Keeper of the "Orphans"
As senior archivist of a collection of historical films housed at the Smithsonian Institution, Pamela Wintle ’68 tends a treasure trove of cultural gems.
When a feature film is sent out into the world, often to places like Park City, Utah, Cannes, or Toronto, a gaggle of babysitters accompany it to make sure that the “right” people see it, that an audience is generated, that its studio will see some return on investment.
Those theatrical releases represent about one percent of all films made each year. Many of the “other” films make their way to Pam Wintle, who is the Human Studies Film Archives (HSFA) manager and senior film archivist at the National Museum of Natural History, part of the larger entity known as the Smithsonian Institution.
“We are entrusted with many of the ‘orphan’ films,” Wintle says. “There are no commercial interests protecting these.” The HSFA is one of four film archives at the Smithsonian; its charge is to provide a home to films with cultural content. “These films are often made directly by anthropological and ethnographic filmmakers,” Wintle explains. “They are often educational or travel or expeditionary films.”
Many of these movies enter the collection during the winding down of a filmmaker’s career. “As people retire, they contact us, ask us to take care of their life’s work,” says the master archivist. “The materials are from their fieldwork, films they have taken in the course of their research.” There has recently been an upsurge in the films being offered to the archive. “It’s more than we can handle now,” Wintle says. The collections are donated, and, as Wintle puts it, are often “untidy.” And yet, within these free, messy films are some incredible treasures.
That the films exist at all is miraculous. “Fifty percent of film made before 1950, and 80 percent made before 1930, no longer exists,” says Wintle. Add to film’s natural impermanence the fact that some of it has sat in basements or drawers, or been bounced around at flea markets, and it’s not surprising that often donated film is in poor shape.
Reels of such fragile film are frozen—literally. This buys time. “Advances have been made in the preservation of film, but it’s often expensive,” Wintle points out. “In the meantime, we can arrest the deterioration process.”
Eventually some of the old film will be transferred to other media—digital recordings or whatever technology brings next. “The content of HSFA’s collection is often more important than the medium,” Wintle says. What’s important is what’s on the film, not the film itself.”
The films are tangible proof that what is no more once was. Wintle recently received a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation to preserve the movies shot by Walter O. Link, a geologist for Standard Oil who was sent to Burma and Indochina to search for oil. “He consciously knew that once the oil drilling began, the culture that existed there would change. So he set about documenting the life ways of the people.” The context of these films is enhanced by Link’s careful journals (which were also donated). Such added documentation is often a key component for understanding nonprofessional film.
The oldest piece of film in the collection was created by John Wanamaker (considered the father of the department store), who often showed films of American Indians in his stores. The 1908 footage shows a Crow encampment and includes a reenactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn. It was found in a flea market and eventually made its way to Wintle.
Why would anyone want to spend her day working with old film that smells like vinegar (from the acetic acid that is a product of the inevitable and irreversible chemical breakdown of acetate film, once erroneously thought to be a good preservation medium)? Certainly there are many more glamorous jobs in the film profession. But Wintle reveals her utter conviction of the films’ importance and the urgency of preserving them: “I believe passionately in this collection. And in this era of globalization, these films are essential.”
Their connection to the past, often to things that no longer exist, is what makes them so special. “As human beings, we need some form of cultural identity,” Wintle observes. “It is moving when you can witness the unfiltered power of these films.”
Sometimes that connection becomes very real for a people who are unable to otherwise access their past. “Ideally,” says Wintle, “we ‘repatriate’ images back to the cultures. Recently we were contacted by a cultural organization in Tahiti for some Tahitian film in the HSFA, which has now been widely seen by many Tahitians. Often we receive, in return, identification of contents. We would do more of this but we lack the resources—by resources I always mean staff and funds.”
Sending copies of these irreplaceable films out to the public for educational purposes is a bonus of her job. “A most novel and exciting use of HSFA’s collections,” Wintle says, “was at Ithaca College—Dismantling War: A Cantata in Five Movements, a live multimedia remix project performed on campus in September. The HSFA contributed film of Afghanistan, Burma, Cambodia, France, Greece, Germany, Iraq, Japan, Korea, Pakistan, Taiwan, Tibet, and Yugoslavia before they experienced wars and atrocities.” It was produced and directed by former HSFA fellow and IC cinema and photography professor Patricia R. Zimmermann. “It’s a part of the Onward Project, a research initiative exploring archival film, critical historiography, music, performance, and digital technologies,” says Wintle. HFSA is again collaborating on a performance piece with IC, this time for the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, of which Wintle is now on the advisory board.
The hunger for such archival footage does not end with academics, although they are among the primary viewers. “The younger generation is embracing film as primary archival source material,” says Wintle. “Heretofore, researchers tended to be text-based, [not] understanding how to use moving images for research. Recently a Ph.D. candidate viewed some of the educational films in HSFA’s collection for his dissertation on the teaching of evolution in schools. Museums use the footage for exhibit purposes, dancers and other performance artists—and non-performance artists—for recreation and inspiration, and documentary filmmakers ranging from Ken Burns and Florentine Films to the History Channel to a French production company.”
Wintle has many duties in her part-time position at HFSA: “administration and supervision of staff, contractors, interns, and volunteers; grant writing; negotiation for collections and responding to donor/depositor requests; navigating copyright and other legal issues; addressing requests for research and use of the collections; storage issues including planning for a new cold (freezing) storage facility; making presentations; and, when I can, handling film—the part I enjoy the most. I even catalog films, although this is not my strength!”
Professionally, she also is a founding board member of Northeast Historic Film, a regional film archives in Bucksport, Maine; one of two Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) representatives on the Library of Congress National Film Preservation Board, and on the board of AMIA.
With such dedication and passion, you’d never know Wintle more or less “lucked into” this line of work. As a drama major at IC, she says, “I was given the courage to explore and stretch in a safe environment. I was just one huge sponge that soaked up everything. Scene director and assistant drama professor Peter Forward was always putting me on crew, and I found that I had a knack for technical matters. And I was involved in the newly formed radio-television-film department under Kesh, as he was known [Professor John Keshishoglou], working in student productions. And there, again, I was taken with the equipment and technology as well as performing. I also met Rod Serling when he was invited to critique a student film based on Hitchcock techniques in which I played the lead. He provided some contacts in New York City but, more important, he would call occasionally just to see how I was doing!”
After graduating she went to New York for her “big break.” “But,” Wintle says, “the intensity of living in the city . . . sent me fleeing home.” She moved to Washington, D.C., and interviewed for a secretarial position with an archivist at the American Film Institute. “When I walked into the reception area,” she remembers, “I knew that this was where I wanted to be—it was virtually love at first sight when I saw the enlarged black-and-white stills from old movies.” She got the job. “I was lucky. I was not the typist that was wanted, but the archivist had Syracuse connections. And I was born and raised in a Syracuse suburb. Syracuse blood was thicker than my typing ability, so I got the job.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Real history, captured in moving images. The films in the HSFA that Wintle so lovingly oversees are proof of the invisible, of the cultures that have been lost as humanity has “progressed.” In the flickering images of those who are long dead we can almost hear them saying, “We are here. We are here.” It is only on these films, which Wintle and her staff work to preserve, that they still are.