Taming the Bear

The end of the Cold War more than ten years ago may have opened up the former Soviet Union to an unprecedented extent, but the region still inspires cloak and ...
July 1, 2001

The end of the Cold War more than ten years ago may have opened up the former Soviet Union to an unprecedented extent, but the region still inspires cloak and dagger behavior. Ask a perfectly reasonable producer the whereabouts of some of the smaller archives they’ve used in the region and they clam up, claiming it will jeopardize their relationship with those collections if they talk. Those too wowed by what they’ve found to stay silent are elusive when sharing what they’ve seen, speaking in hushed tones about ‘this man’ who used to shoot for the Soviet military and still has the rushes, or of ‘this place’ that has very early footage of the Russian royal family. The archives that house these collections are relatively isolated and operate outside the global footage community, a fact which encourages such clandestine tendencies – those in the know have an advantage. In the words of Patrick Jucaud, founder of Key3Media’s Red Archives, an event that promotes Soviet era film archives, ‘To approach this market is like walking through a flea market with 2,000 people, none of whom are speaking the same language.’

That said, a growing number of organizations and events are alerting the global production community to material housed in former Soviet archives, and are helping them adopt international business practices. Additionally, local researchers, producers and interpreters are getting savvy to the business opportunities presented by non-Russian speaking producers in search of fresh footage. As a result, accessing these distant archives is becoming increasingly simple, provided a little patience, ingenuity and planning.

Let logic prevail

‘Know what you’re looking for. That’s rule number one,’ says Jucaud. ‘Then, look for archives in specific territories. Central and Eastern Europe consists of about 33 different countries. You need to understand where your best chance is to find the documents you’re looking for.’

Adrian Wood, director of archive development for TWI in London, U.K., took this approach for The British Empire in Colour, a 3 x 1-hour series commissioned in January by the U.K.’s ITV (as a successor to The Second World War in Colour). The film looks at the gradual disintegration of British colonial rule throughout the 20th century. When Wood learned that color film recordings of the Delhi Durbar of 1911 (a ceremony that proclaimed King George V of England the next emperor of India), lost since World War I, might still exist, he set about trying to find them. ‘I decided to look where people probably hadn’t looked before, and in a place where film materials were exchanged at that time,’ explains Wood. ‘It was a long shot, but I decided to start looking at footage in Krasnogorsk. I started with its collection on India and found two rolls of material.’

Krasnogorsk is The Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive in Moscow. It’s recognized as the most comprehensive documentary film footage archive in Russia and stores over 38,000 film titles, about 1,000 of which were shot before 1917. It also houses more than one million still photos.

‘The British and the Russians were allies at the outbreak of World War I, so they reused this footage for an item about the British and Indian army serving on the Western Front. That’s why the stuff survives,’ continues Wood. ‘But, it’s not cataloged as the Delhi Durbar, it’s cataloged as ‘Indian and British troops serving on the Western Front’. Footage isn’t going to fall off the shelves for you. You have to know what you’re dealing with.’

Pack your bags

Producers looking to Russia for unique footage should be prepared to eventually visit its archives themselves. Although footage can be obtained without jumping on a plane, personal visits can open doors. ‘The more you’re there and the more people you meet, the more you are offered,’ says Allison McAllan, a freelance researcher based in London. ‘You can get in anywhere if people trust you.’ McAllan also warns against using local fixers who seem too confident about where to find footage. ‘You’ll get what everyone else already has,’ she says.

Filmmakers who don’t speak Russian will need an interpreter. For the past ten years, Moscow-based researcher Alexander Kandaurov has become well acquainted with the Krasnogorsk archive doing research for English-speaking film producers: ‘All the catalogs are in Russian, and you need the advice and consultation of the archivists. You have to know Russian or you have to come with an interpreter. Or, you hire someone like me.’

RealScreen‘s attempts to reach the archives for information proved Kandaurov correct. Few contacts spoke English. Those who did were uncomfortable trying to do so over the phone. ‘There’s only one woman at Krasnogorsk who speaks English,’ reveals Kandaurov. ‘But, the range of her functions is so broad, she can’t physically be an interpreter for anyone who comes to the archives without knowledge of the Russian language.’ More specifically, Elena Constantinova Kolikova handles all of the paperwork required for transactions with foreign producers and researchers, including answering faxes, email and phone calls.

Wood has used the same Russian researcher – Victor Beljakov of Clio Film in Moscow – for the last decade. He recommends finding someone who understands filmmaking, so they can spy what material has relevance, and who knows how the archives function. Says Wood, ‘In my experience, you can’t beat having a Russian researcher look through the finding aids, look through the card indexes and sit there and screen it. If you’re looking for 10 seconds of Stalin or 20 seconds of Lenin, fine. But, if you want to do fundamental research – whatever the subject – you have to go to the source.’ Kandaurov charges about US$150 a day for his services, while Wood estimates he pays about $100 to $175 a day.

In addition to finding footage, a good researcher can speed things along by doing the prep work. Says Kandaurov, ‘When a producer comes here for viewing, I make sure everything is ready and that the films are in a certain order on the shelves. If you come here totally unprepared and start working only when you’re here, you will lose some time getting things organized.’

When in Russia, do as the Russians do

Mining Russian archives for footage isn’t something that can be left to the last minute. Poor cataloging systems mean quirkier subjects need creativity, patience and persistence to be found. Beliye Stolby Gosfilmofond is an archive located a short distance from Moscow. It houses the region’s fiction films, as well as captured Nazi and Japanese footage from WWII, according to Kandaurov. Says Beljakov, ‘The catalog available at Beliye Stolby is arranged by film title, followed by a brief abstract of the film. All documentation is in Russian. Regretfully, however, not all the archive has undergone the full cataloging process. Sometimes there’s only a movie’s name, with no mention of its plot.’ Kandaurov agrees, ‘It’s very badly cataloged.’

Beljakov estimates that once footage has been located and selected, a video copy of the film can be obtained the next day, provided the licensing contract has been signed. It can take up to two weeks to receive a film copy. That said, producers would be wise to budget in extra time to accommodate ‘the Russian way of doing things’. ‘What you expect to do in a week takes 10 days, but that has more to do with Russia than with the archives,’ says Wood.

‘People who work at the Krasnogorsk archive get such poor salaries that they are absolutely disinterested in the final result of what they’re doing,’ continues Kandaurov. ‘Sometimes a cutting script is missing and nobody can find it, or you order film and it doesn’t come from the vault and nobody knows where it is. Eventually, you find the script and eventually you find the film, but it takes time and nerves and you have to know who to turn to. It’s like in old Soviet times – bureaucrats never give you a direct answer. You can stumble in the corridors of the archive and not know what to do, unless you know the right people, which is annoying.’

Wood also points out that many of the archivists can be distrustful of people they don’t know, so producers need to invest time into establishing relationships. ‘You have to set up a relationship of trust that you’re not going to do something that will jeopardize their work or the material. They’ve spent many years taking care of a film collection in relative political isolation from the rest of the world. [Krasnogorsk] was for internal use only. Its primary function is to preserve the nation’s film heritage, not to sell footage. You have to treat the people with respect.’

A ruble for your doc

Most of the archives in Russia have two rate cards, one for native producers and one for international producers. The Russian rate card is in rubles and reflects the budgets and license fees allocated by broadcasters and production companies in the Russian market. The international rate card is in U.S. dollars and reflects the budgets and license fees allocated by broadcasters and production companies in the global market. ‘The license fees include both the right to use the footage and the cost of producing a copy,’ explains Beljakov. ‘Sometimes you can bargain to alter the rate, provided you can persuade archive officials that you are very poor. But, this will be difficult if you’re staying in Russia.’ For the most part, fees are non-negotiable.

The policy at most archives, including Krasnogorsk, is that producers pay for whatever footage leaves the archive, not just the footage that eventually makes it into the film. Beljakov attributes this to the archives’ inability to monitor the actual usage of the material once it leaves the archive, although he does point out that additional license agreements are needed if the footage is used in subsequent productions. ‘You have to be focused on what you’re looking for and why you need it,’ says Wood. ‘It makes you think about what you copy – you don’t just blindly order everything you might want.’

The former Soviet Union supports a healthy black market for archival footage, but producers should think twice before being wooed by cheap prices. Anything produced in the Soviet era technically belongs to the state and is, therefore, the property of the archives. Only the archives own the legal copyrights to that footage. Additionally, restoration and general maintenance of the archives is costly. Prior to Perestroika, the various archives were government funded. Lenin is known to have claimed film as ‘the most important of all arts.’ The result was generous budgets for the shooting and storing of film. After communism collapsed, funding rapidly dropped off in the struggling economy. Everyone has a story about opening a can of film only to find dust, or of mold taking over some of the smaller archives. International dollars are starting to turn things around, but dollars going to the black market is money that doesn’t go to the archives.


Producers without the time or money to make the trip to Russia and her neighboring countries can still utilize local researchers. Kandaurov says 90% of his clients never go to Russia. Instead, they send a synopsis of the film they’re working on or a specific wish list of the footage they’re looking for. He then scans the Krasnogorsk catalog and scripts, and sends back a shot by shot description of the images he finds, indicating the quality and length of every clip. ‘They then check off what they want, keeping in mind that the archive charges $30 a minute for a time-coded VHS viewing tape,’ Kandaurov explains. ‘Most of the producers I work with try to be as specific as possible to minimize the length of the VHS. A normal 50-minute film usually has a 15 to 30-minute VHS tape, which costs about $450 to $900. Knowing they have to pay on delivery, the producers do their rough cuts on the viewing VHS tapes and then email me the exact time code they want on the master.’

Finding a good local researcher can be difficult. Kandaurov is a member of FOCAL International, but most of his colleagues garner clients through word of mouth. Andrew Sparke, the managing director of Iskra Television in London, recommends contacting regional broadcast bureaus – such as the BBC in Moscow – and asking for referrals. Alternately, producers can let someone else do all the work. Iskra is a clips library that holds the worldwide rights to over 8,000 home-video clips from Russia. It can also act as a liaison between producers and the footage they seek. Sparke spent four years in Russia and knows the country well: ‘Our contacts are producers or researchers spread around various parts of the former Soviet Union. The Ukraine and the Baltics have some very good stuff, and Central Asia has huge quantities of footage from Moscow that was moved there during the war and never worked its way back again.

‘One of the advantages we offer is that we have producers in-house who know the archives and archivists well,’ continues Sparke. ‘They are buying for their own productions all the time and get a specific rate for being natives of Russia, so they just add our order to theirs. We then get footage at a reduced rate.’

For producers who prefer the diy approach, a chunk of the Krasnogorsk catalog is available online. In 1997, prodco Abamedia of Fort Worth, Texas, and the Russian regional non-commercial entity Film and Computer World, created the Archive Media Project (AMP). The project seeks to introduce modern cataloging and preservation technologies to various archives in Russia, as well as produce revenues that can be used for further preservation and marketing efforts. The U.S. government, George Soros’ Open Society Archives and The Rockefeller Foundation have all donated grant money. AMP and its internet entity – Russian Archives Online (RAO) – is also the licensing agent for Krasnogorsk and various other Russian archives for clients outside the former Soviet Union.

‘AMP’s first purpose is to catalog the archives,’ says Mitchell Johnson, president and CEO of Abamedia. Currently, 2,000 titles are searchable in an English-language catalog; about 20,000 are available in Russian. ‘We’ve decided to stop translating the catalog into English because it wasn’t cost effective,’ explains Johnson. ‘This summer, we are adding a Russian to English language translator. Now you’ll be able to use the Russian catalog even if you don’t speak Russian.’

Mitchell expects the Krasnogorsk film collection to be electronically cataloged by 2003. About 1,000 entries are made a month thanks to the 30 to 40 archivists who are working through the collection in the order the films were received by the archive (which is not necessarily chronological). ‘We haven’t started the still photo catalog, which is pretty daunting,’ adds Mitchell. ‘There’s over one million photos. We’re still looking for the funding to begin cataloging the photos.’ RAO also represents The Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documents, or the ‘Space Archive’, which recently received a grant to catalog its still photo collection.

By next year, Mitchell hopes to include several thousand clips and photos on the RAO site. ‘These will tie back into the catalog,’ he explains. ‘We’ve been waiting for not only our fundraising, but also the web – until recently, it wasn’t able to accommodate that. Now, it’s not that difficult.’ Mitchell estimates $2 million to $3.5 million has been invested in the project to date. ‘At this point, it has meant a lot more investment than it has revenue. I’ve spent a great deal of time bringing in not-for-profit dollars, which have been critical to making this happen. Unfortunately, the license revenues have been not that large.’

On June 11, 2001, the project received a boost to its morale when the Archive Ministry of Russia, Abamedia and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) signed an agreement that has the three organizations working together to develop RAO. ‘This is important because Russia is very protective of its national archives,’ explains Johnson. ‘This gives us legitimacy when we approach other archives, and recognizes the importance of our activities.’

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.