Every great archivist has an obsessive streak. For nearly 20 years, Geoff Alexander, the dapper, convivial South Bay founder of The Academic Film Archive of North America (AFANA), has been a lone voice touting the unsung masters and unknown craftsmen who made the thousands of films used in American classrooms primarily between 1960 and 1985. Alexander began spreading the gospel in the 1990s with a screening series in downtown San Jose, ciné16, that morphed into the nonprofit AFANA. The organization represents a true labor of love for the tireless Alexander, perhaps the only owner of a sales training company who’s also a life member of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Alexander compiled his voluminous knowledge and research into an astonishingly researched and marvelously readable book, Academic Films for the Classroom: A History (McFarland, $55), published last fall. We conversed with Alexander via email about his championing of a genre of moviemaking that, in some circles, can’t get no respect.
SF360: Educational films are near the bottom of the cinema hierarchy, above only training videos, I would submit. Is part of your mission to win wider respect for them among mainstream Americans as well as cinephiles and historians?
Geoff Alexander: I agree, right now they’re low on the cinematic totem pole. Two of the main reasons are how they were often used in school (taking notes in a dark room is drudgery), and today’s pop-culture emphasis on Guidance films—from school bus safety to dating—that are viewed as campy. Instead, I emphasize the Humanities and Science films, which I call Academic films to distinguish them from Guidance films. Thousands of these were compelling cinema with engaging content, and are as impactful today from a cinematic perspective as when they were made. They occupy what I call the hidden corner of North American cinema.
I’m happy to say that mainstream America is already discovering the value of these films. The fun and quirky science film Protein Synthesis: An Epic on the Cellular Level has more than 700,000 views on YouTube (youtube.com/watch?v=u9dhO0iCLww). And we have had well over 100,000 views on the films we’ve been digitizing and uploading to the Academic Film Archive of North America’s collection site on the Internet Archive (archive.org/details/academic_films).
Cinephiles all over the world have been collecting these films for years in 16mm format as libraries have deaccessioned them in favor of newer media, but the lion’s share of the content has never been repurposed for DVD or streaming technology, so there remains a lot of work to be done to ensure that some very important films don’t end up in the landfill.
SF360: The Bay Area’s Rick Prelinger and Stephen Parr (of Oddball Films) are two such collectors and archivists who recognize not just the entertainment value but the historical worth of academic films. But they’ve long been ahead of the curve.
Alexander: Film scholars are beginning to see Academic film as an exciting new area of research, but up until the book was published, were, I think, pretty challenged by the relative lack of documentation of the companies and people that made the films. There are lots of things a book can do by virtue of being published. This book tells a compelling, important, yet little-known story that’s important to the history of 20th-century America. But it’s also an urgent call for saving any form of art that is in danger of disappearance. We lost forever a large percentage of silent films that were perceived as unimportant with the advent of the talkies. And now we can’t get them back. They were thrown away. The 16mm academic film story pretty much ended in 1985 with the arrival of the VHS tape. These films aren’t old enough to be prized as antiques, but they’re just old enough to be judged by many as passé. And it’s during those ‘passé’ years, the decades immediately following the popular decline of an art form, that the form itself is most vulnerable to destruction.
SF360: Who are the star directors and innovators of educational film? Do they deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the great documentary makers or the great narrative filmmakers, and why?
Alexander: I think it’s important to note that in the post-Sputnik days, hundreds of great young filmmakers made academic films right out of film school essentially funded by our tax dollars. They revolutionized narrative film in much the same way that short-story writers impacted literature, in the sense that they had to tell a compelling story in one sitting, which was usually at most a one-hour classroom period. The best of them can be judged by the same standards that any cinephile or critic would use to judge any exceptional film: great directing, exceptional acting, compelling story, tight editing, exciting cinematography. There is no question in my mind that within the [next] decade the work of many of these filmmakers will be compared with the work of notable filmmakers in any era.
In terms of relevance to documentary film, one example would be the noted cinema vérité filmmaker Richard Leacock, who made some terrific science films and considers them an important part of his body of work (see his Magnet Laboratory at archive.org/details/academic_films). Tom Smith’s Solar System was so innovative in its use of special effects that George Lucas hired him to head up Industrial Light & Magic’s special effects group after seeing the film. Smith was in charge of special effects for the early Star Wars films.
Narrative academic film encompasses scores of notable filmmakers including John Barnes, who made films ranging from Shakespearean subjects to Bill of Rights issues. He’s probably the greatest ‘unknown’ of these filmmakers, whose work is all too rarely seen today. He was an auteur who was really a class unto himself, with exacting standards on directing, acting, writing and cinematography, often engaging in epic battles with his company over what he needed to make a compelling film. His films bear out the fact that he was right (watch his three-part Shaw vs. Shakespeare series at archive.org/details/shaw_vs_shakespeare_1).
SF360: How does the book fit in? Who do you see as the audience for it?
Alexander: The book puts the entire film movement into context, and explains how these disparate elements came together to make these films happen. One could almost say that it was cinematic socialism thriving in a capitalist context, the money flow moving from the Federal government to the school districts, then to the film companies, and eventually into the pockets of the filmmakers. It was a great time to be a filmmaker, with ready-made audiences and an almost endless stream of funding.
The audience for the book would have to include the 700,000 people who viewed at least one science film on YouTube. I’d say overall that the audience for the book will consist of a combination of younger adults that are savvy on Internet media, baby boomers that remember these films, films scholars and historians, cinema students and those interested in preserving art forms that are in danger of being inexorably lost.
SF360: Any stories of the book prompting the rediscovery of a lost film?
Alexander: The book’s only been out three months, so there are no earthshaking discoveries that have resulted from reader interaction yet. But I can tell you about the dozens of filmmakers who were positively impacted during the research for this book. Nearly all of them thought they would pass away with their life’s work lost to time. They were overjoyed that their work will be remembered and appreciated in the pages of the book, and their mark will be etched in literature for future generations. And that means a lot to me on a personal level. No great artist should be forgotten.
Several years ago in New Hampshire, I accidentally stumbled upon the art films made by Clifford West. West’s family ran an art gallery that I happened into one day. His films were virtually unknown. I returned and helped the family arrange, document and preserve his prints. His daughter volunteered to be the family film archivist, and she told me the experience helped her get to better know a father who had always been something of a mystery to her. (I believe there was a 50 or 60-year age difference.) Stories like these are really the heart of the book.
SF360: You ran a screening series in San Jose for several years. What did you learn by turning audiences on to older educational films?
Alexander: We found that people really crave good, unadulterated, commercial-free content. They’re not used to getting that on television, and even movie theatres are full of commercial spots these days. The iconoclastic geology films by Bert Van Bork, where he perched on the edge of dangerous lava vents, for instance, were always great crowd-pleasers, and Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, the company for which he worked, took exceptional pains to avoid commercialism. Today’s audiences are often skeptical of programming done with an eye to pleasing a commercial sponsor, and these films are a wonderful example of cinema for the sake of cinema, without a whole lot of regard to box office numbers.
SF360: What value do these films have today—as source material, historical (or geographical or natural-world) records or (dare I say it) art?
Alexander: To be sure, much of it has historical interest. Leacock’s film on a visit to Dr. Francis Bitter’s remarkable magnet laboratory at MIT, for instance, hosted by the taciturn yet animated physicist. Many important historical people were documented in these films. Or John Barnes’ story of how one school system decided to completely shut down rather than racially integrate (Equality Under the Law: The Lost Generation of Prince Edward County, 1965). Or Bert Van Bork’s documentation of the exploding Kilauea volcano, which is timeless. Right now I’m documenting a fascinating foreign-language series made in 1961, Je Parle Français, which shows a France that to a great extent no longer exists. The 120 films in this series are a cultural record and time capsule, made by a film team that clearly emphasized the value of a culture that was in the process of change, yet valued the past. And yes, ‘art’ is a word that I use frequently in describing these films. Guy Jorré’s cinematography, best shown in the black-and-white prints of the French series, is stunning. And that’s just one of scores of examples I could give you.
SF360: What are the exhibition possibilities for educational films in the digital age?
Alexander: That’s one of the things we learned from our screenings: We weren’t reaching enough people. Our audiences were so enthusiastic that we evolved to putting these films on the Academic Archive of North America collection space, hosted by the Internet Archive, so that thousands can see them now instead of the dozens we had to shoehorn into our screenings, which were held in a speakeasy under the streets of San Jose.
SF360: Do you see new opportunities and audiences via the soon-to-be ubiquitous handheld devices?
Alexander: Millions of people are now viewing these films on portable devices, and parents are downloading these films on home computers to provide creative educational content to their children (at a restaurant one night, the couple at the next table had been doing just that, with our films). One key to providing public access on portable devices is working with the copyright holders to ensure that they’ll be happy when people view their content free of charge. For example, we’ve forged an agreement with Encyclopaedia Britannica and Getty Images, who sells their footage, to put low-res content on the Internet so that folks using portable devices can see the entire film. If someone wants to make commercial use of the footage, then we refer him or her to Getty. EB and Getty win that way, but perhaps the biggest winners are the millions that get to view the films free, anywhere and any time. And when people see these films, they’re going to have questions. ‘Who made these films? Why were they made? Where have they gone?’ The book is a guide to the answers.
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