examined longitudinally are seeds of the here and now. The Successor Generation who shared their thoughts and voted for the first time in South Africa in 1994 uniquely witnessed their country’s transition like no other group. Their views were broadcast in multiple outlets and today the group in the photo (above) are well known in their fields. Superstars — they might baulk at the name.
Ghana, became the centre for innovative surgical reconstruction procedures that you most likely may not have heard about. In this 8-hour operation, a young man is having his face rebuilt from skin taken from his arm. His grotesque features had made him a pariah in his village for two years. The centre’s opening led to wide-spread referrals, says one of the plastic surgeons. This media was part of a groundbreaking broadcast between two of the Africa’s leading broadcasters, the SABC and GBC.
Or this? In an obscure part of South Africa’s most well known township, Soweto, one of America’s most revered musicians Quincy Jones is hanging out with locals at a bar called Kippies. “What!” I remember shaking my head when I stepped inside to meet friends.
2007, at London’s leading network for Foreign Correspondents, The Frontline Club, across CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and panelists, I spoke about self -media. These are the personalised stories that intertwine with major events, and how those that can make them accessible have a duty to do so towards correcting or providing new knowledge for our information timelines.
The past lives in shadows, of vague interest only when a present problem is faced which has antecedents. Yet the past unwittingly teaches about respecting the present.
These aren’t transitory, they are knowledge, but whose, and how do they inform and who much cares? For one thing, Ghana’s co-production with South Africa was the first digital VJ production, long before the West would mass adopt its usefulness. From a London conference, a film features early efforts at media diversity and inclusion.
The archive now being digitised may soon transition from the analogue’s memory brain to join googles global memory system. But we’re determined it won’t go quietly and with the assistance of FIAT/IFTA, Eli, Adam, Emily, Gary, Michel…
I can’t finish this story, because really we’ve really only just begun.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah and José Velázquez present their update at the FIAT/IFTA conference next month, October.