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19 September 2018
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An interview with Paolo Cherchi Usai, new director of the National Screen and Sound Archive

Hailing from Italy, where his career began as a film critic and writer on film and arts, Paolo Cherchi Usai rapidly took a curatorial path that has included Preservation Officer for the Royal Film Archive in Belgium, a founder and director of the Silent Film Festival of Pordenone in Italy, and Adjunct Professor of Film at the University of Rochester. He has been Senior Curator of the Motion Picture Department at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, since 1994.

Paolo is currently Vice President of the International Federation of Film Archives among his many honorary roles, as well as director of the L Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation. He was knighted by the French Government earlier this year as Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres for his contribution to film culture.

He has conducted extensive academic research and has been published widely in books and papers on subjects ranging from the history of silent cinema, to film preservation and, most recently, issues associated with audiovisual archiving in the digital age. Among his most acclaimed books are Burning Passions: An Introduction to the Study of Silent Cinema (1994) and The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age (2001).

Paolo was attracted to the Directorship of Australia's National Screen and Sound Archive because of the significance of the collection and the Archive's international standing and reputation.

What's been your experience of Australian film, television and sound?

My main exposure to Australian cinema has been through my work with the Australian Screen and Sound Archive on the first 30 years of Australian film during the silent cinema period. My specialised interest and work with silent films has included the Australian collection and, in particular, a close association with the Archive on the reconstruction of The Sentimental Bloke from an excellent print we held at George Eastman House. I was thrilled to be able to help host the world premiere of this film recently at the Sydney Film Festival.

I've also become interested in contemporary Australian film through my personal passion for Rolf de Heer's work. I think this man is one of the most daring filmmakers of our time and I have had the benefit of working with him for some time now to construct a collection of his complete works for George Eastman House. Sadly I will need to leave this project unfinished when I take up the position in Australia, but I will be passing it on to my successor to continue.

In terms of sound, Australia has a state of the art sound preservation facility and we at George Eastman House have utilised this facility to restore and preserve our entire oral history collection.

What is your experience of dealing with the range of stakeholders for an institution such as the Archive?

I have been working for many years with outside stakeholders. I greatly value the expertise and ideas being brought forward by some external associations such as the Archive Forum and I intend to continue to develop that dialogue. Interested groups prove that the Archive does not exist in a cultural vacuum and it is important to the vitality of the organisation that we have exchanges within national and international contexts.

I explained to staff on my recent visit that I prefer to see my role as a facilitator and I expect to function in that way also on an international level with organisations I currently have strong involvements with.

The archival world looks to Australia's National Screen and Sound Archive as a model, and so on that level we will be constantly in touch with international colleagues. This is the Archive's creative oxygen and we will continue to cultivate these associations, not just at the managerial level, but allowing staff at all levels to have particular international dialogues. It is a horizontal approach, an exchange of views and research and results, with all countries who value their archive practice.

What are the challenges and opportunities that you see ahead for the Archive?

There are not many major archives internationally that combine the areas of moving image and sound preservation, as Australia's Archive and George Eastman House do. It is my experience that these areas have different but complementary philosophies of preservation and I view this as an enticing challenge. I expect that my ongoing concern for the ethics of preservation will be of some use in developing coherent standards and practices in both areas. Once it is accepted in an archive or a museum, no artifact should be perceived or treated as a B-class citizen of the institution. This also applies to the relationship between sound and moving image collections.

I also believe the Archive has a crucial mission ahead to make a strategic move towards implementing a legal copyright deposit. This has been a long sought-after dream of all archives and there are rare, but important, case histories where this type of arrangement has proved successful. I think this is possibly the single most positive possibility emerging from the Archive's integration with the AFC. It would be objectively harder for each organisation to work out independently what this joint opportunity can achieve.

In the United States, the Motion Picture Division at the Library of Congress was able to take full advantage of its presence within a government organisation to achieve the goal of copyright deposit for moving image and recorded sound. Another case in point is the Archives du Film in France as part of the Centre National de la Cinématographie, which is in some respects comparable to the AFC.

How do you perceive the Archive's reputation in the local and international community?

The quality of preservation work done by the Archive has given it a high international profile. The preservation laboratory has played a crucial role in promoting the Archive to the world archiving profession as well as the wider community. The same applies to MAVIS, by far the most sophisticated and efficient cataloguing and data management system in the audiovisual field, a program designed in Australia and now used in several major archival institutions worldwide.

Another unique feature of the Archive is its role in preserving and making accessible the Indigenous sound and moving image heritage. Cultural diversity has always been high on my agenda, especially in my capacity as head of an archive in a country like the United States, where museums have the specific responsibility of preserving the works of indigenous cultures and fostering responsible access to this crucial component of a national heritage.

What will be your main priorities when you start as Director?

My first task will be to begin understanding the complexity of such a large organisation and to find out more about the creative potential that can be brought to its best expression.

I also need to start discussions on long-term projects with staff, management and other AFC managers as well as external stakeholders.

The priorities I have on my list (although some may take a number of years to bring to fruition) include:

  • the creation of a national filmography and discography
  • developing a strong curatorial approach and discipline at the Archive
  • promoting research via a Study Centre and closer associations with the scholarly community
  • making the collection accessible via the Internet while maintaining the goal of exhibiting the Archive's collection - both nation-wide and internationally - in the glory of its original form
  • the parallel agendas of giving the Archive a state of the art screening facility, as well as developing a collection and exhibition policy for works originally produced in digital form
  • intensifying our acquisition efforts in the areas of broadcast and recorded sound
  • taking up the challenge of creating a new access policy without betraying the ethics of the Archive
  • and last but not least, cultivating enthusiasm at all staff levels on the value of our mission.

  • Paolo will take up the position of Director in September this year, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Archive.

Paolo Cherchi Usai
Photo courtesy of Barbara Puorro Galasso, George Eastman House