For the brave doc-maker stymied by mainstream footage holders, there is another potential source for clips: eBay. Amidst the designer sneakers and car parts being hocked via the Seattle-based online auction site is footage collected by some of the most diligent documentarians of the 20th century – shooters of home-movies.
It is via eBay that Toronto-based producer/director Ali Kazimi of Asli Films obtained important content for his current project, Continuous Passage (w/t), a one-hour, CDN$200,000 (US$158,000) one-off for Toronto-based pubcaster TVO, that explores Canadian immigration policies towards South-Asians on the eve of World War I.
‘I’ve seen 16-mm movies of Martin Luther King’s marches [for sale],’ says Kazimi, who acknowledges he only thought of eBay when he needed historical shots he could neither afford to buy from a commercial library, or get from royalty-free sources such as the Washington, D.C.-based National Archives and Records Administration.
Home movies in the U.S. from the 1950s and later are particularly plentiful, although some material comes from all corners of the globe and dates as far back as the early 1900s. Kazimi says this inexpensive footage, in addition to often documenting significant events, contains intimate scenes of everyday life that can enhance a story’s grounding in an era. Footage from public events, like auto races and rodeos, is particularly common.
Buyers, however, need to take care in gauging the image quality and storytelling value of film offered on eBay, he concedes. Copyright is also an issue. For instance, one clip he is hoping to use in Continuous Passage is color home-movie footage of scenes aboard a cruise ship captured by an American traveler in the late 1950s. He acquired it from a seller who picked up the reel at an estate sale. Kazimi says his lawyer needs to determine that this is truly what archivists call ‘orphaned footage’, film to which no owner can be determined. ‘We have to prove that there is no one claiming this material,’ he says, adding that the ‘chain of ownership’ shows there is no living heir to the footage. He adds, ‘That’s why there was an estate sale.’
The footage, Kazimi says, is surprisingly sharp and vivid, despite being shot by an amateur who never imagined his candid observations of life aboard a ship might someday be broadcast on television. ‘[eBay] is worth looking into,’ he says.
Rudy Buttignol, head of docs at Toronto-based TVO, is comfortable with doc-makers using eBay as a source for clips, especially if the material considered merely details everyday scenes. He points out that filmmakers must ensure two things if they intend to use film acquired via eBay: that they have the right to use the footage, and that no problems will stem from any person identifiable in the clip. But, in that regard, he says there is a scale on which the clip can be weighed. ‘It depends on the content of the footage, and the context in which it’s being used. If the content or the context is controversial, then the risk is higher,’ he says. The lower the risk, the less a doc-maker need worry about release clearances.
Doc producers are not the only people who recognize the potential value of the home movies being offered on eBay. Kazimi notes that home movies, even rolls of ‘generic’ footage showing unidentifiable people in crowds, sometimes attract surprisingly determined bidders. ‘From the prices being paid, [I think] there are people who are buying it for commercial purposes, for building stock footage libraries,’ he concludes. In which case, producers would be wise to buy now, while they can still afford to.