Bill Blakefield spends a lot of time fishing -- for films that is. A good part of his job as National Archives film programmer involves sorting through the enormous inventory of government documentaries, newsreels and other nonfiction films to put together film festivals and public education programs.
"There is so much material in our collection that has built up over the years, and not all of it is catalogued," he says, guessing that only 20 to 25 percent of the more than 13,000 films are filed, complete with descriptions of their content, in the card catalogue. Archives staffers are working to complete a computerized catalogue, but at present the rest of the films are only on the shelf list of film titles.
So for now, Blakefield must spend hours and hours going through "the bare bones list of titles," searching for those that seem appropriate for a particular theme he wants to develop. Though that may sound tedious, Blakefield says such "fishing expeditions" often lead him to ideas for future programs.
Although the National Archives has been showing films to the public for about 40 years, it is only since Blakefield was hired as its first full-time film programmer in late 1984 that films are being shown on a consistent basis. Past festivals he has coordinated were "The War Film," which featured films mostly from World War II, and "50 Years of the Documentary," which celebrated the Archives' 50th anniversary. And later this year, he will present a series on how films are made.
Documentaries are screened at noon Fridays, and fictional films related to the documentaries' themes are shown on alternate Thursday evenings. For example, included in the "American Lives" festival, which began earlier this month and runs through March, are documentaries about the Amish, perceptions of rural life, composer Aaron Copland and social photographer Lewis Hine, as well as fictional films such as "Our Town," "Rebel Without a Cause," "Nashville" and "Places in the Heart." The films reflect the diversity of life styles, values and occupations in America.
Often, such as for the "American Lives" festival, Blakefield programs films from outside the Archives collection. Some are made by small independent companies that have used Archives footage or still photos, and some come from other film archives or from the libraries of commercial studios. Blakefield includes such outside films because he wants to make the Archives a showcase for documentary film as well as to provide the public a look at the Archives collection .
"The problem that documentary film has is exposure," says Blakefield, a film historian. "Many films go to PBS, but PBS is limited in the amount they can show. Documentary filmmakers put a year or two or three of their lives into their films, and then they don't get them seen."
But there is no question that Blakefield is happiest when he is able to draw upon his own collection. His eyes light up when he describes showing the full version of John Ford's Pearl Harbor documentary, "December 7," last year during the war film festival; the film, which included footage the Navy disapproved of and cut, was never released in full. For that series, Blakefield also showed a rare Frank Capra film, "Here Is Germany." The film was shelved after the war and remained obscure for 40 years.
According to Blakefield, newsreels and war films are the most popular films in the Archives collection. He says, "It's one thing to see films that are looking back at history. It's another to see people at the time, talking about how they feel. We take pride in showing films that are as close to the original as possible."
And Blakefield takes special pride in the elegant 216-seat auditorium, complete with plush green velvet chairs and wood-paneled walls. Six months ago, the Archives installed a wider screen and a new projection system that accommodates films in Dolby and Cinemascope. "We're now into the 20th century," Blakefield declares.
For the most part, Blakefield says, he gets a good turnout for the films, though sometimes it's hard to predict what people will want to see. He recalls programming "Gimme Shelter," a documentary about the Rolling Stones, certain that it would play to a packed house. Only a handful of people showed up. And when he scheduled a film on the 1930s Nuremburg rallies for the day after Thanksgiving, he was pleasantly surprised when every seat was filled.
He admits he often programs a film knowing that it may not draw large crowds, simply because he feels it's important that people see it.
"We're not like a television station dependent upon ratings. We're not obsessed by numbers," he says.