‘I met a representative of a company called Internews, named Vince Malmgren, on a flight between Budapest and Frankfurt,’ recalls Mitchell Johnson, president and CEO of Fort Worth-based prodco Abamedia. Seated next to Malmgren, Johnson was chatting and mentioned his idea for a project that would give filmmakers from around the world easier access to the Russian State Film and Photo Archives at Krasnogorsk. Oddly enough, Malmgren had a similar idea in the works. ‘He said it was strange for me to mention that because he was looking for an American partner for a similar idea,’ Johnson says. ‘It was unbelievable. It was one of those times in life when something that seems too good to be true actually works out.’
Internews, an international, non-profit organization based in Arcata, California, works to build independent media in emerging democracies. Their aim is to use the media as a tool to reduce conflict within and between countries. Johnson’s project – to digitize the archive and make its catalog available on the Web – fit Internews’ criteria for funding and the project got underway in 1996, under the banner of the Archive Media Project.
Johnson’s inspiration for the website (called the Russian Archives Online – RAO), came from his own experiences. While visiting the Krasnogorsk archive in ’95, he was struck by the richness of its collection, which includes upwards of 45,000 film titles – including such treasures as Czar Nicholas’ 1896 coronation filmed by the Lumière Brothers, footage of the Russian Revolution and works by filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein – and over a million still photos. Johnson recalls: ‘When I walked into the archives for the first time I was stunned at the amount of material there and how unique it was, and also the high quality of archiving that had been done. As Americans we have biases – one of the obvious biases was that Russians would not have done a very good job of film preservation and cataloging – but that was not true. The Russians had done a superior job of archiving the film and cataloging it because Stalin, and Lenin before him, understood the power of media. They made sure that the film archives were well taken care of.’
Today, with an online database of about 17,000 titles in Russian and a plan to translate those records into English (to date, between 2,000 and 3,000 are in English), RAO is on its way toward being an invaluable resource for filmmakers wishing to access the archive at Krasnogorsk and a number of other Russian State collections.
Johnson says the biggest challenge before the company is translating the records into English. With funds in place from philanthropist George Soros’ Budapest-based Open Society Archives, the Archive Media Project is working with library scientists and software experts to find a technological solution to this daunting task. ‘It’s expensive to manually translate the whole thing. In the next 12 months, we plan to have a sophisticated Russian to English translator, that will evolve into a multilingual [translator].’ Johnson has just struck a deal with Discovery Germany to partner on a German version of the site. ‘From there we plan to do similar things in each of the major markets.’