This report is from Jenn Blaylock, NYU Moving Image Archiving & Preservation Program:

As my time interning at WITNESS Media Archive comes to a close I thought I’d share the details of the archival project that I’ve been working on with the archival blogosphere. Simply put, I organized and digitized a collection of over forty-six tapes for the WITNESS digital archive. The collection consisted of camera original MiniDV tapes used in the production of Fueling Abuse, a film WITNESS made in partnership with Burma Humanitarian Mission in 2001-02. Fueling Abuse exposes the oppression of Karen ethnic minority civilians in Eastern Burma, and draws attention to the dire situation in Burma, where the military junta is systematically uprooting villages and brutalizing the civilian population.

The collection of camera original tapes came to WITNESS unexpectedly. Normally partner organizations retain copies of their camera original tapes with originals deposited at WITNESS. However, a man in California found this collection of original tapes amongst the possessions of his recently departed friend. (Don’t worry this story has a happy ending.) Seeing the name WITNESS written in bold on the tapes he called the Archive to see if the tapes should be returned. After some discussion with WITNESS Media Archive staff, it was agreed that the tapes should be sent across the country to WITNESS. After the tapes arrived they were set aside for when time afforded inspection and identification. A couple of months later Burma Humanitarian Mission called WITNESS because they had lost their camera original tapes and wanted to know if WITNESS could send them copies from the Archive. As luck had it, the collection of tapes sent to WITNESS months earlier were in fact the BHM’s missing camera original tapes. After discussing with BHM, the Archive proposed digitizing the camera originals; these would remain in temperature controlled WITNESS Media Archive vaults, with a set of digital masters on WITNESS video servers, and digital surrogates sent to BHM on a hard drive.

This is where I came in. I was charged with the task of first identifying all of the tapes in the collection to see if there were any tapes that WITNESS did not have in their collection. Below is a breakdown of the collection and the type of content that I found:

The following is the tapes series for the Mini-DVs in the collection:
• 45 Raw Footage: consists of interviews, documentation of Karen Revolution Day, health care footage, BHM organizational planning, interviews with KNU and former SPDC soldiers.
• 4 Personal: cinematographer’s personal preparation for Burma mission.
• 2 Dubs: from other documentaries, footage filmed by a Karen villager.

While a lot of the process involved in this project was quality-controlling digitization of mini-DV tapes, perhaps the most interesting part for me was gaining intellectual control over the collection. This was like a giant puzzle that I had to solve. The first thing I did was I conducted a basic inventory and inspection of the tapes. They were in decent condition considering their age and the wear that they had to endure being carried around Burma for several months in a backpack. Most of the tapes were dusty, a few were crinkling and cupping slightly, but were otherwise in good shape.

I went through all of the database records relating to the Burma Humanitarian Mission project looking for original BHM tape numbers that matched the numbers that I had recorded off of the tapes. Many matched right away but others were more difficult. During field recording BHM created a unique numbering system for the tapes based on the day that the tapes were shot but when BHM processed the tapes they gave them new unique identifying numbers and to make things even more complicated, when the tapes were originally sent to WITNESS, they were given yet another number. Organizing and sorting out these sets of numbers took a lot of my time but eventually I figured out which tape was associated with each WITNESS record by using the summary information in the WITNESS database to match to the content descriptions on the tapes. For tapes that were particularly unwieldy I screened sections of them until I saw enough to make a match between the original and a database entry. There were only six tapes that I found in the collection that were not represented in the WITNESS database. Four of the tapes were personal tapes and two were dubs. One of the dubs and the four personal tapes were returned to BHM as they did not contain information related to the Fueling Abuse project. One of the dubs in the collection seems to have been shot by a Karen villager. The interviews are in Karen without translation and the material seems to be shot fairly soon after an SPDC attack on a Karen village. There are scenes of dead animals, burnt homes and surgery on a villager with a badly burnt arm wound. I added this tape to the WITNESS collection but was unfortunately unable to digitize it because it was in such poor condition. I digitized all of the rest of the BHM tapes using CatDV Live Capture Plus. A CatDV Live Capture Summary text file documenting the digital conversion, as well as a Microsoft word shot log accompanied the video clips that were sent to BHM.

As I digitized the collection, I updated the descriptive information in the database: running time, title information, and geographical information. I also identified which tapes in the collection hadn’t been logged and logged them. While updating the catalog it became clear to me that several of the database entries had tapes that were associated with the wrong database record. I resolved this problem with a little more detective work. I reviewed the tapes for each of these records and determined the proper database record for each of the tapes.

Now that the collection is organized and Burma Humanitarian Mission has their digital copies, I leave the collection more accessible to future researchers, activists, and documentary filmmakers. Hopefully the digital files will eventually make their way onto the HUB to bear witness to the human rights abuses that have been happening in Burma for decades.

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