Archives + Audiences: Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner on “LA 92” (Part 2)

“LA 92” theatrical and TV release poster.

This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.  In this post, we feature Part 2 of COPA member Nick Pavlik’s conversation with Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner about their work on the acclaimed documentary LA 92, which examines the 1992 Rodney King protests in Los Angeles entirely through archival footage.  Lindsay co-directed the film, while Piner was a producer and archival researcher for the project. Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.

See Part 1 of the interview here.

NP: Are there any other major challenges that stand out to you, separate from the ones you’ve already referenced?

BP: Just from the acquisition and licensing side, the one that comes to mind was when, about halfway or maybe three quarters of the way through the post-production, we got wind that CBS had applied a new restriction on raw footage. And with the emphasis that we had on raw footage, that we had already cut in minutes and minutes of that content [into the film], that was a major alarm for us.  And we ended up having to take some very significant proactive measures in order to try and claw back the content that we had taken for granted as being available, and pay them for it and include it in the film. I just remember, in actually clearing footage [generally], there were many little things that could threaten a piece of footage’s viability. And when you start to think about that over the course of an entirely archival film, it was just a real bear to get it out the door.

NP: Yes, I can imagine!

DL: Now I think about the “aha” moments. When I think of the progress that has been made, in terms of digitizing stuff and making things searchable on databases online, I don’t think there is a world in which we would have been able to make this film fifteen years ago. It just wouldn’t have been possible to pay to create screeners for all these things, and to be able to search the archives the way that we have. It’s something that TJ [Martin] and I have talked about. I think this form of documentary filmmaking is going to just become more and more prevalent as technology progresses. Not only on the side of us as community members [increasingly] filming our own lives, but also in terms of being able to digitize a lot of this stuff, and make it searchable in databases so it’s not so cumbersome to try to go through what exists. I think that’s really exciting as a filmmaker. So, hats off to the archivists in the world that do the work to actually preserve that stuff.

BP: That’s a good takeaway too. The level of appreciation you feel when an archivist can deliver a moment in the archive for the film. It’s a lot of years between [the creation of footage] and making sure that it’s something that can be sent in a WeTransfer link, for instance. We try not to take it for granted. It’s an interesting combination of being frustrated and also being grateful for what exists.

NP: That’s certainly gratifying to hear as an archivist, and I certainly hope we see more films of this type and of this caliber. They really are shining a light on that raw footage, things that have never actually seen any commercial broadcast before and really get to the heart of the stories. The footage in your film is really disturbing, powerful, and heartwarming all at the same time. And it’s just really amazing stuff that I feel most people have never seen before in relation to the Rodney King events.

DL: The other thing that comes to mind, in terms of what the future looks like and these types of films, is that I think there are going to be interesting moral questions that will present themselves. In terms of, like you said, things that were not broadcast, moments in between interviews, when maybe the subject isn’t really aware that they’re [on film].  I think now we have a better awareness of when we’re being filmed and when we’re not. There’s less of an understanding of privacy. But when you go back to something in the mid ’90s or late ’90s, and it is that raw, really human moment that says something about us as human beings but maybe that particular person wouldn’t want to be used.  I think there are going to be a lot of interesting questions that will arise out of those decisions that both filmmakers and archivists will have to make, making judgments in that regard.

NP: Yes, absolutely. In the latter half of the twentieth century, up until the social media explosion, video and film were heavily in use as a medium of course, but as you said, there wasn’t that expectation necessarily that the product of that film or video would ever be made public.  Whereas now, it’s almost a given that we’re all just expecting, “certainly this is going to wind up online somehow.”

BP: One last thing – just thinking about what made the film work in the way it did, I think we’d be remiss not to bring up the role that the score played and how it was married with the archival footage in a way that had a lot of intention.  The composers and directors worked really hard on that piece of it.  The footage itself was compelling, but I think without the score to accompany it, it was a really different experience, obviously. That’s true for any film, but I think it’s especially true for LA 92.

NP: That’s a great point. The score was fantastic.

BP: It augmented the archive in a way that I didn’t really appreciate until I saw it in its finished form.

NP: Do you have any tips or advice for other documentarians or filmmakers utilizing archival footage in their films?

BP: I would just go back to, from the acquisition standpoint, just [building] relationships, thinking of these archives and the people who run them as people and treating them respectfully and having gratitude for what they’re doing, needing to go out of their way, of what their normal day might be, to field these kinds of requests.  At the end of the day, that just paid off over the long haul.  And I think that if relationships are one of the top pieces – instead of just thinking about giving me what I want, thinking about it more in the terms of collaboration with the archives – I feel like that’s appreciated, and it’s this build on itself to a place where you can get further than you could if you didn’t prioritize it.

DL: I think on a creative side, the one thing that pops up in my mind is having personal responsibility for what you’re going to use, to not use stuff just because it’s provocative, and to know that your duty is to tell a story that is hopefully enlightening something about us as people, not just for shock value.  It’s irresponsible if that’s all you care about. Again, some of this footage is captured without people necessarily knowing that it’s going to be later used in a film.  Just keep that in mind as you’re progressing forward.

NP: Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience doing archival research or using archival footage in LA 92?

DL: I think the recognition of the people that go out of their way to save things and preserve things, because the history of our civilization is wrapped up in our artifacts. And to be able to have more and more of those primary resources, I think, just allows us to learn more about ourselves, to hopefully have our history inform the current time that we live in.  I think the recognition of the people that do that is really important.  I had that appreciation before we made the film, but it’s definitely grown as a result of making it.


Dan Lindsay is an Oscar and Emmy winning director of documentary films. Along with his directing partner TJ Martin, Lindsay’s films include Undefeated, which won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary, and LA 92, winner of the 2017 Prime-time Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. They are currently in production on a feature length documentary on the life and career of Tina Turner, which is scheduled for release from HBO in 2020.

Ben Piner is a documentary producer and archival researcher. In addition to LA 92, his most recent credits include the Netflix Documentary Series’ Flint Town and Dogs.  He is currently co-producing an upcoming HBO feature-length documentary on Tina Turner.

Archives + Audiences: Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner on “LA 92” (Part 1)

“LA 92” theatrical and TV release poster.

This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.  In this post, we feature Part 1 of COPA member Nick Pavlik’s conversation with Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner about their work on the acclaimed documentary LA 92, which examines the 1992 Rodney King protests in Los Angeles entirely through archival footage.  Lindsay co-directed the film, while Piner was a producer and archival researcher for the project. Remarks have been edited for length and clarity from a transcript of the original telephone interview.

NP: What made you decide to do a film about the Rodney King protests?

DL: The idea of the film was brought to us by the producers, Simon Chen and Jonathan Chen.  They had set up the project with National Geographic and, when they came to us, there was an idea of doing a look back. The twenty-fifth anniversary of the civil unrest was coming up, and the thought was to revisit that moment. Simon and Jonathan approached TJ [Martin] and I to direct the film. TJ and I took some time to think about it, and eventually came back and said we’d be interested in doing it, but we would want to make it using exclusively archived material and not do any original interviews or shoot any new footage.

If I remember correctly, there was some discussion of a “plan B” of doing interviews in case it wasn’t possible to make the film out of just archives. Obviously we’re not the first people to do something like that, it’s a difficult thing to do. But I don’t think TJ and I had ever considered that back-up plan to be viable. We were going to make this film the way we wanted to make it.

NP: Following up on that, what was it that made you want to make the film entirely out of archival footage and dispense with creating any new footage or doing present-day interviews?

DL: There were multiple reasons. One was to allow the audience to be back in that moment of time and not have contemporary interviews in retrospect that would possibly create a distance for the audience between this event and their experience of watching it. We also didn’t want such a complicated topic – not only the civil unrest itself, but the events leading up to it and all of the underlying issues that led to it – boiling that down to a ninety-minute film felt a little irresponsible to us. So, we wanted to take that moment, the footage that existed, and present it in a way that people could come into it unfiltered and hopefully draw their own conclusions or spur a conversation.

We also come from a background of what’s referred to as vérité filmmaking, or direct cinema, where we are going out and just being a “fly on a wall,” and then putting together a film from that. So we thought that if we could think of these archives as if these were videographers that we had sent out to help us shoot this event while it was happening, it would be like making a film like that. Essentially, you shoot what you can shoot, and then you try to create the narrative and the edit. That felt like a way to be able to do that with a historical film.

NP: Regarding all the archival footage that you used, where did you end up finding all of the footage? And how did you go about securing the permissions to use the footage?

BP: We started out, I think, where most productions like that would start out, regardless of whether it was going to be archival only. And that led us along a path that we continued on for the duration – it was months of time – of trying to find content. I think along the way, when we were in Los Angeles, we also had the luxury of contacting some of the people who had recorded stuff on their own outside of the news entities here. And that was one of the more interesting parts of it, and I think we got some content from people who were literally down at Florence and Normandie [Avenues] filming. You can get some stories from them that inform the way the footage might get used as well.

But we had a relationship with one local news company called KTTV and KCOP.  They were part of the Fox Family that we were a part of with National Geographic, and that opened the door – a pretty significant door – to getting in there and getting some air checks, just bits and pieces of the way that archive has been retained by a guy named Mitch, who was a really diligent archivist and still is there. He has taken a lot of time over the years to make his archive date-searchable, and you can come to him, time after time, with different requests and he would always find what was available and send it back out.

With all of these, you need to get the information about what’s licensable and the rates, and what’s restricted and how it’s restricted – is raw footage restricted? Every local place like that, and the national places too, all have different sets of rules that apply to how the footage can be incorporated. So it was a lot to keep track of, and we just kept at it, chipping away. You’d see something in one clip that would make you want to go check into something else. We often would see moments that would be clipped, or were somehow cut away at a moment that we wanted to see more of. It’s a lot of following back up and just bugging people to look again, to look deeper, to turn these people who are in charge of these archives into collaborators. It was a lot of relationship building and maintaining relationships with these folks, over the course of months. And you really do have to ask them a lot.

DL: We went to the “usual suspects” at the beginning. What they sent back was the standard clips that a lot of people like; it’s almost like the greatest hits, so to speak. It did take a while to get a lot of the people – the archivists, the different networks – to wrap their heads around that what we really wanted was this raw material. And that’s not something that is often desired. [Usually when] somebody’s doing a historical piece on anything, they can just say, “Give me a thirty-minute reel of the best stuff,” but we were really looking for the stuff in between that.

NP: That’s very interesting, because that happens a lot as an archivist or working in archives, when somebody has materials they’re interested in donating, for instance, they’ll [often] bring out what they think are the “greatest hits” among the things they have to show as a sampling. A lot of times those’ll be artifacts, say, a pistol that was used in a famous [historical] battle or something. But knowing the types of things that other researchers are going to be [more] interested in, you’re really looking, as an archivist, for that raw material.  So I really relate to that.

DL: To use your analogy of the pistol that was used in some battle, that stuff – the “significant” stuff – exists out in the world because lay people understand that it’s significant. But it’s the everyday stuff that doesn’t seem as significant that is really, when telling the full story, the hardest stuff to find, and it’s the fabric that connects the dots between the real big moments that we tend to as a society.  These things get filtered down into bullet points.

NP: Yes, exactly. And tragically, so often that’s the stuff people end up throwing away because they don’t realize the significance of it.

DL: Right. For sure.

NP: Going off something that you had mentioned – the things that, when you were doing archival research, you would see in footage that would really interest you, but then [the footage] would cut out, and you’d try to go looking for where that [footage] picked up amongst the raw materials. Were there things that you were hoping to find in your research that you ended up never finding?

BP: The first thing that comes to mind that falls in that category, I think, was news content, specifically from the Spanish-speaking community here in Los Angeles. We looked very hard and made a lot of calls to, I think it was Univision and [some] other places that we were trying to source content. We were literally on the phone with folks in Mexico, at one point, trying to see if their main location in Mexico could have retained any of the broadcast. We were able to get some radio, I think, that was in Spanish and a little bit more and that POV was addressed a bit, and we wanted more of that. We wanted more options from that. So I think what we included, ultimately, was from a very limited stash of content that could have been included. It’s always tough.

There was an interesting situation with a guy named Reggie, who, similar to a lot of these folks at the time, had stuff go out to different channels.  He had done a deal right after everything had happened, and was a little confused about whether he retained the rights to his footage. He had seen bits and pieces of the stuff that had been included in the hard copy. Ultimately, we ended up finding out that he did have rights to his footage, and he had the original tape. That was an instance when we had a glimpse of something that was pretty interesting, because he was right at Florence and Normandie. He was down there right at the tail end of some of the most famous violent scenes that made their way out. And the raw tape that he ended up getting ended up being pretty powerful and we were able to include it in the film. So, they weren’t all in vain, but there were definitely some pursuits that just led to nowhere.

NP: Continuing in that vein, was there anything about the archival research process that surprised you, or did you have any major “aha” moments in the research process?

DL: Just from direct insight, I think there was a bit of naïveté on our part in thinking that more stuff would be archived in its original form. Just knowing what is required on our side when we deliver something, in terms of deliverables to a network, all the different versions [we make], making sure that there’s a textless version and there’s a version with the audio split out on one track, etc. You make all that stuff that you give to these places, and then when you go to the archive you find that they only have the main version with the titles all over it.  That’s the only thing for me that was surprising, just how there wasn’t more raw material out there.

BP: I can tail up on that too, just to say that I had never really pushed as hard on archives as we did for this film, and I guess I ended up being surprised at how much more there was sometimes after having been told that everything had been spent as it related to what we’d asked for. A level of persistence, in that sense, really did pay off over the course [of the project]. But you really have to have the time in order to allow these people to do what they’re doing and to go radio silent for a month, and then all of a sudden they’re back and they’re providing interesting content again.

[Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Dan Lindsay and Ben Piner!]


Dan Lindsay is an Oscar and Emmy winning director of documentary films. Along with his directing partner TJ Martin, Lindsay’s films include Undefeated, which won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary, and LA 92, winner of the 2017 Prime-time Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. They are currently in production on a feature length documentary on the life and career of Tina Turner, which is scheduled for release from HBO in 2020.

Ben Piner is a documentary producer and archival researcher. In addition to LA 92, his most recent credits include the Netflix Documentary Series’ Flint Town and Dogs.  He is currently co-producing an upcoming HBO feature-length documentary on Tina Turner.

Archives + Audiences: Dan Lamothe on the “Letters from War” Podcast

This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.  In this post, ArchivesAWARE brings you an interview with Washington Post journalist Dan Lamothe on his work on WaPo‘s  Letters from Wara podcast about the World War II combat experiences of the Eyde brothers of Rockford, Illinois.  The podcast is centered around the four Eyde brothers’ letters – one for almost every day of the war – which are read by voice actors who are themselves military veterans.

Logo for the “Letters from War” podcast, courtesy of The Washington Post.

AA: How did the Eyde brothers’ letters come to your attention?

DL: The Eyde letters first came to The Washington Post’s attention through Joseph Alosi, an Arizona businessman who bought them at auction some years ago. As we detailed in the Letters From War podcast and complementary newspaper special section, he was interested in seeing whether it would be possible to find related family members. I made a trip to Arizona in 2016 to view the letters at a pizza shop at which Joe’s wife is a manager, and spent hours going through them. He agreed to loan them to The Post afterward so we could do additional research and put together the project.

AA: What was it like to see and read the letters for the first time?

DL: I found it stirring. For one, their condition and appearance immediately makes them feel like a part of history. The pages of many of them are tissue-paper thin, and the envelopes bear the markings of Army Post Office (APO)  processing used to deliver mail to the troops at that time. Some of the letters are mundane, with basic descriptions of routine life in the military. Others are gripping, especially when Frank Eyde describes the U.S. invasion of Tulagi, a Pacific island, and Ralph Eyde describes being wounded both on the Alaskan island of Attu and the Pacific island of Kwajalein. The letters ripple with excitement, anger and sadness as they recount what they saw.

AA: What made you decide to share the Eyde brothers’ story with a wider audience through the medium of a podcast?

DL: The sheer volume of letters – there are hundreds of them written over a span of several decades – and the way in which they capture the voice of each member of the Eyde family presented us with some unique opportunities. We also were fortunate to pursue this project with no specific timeline, allowing us to seek documents from the National Archives through the Freedom of Information Act that provided additional context, including illuminating information about Frank’s struggle to transition home after the war. The brothers Eyde undertook an epic adventure, and a podcast seemed like an excellent medium to capture that, with old broadcast clips and period music providing a sense of time and place as voice actors shared their words.

AA: The podcast’s voice actors – all themselves military veterans – provide great readings of the Eyde brothers’ letters.  How did you find military veterans who were such skilled actors, and how did you go about working with them on the readings?

DL: The Post sought veterans through organizations like the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP), a non-profit with a stated goal of helping veterans integrate in their communities through the arts. Scores of veterans expressed interest, and we cast the parts based on their experiences, comfort with public speaking and ability to connect with the characters in the story. They are Michael Ball, who served in the Marine Corps and Air Force; Zachary Burgart, who served in the Marine Corps; Jeffrey Chiang, who served in the Navy; Brendan Wentz, who served in the Army; and Rachel Ziegler, who served in the Air Force.

AA: What were some of the major challenges you encountered?

DL: One of the first challenges was processing the letters and making sure we were not missing anything important. That took reading virtually every piece of mail in the boxes that Joe Alosi found, and sorting them in a way where we could synthesize what we knew and sort it into workable information. I had significant help on this from Jessica Stahl, the Post’s director of audio; Carol Alderman, a podcast producer; and Julie Vitkovskaya, a digital enterprise editor. We also had to transcribe the most important letters word-for-word, an effort that took several of us to complete. Another significant challenge and mystery was figuring out how the letters came to be abandoned in the first place, and who the closest surviving family members might be. I did that through a combination of searching through old obituaries, phone calls and asking help from the public library in Rockford, Ill., the brothers’ home town.

AA: Where are the Eyde brothers’ letters now?  Do you know if there are plans for them to be donated to an archives where they can be preserved and accessible to others?

DL: The letters are back with Mr. Alosi, who purchased them more than a decade ago and loaned them to The Post. At last check, he was researching options for what might come next. As you might expect, several museums have inquired about them.

AA: Do you have any advice or tips for others who may be interested in bringing archives to life through podcasting?

DL: This project came to life because of organization, first and foremost. By knowing what we had, we were able to build around the central element – the letters themselves, as voiced by the veterans – while Carol layered in music, sound effects and audio from the time period. I narrated, but as a general rule, I spoke in places where we did not have another method to tell the story. Additional reporting also was really important, so I’d definitely recommend looking beyond archival material to enrich your story. In this case, obtaining the military personnel files of Frank Eyde through FOIA and details about the battles in which the brothers participated from the Marine Corps History Division and the Army Center for Military History helped a great deal.

AA: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your experience working on Letters from War?

DL: It was powerful meeting Vicki Venhuizen, a cousin of the Eydes who remembers them from when she was a child. Interviewing her as primary source about the Eyde family helped fill in gaps in the story, and also underscored an important point: this was a family of real-life people who sacrificed for their nation at an extraordinarily difficult time in which loved ones sometimes went years without seeing each other. I’m grateful for her willingness to meet with me, a stranger, and share details about herself and them.

More information on the Letters from War podcast is available on the main podcast website, as well as Dan Lamothe’s background column and long-form special section story on the Eyde brothers and their letters.  Lamothe has also authored a piece on Edythe Eyde, the brothers’ trailblazing cousin who started America’s first lesbian publication.


Dan Lamothe (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on the Pentagon and the U.S. military. He joined The Post in 2014, and has traveled extensively since then on assignment. Lamothe has embedded with U.S. troops in combat in Afghanistan multiple times, and also has reported from the Aleutian Islands, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, the Arctic Circle, Norway, Belgium, Germany, France, Singapore, Australia, Mexico, Spain and the Republic of Georgia.  Further information about Lamothe is available at his WaPo profile page.

Archives + Audiences: Wendy MacNaughton on “Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: The Life, Art, and Cookbook of Cipe Pineles”

This post is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.

Wendy MacNaughton portrait by John Keatley

Wendy MacNaughton. Photo by John Keatley.

In this Archives + Audiences entry, we bring you an interview with artist, illustrator, and graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton on her experience researching  Cipe (C.P.) Pineles, Conde Nast’s first female art director. MacNaughton found Pineles’s manuscript at an antiquarian book fair. With her coeditors, Sarah Rich, Maria Popova, and Debbie Millman, MacNaughton compiled Pineles’s recipes and drawings into Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: The Life, Art, and Cookbook of Cipe Pineles (Bloomsbury, 2017). [To learn more about the coeditors’ experience, see A Rare Find: Trailblazing Female Designer’s Unpublished Family Cookbook.] In the process, MacNaughton examined Pineles’s papers at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

MacNaughton’s books include  Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology (Bloomsbury, 2013) and Pen and Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them (Bloomsbury, 2014).

ArchivesAWARE:  What was it like to work with Pineles’s papers at the Rochester Institute of Technology?

MacNaughton: Exciting. The Cipe Pineles archives at RIT is filled with original drawings, publications, sketches, thumbnails . . . it was a treat to hold her work, see it up close. There were pieces I’d never seen before—it gave the opportunity to discover details, make connections, examine her process and technique . . . It felt like an exploration—like discovering Cipe’s work all over again.

ArchivesAWARE: Did anything in the materials surprise you or were there any a-ha moments?

MacNaughton: Seeing her thumbnails and gouache paintings up close showed us a lot about her technique and process that you just can’t get looking at it in a book. Holding the board and seeing how the light hits the surface of the paint . . . the time and care she put into her work beyond the time she spent in the office—it brought all the stories we’d heard about her to life.

ArchivesAWARE: Was there something you were hoping to find but didn’t?

MacNaughton: Cipe created a lot of personal projects and 3D objects—I was hoping to find more of those. Turns out many are with her family members. Though we didn’t find them in the archive, we discovered some in personal collections.

ArchivesAWARE: What was the impact of being able to access/use these collections?

Leave Me Alone with the Recipes

Cover of Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: The Life, Art, & Cookbook of Cipe Pineles (Bloomsbury).

MacNaughton: Cipe was influential and important and overlooked by history. Without RIT’s archive we wouldn’t have been able to create the book and exhibition we did about Cipe’s work and life. The archivists at RIT were responsive to my co-editor Sarah Rich’s and my requests and queries and helped us gather visual materials—many of which made their way into the book or exhibition—as well as information like rights and contact info for further research.

ArchivesAWARE: Did you encounter many barriers to accessing or using archival resources?

MacNaughton: Because the funding isn’t there at RIT for the archive to be cataloged properly, we weren’t able to access the materials online in advance of going. With only one day at RIT, it was hard to go through everything. The folks at RIT were incredibly helpful, pulling materials they thought might be of interest and useful. But we all know that discovery is a big part of creation, and so going through it myself was important. Ideally someday all the materials will be digitized and cataloged in such a way that anyone can access them from anywhere. But that won’t replace the experience of visiting the archive in person.

ArchivesAWARE: Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience working with archives?

MacNaughton: My co-editors (Sarah Rich, Debbie Millman and Maria Popova) are grateful to the archivists and librarians for the work they do, their dedication and expertise and generosity with their time. Theirs is a slow, quiet, careful process in a fast paced world, and we would be lost without them.

Archives + Audiences: Anna Shternshis on “Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II”

This post is part of our new Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.

AnnaShternshis

Anna Shternshis. Photograph by Roman Boldyrev.

In this Archives + Audiences entry, we bring you an interview with Anna Shternshis, Associate Professor of Yiddish and Diaspora Studies at the University of Toronto, on her experience researching a collection of song lyrics by amateur Jewish authors in the Soviet Union during World War II.  Originally collected by Soviet ethnomusicologists toward the end of the war, the song lyrics collection is now housed at the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine.  Shternshis’s work with the collection helped produce the recently released album Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II (Six Degrees Records), in which select songs have been reconstructed and performed by professional musicians.

Shternshis is the author of Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923 – 1939 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006) and When Sonia Met Boris: An Oral History of Jewish Life under Stalin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). She is the author of over 20 articles on the Soviet Jews during World War II, Russian Jewish culture and post-Soviet Jewish diaspora. Together with David Shneer, Shternshis co-edits East European Jewish Affairs, the leading journal in the field of East European Jewish Studies.

ArchivesAWARE: What was it like to work with the collection of Jewish song lyrics at the Vernadsky National Library?  Did anything in the collection surprise you, or were there any “a-ha” moments?

Shternshis: The work of a historian consists of many hours of monotonous research, and this project is not an exception. But when I really began analyzing the lyrics of these Yiddish songs, and understood that these were grassroots accounts of Nazi atrocities that had been set to music, and that none of these songs had been known before, emotions took over. I felt excited about reading these materials, and strongly moved by the lyrics. Above all, I felt enormous gratitude to Moisei Beregovsky and his colleagues, Soviet ethnomusicologists of the 1940s, who spent years collecting these unique materials.  They were arrested by Stalin’s government for doing so, and died thinking their work was lost to history without any recognition for what they had done. I felt professional solidarity with these people, who, of course, I have never met.

I was struck both by the magnitude of this finding, and by the fact that all these songs told stories of people who we rarely get to hear from. In the context of writing history, we often hear people’s voices as “interpreted” as opposed to given a platform, and I was determined to do something about it. In many ways, these songs represented the range of experiences of Jews in the Soviet Union during the war:  the stories of the 440,000 who served in the Red Army and the 1.4 million who managed to survive through a harrowing evacuation to the Soviet Rear, and they also were actual testimonies of those who were killed in the Holocaust.  Of the 6 million who were killed, more than 2.5 million Jews were murdered in Nazi-occupied parts of the Soviet Union, and we learned that, some of the last things people did, was to write songs to document the horrors they witnessed.

ArchivesAWARE: Was there something you were hoping to find in the collection but didn’t?

Shternshis: While the discovery of this collection has often been described as an incredible “needle in a haystack”, and the songs indeed change our understanding of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, especially Jewish resistance to fascism, I didn’t begin the project by hoping to find, prove or disprove a certain idea, and in the end, the songs led to many new findings about Jewish life in the Soviet Union during World War II.

One definite thing that we have learned from these materials is that Jews sang in Yiddish in the Soviet Union during the war, and that they forgot all about doing so decades later. When I started looking at these documents, I was in the middle of a related project, on Jewish oral histories of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and interviewed almost 500 people from the generation of Soviet Jews born in the early 1920s, and not a single one of them could remember of a Yiddish song depicting the war. This material means that history and memory tell different stories of the war. Without these materials we would not have known that.

The second finding is that Soviet soldiers, some of them amateur authors, continued to create in Yiddish during combat. We knew that Yiddish culture survived in the Soviet Rear, but we did not know about the soldiers. This is an important insight of how Jews made sense of these events during the war.

Third, these songs give us a chance to learn about how children and women, who authored a majority of these songs, used music to make sense of their experiences.  There are songs written by orphans, one by a 10-year old whose mother was murdered in the Holocaust.  There are songs written by women serving in the army, women working in factories to support the war effort. The songs give us an opportunity to hear their direct voices, something that rarely happens in the context of historical research.

Finally, some songs are rare, or sometimes the only, eyewitness testimonies of the destruction of Jews in Ukraine. Some were written as early as 1941, and these represent the first documents of the Holocaust in Ukraine. Given that we have very few Jewish testimonies of this destruction, these are especially valuable.

ArchivesAWARE: Did you encounter many barriers to accessing or using the collection?

Shternshis: No, the collection is in the open access in the Vernadsky Ukrainian National Library in Kiev.

The biggest barrier was the condition of the documents (through no fault of the library).  Many were hand written on scraps of paper during the war, and after more than seven decades, the handwriting wasn’t always clear.  Some of the songs had been typed up just after the war by the ethnomusicologists who collected them as they were preparing to publish a book about Yiddish folk songs describing the horrors of the war, and resistance to fascism, but they had used a very poor typewriter, and many of the Yiddish letters were quite difficult to decipher.

ArchivesAWARE: How did the Yiddish Glory album come about?

YiddishGlory

Cover of Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II (Six Degrees Records)

Shternshis: To be honest, choosing to do an album was not my first instinct. I wanted to publish a book, an academic monograph, maybe a website, and only then do some sort of multi-media. But I was planning a conference at the University of Toronto about Yiddish culture during World War II, and I asked Dr. Pavel Lion (better known by his artistic name, Psoy Korolenko), to help me with the presentation. We selected a few songs for Psoy to reconstruct. After that, Dan Rosenberg, a music producer who was at the event, encouraged us to record the songs with a larger group of musicians. He invited Sergei Erdenko, an amazing Russian violinist, who created arrangements for the songs based on the melodies that Psoy selected. Erdenko and his band “Loyko”, which also includes another violinist, Artur Gorbenko and guitarist Mikhail Savichev, flew to Toronto from Russia to record the CD.  They were joined by Psoy, Sophie Milman, a Juno-award winning Canadian Jazz singer and four acclaimed local musicians who all participated in this project because they believed in the historical significance of these materials, and were generous to use their talents to make this music shine.

Eventually, after three years of work, this project resulted in Yiddish Glory.  I am still working on an academic monograph that will incorporate these songs as well as a website.

ArchivesAWARE: How did you go about selecting the songs to be included on the album, and how were the melodies for these songs written?

Shternshis: Singer Psoy Korolenko and I selected songs that would give voice to the amateur authors of various backgrounds – women, children, soldiers, refugees – who composed music and poetry under the most difficult circumstances, and therefore provided some of the first testimonies of what it was like to live in the Soviet Union during World War II. Each individual composition has its own story, and together, these songs reveal a collective history of an entire generation, they provide an artistic comment on the Jewish experience in the Soviet Union during World War II.  Each song was chosen because its lyrics conveyed a unique, often under-discussed historical experience, such as life and survival in the Tulchin ghetto or in the Pechora camp, serving in the Red Army, working on the Soviet home front or fighting as a partisan.

Many songs came as texts only, sometimes unfinished or even without beginnings.  A few actually had their melodies as well, including “My Mother’s Grave,” a song written by a 10-year old orphan after his mother was killed during the Holocaust, and “Chuvasher Tekhter,” a piece that describes how women served in the Red Army to fight against fascism.

For the vast majority, Psoy Korolenko had to reconstruct the melodies for many of the rest of the songs.  After closely examining the lyrics, he realized that most were actually based on popular songs at the time.  He also carefully considered the context of when the songs were created, and also about how today’s audiences would react to this music. We did not want to resurrect these songs and treat them as archival rarities. We wanted people to listen to them, think about history and also enjoy the music.

ArchivesAWARE: Is there anything else you would like to share about the process of creating the Yiddish Glory album?

Shternshis: Another motivation for all of us involved in the project was because the fight against fascism, racism, bigotry and antisemitism is timely. Unfortunately, violence and wars did not disappear in the 21st century either. Women and children are often the first, and the least noticeable victims of it. The songs alert us to the dangers of wars and who suffers from it most.

Enjoy clips of the songs from Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II with this Spotify playlist: https://open.spotify.com/embed?uri=spotify%3Aalbum%3A0V79cdGu4uahpLh48vEoGr

Archives + Audiences: David Grann on “Killers of the Flower Moon”

David Grann, author, Lost City of Z

This post is part of our new Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.

In this Archives + Audiences entry, we bring you an interview with David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (Doubleday, 2017), on the centrality of archival research to the writing of this important yet little-known chapter in American history.  Just released in paperback on April 3rd, Killers of the Flower Moon has garnered a mass of critical acclaim and was a National Book Award finalist.

David Grann is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the bestselling author of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes and The Lost City of Z, which has been translated into more than twenty languages. His stories have appeared in many anthologies of the best American writing, and he has written for The New York Times MagazineThe AtlanticThe Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.

ArchivesAWARE: What archival collections did you use for research while writing Killers of the Flower Moon?

Cover of “Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann (Doubleday, 2017)

Grann: I drew on records from so many archives. They included the National Archives, Library of Congress, Oklahoma Historical Society, Osage Nation Museum, Oklahoma State Archives and Records Management, Texas State Library and Archives Commission, and University of Oklahoma Western History Collections.

ArchivesAWARE: Were there any collections that you’d single out as being most essential to the writing of the book?  Why?  How did you come to discover those collections?

Grann: A branch of the National Archives in Fort Worth, Texas, was an essential repository for my research. Many federal records concerning Oklahoma—including documents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the judicial system—are stored there. Among the unexpected documents I found in a box here was the secret grand jury testimony from the prosecution of some of the murderers of the Osage. This testimony proved invaluable in telling the history of what happened and being able to record the voices of many of the participants. It’s why I think it’s important when doing archival research to look through boxes that may not be precisely catalogued, because you don’t know what you might turn up.

ArchivesAWARE: Did anything in the collections surprise you or spark an “a-ha!” moment?

Grann: At the archives in Fort Worth, I also came across a tattered logbook, which contained the names of white guardians. Because of extraordinary racism, the U.S. Congress had passed legislation requiring many Osage to have white guardians to oversee their wealth. The logbook listed the Osage who had been assigned to each guardian, and if one of these Osage had passed away under the guardianship system, a single word was usually scrawled by his or her name: Dead. I noticed that one guardian was assigned to five Osages, and all five of their names were followed by that word. Another guardian had thirteen wards, more than half of whom had been listed as deceased. And so it went. The numbers were staggering and clearly defied a natural death rate. I began to get a sense of the breadth of the systematic murder campaign against the Osage.

ArchivesAWARE: Was there something you were hoping to find but didn’t?

Grann: In research, especially historical research, there are always some gaps of information, which gnaw at you.

ArchivesAWARE: Did you encounter many barriers to accessing or using any collections?

Grann: No, I was fortunate. Not only did institutions share with me their collections, but many Osage who had kept letters and court records and photos also did.

ArchivesAWARE: How would you describe the overall impact of archival collections on the writing of the book?

Grann: This book is born out of archives. It could not have been written without the benefit of these collections, and the many archivists who kindly guided me to hidden troves.

ArchivesAWARE: Is there anything else you would like to share about your archival research experience in connection with Killers of the Flower Moon?

Grann: Perhaps the most remarkable discovery happened when I told a librarian at the New York City Public Library about my research. To my astonishment, he told me that some members of his family were from Oklahoma and were related to several of the victims and the murderers I was writing about. He put me in touch with them, which led to a wealth of information.

Archives + Audiences: Gerry Canavan on the Octavia E. Butler Collection

Gerry Canavan

This post is the first in our new Archives + Audiences series, which will share perspectives from archival audiences – including scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, the general public, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.  For this inaugural post, ArchivesAWARE! brings you an interview with Gerry Canavan, Assistant Professor of English at Marquette University, on his work with the Octavia E. Butler Collection at the Huntington Library.  Dr. Canavan’s book on Butler for the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series was published in 2016. (This is an abridged version of our interview with Dr. Canavan; the full version will appear in the next issue of SAA’s Archival Outlook magazine.)

ArchivesAWARE: What was it like to work with Butler’s papers at the Huntington?

Cover of “Octavia E. Butler” by Gerry Canavan (University of Illinois Press, 2016)

Canavan: The Octavia E. Butler Collection, which was bequeathed to the Huntington when Butler passed away, is a stunningly complete, immense archive, containing multiple drafts of her published works, many unpublished stories and projects (some complete, some totally unfinished), a lifetime of journals and personal correspondence, even handwritten composition books dating back to her childhood. There are over 500 boxes of material, hundreds of thousands of pages; of course I only scratched the surface.

Working with Butler’s papers was really one of the greatest pleasures of my career. I’d wondered for years how her Parables series would have continued in Parable of the Trickster—and I wound up being the first scholar to read her notes for the book, and the first to write about them (for The Los Angeles Review of Books). And that was only the beginning of the singular experience of inhabiting this record of the life of one of my favorite authors eight hours a day for two months. From unpublished novels to sketched-out but unwritten sequels, it’s a very special place and time for me. I wish every Butler fan could go.

ArchivesAWARE: Did anything in the collection surprise you, or were there any “a-ha” moments?

Canavan: There was a lot in the archive that was surprising, both in the way her writing process worked (she typically started out writing the exact opposite of the way the book finished up, especially with regard to her endings) and in the unvarnished and frequently quite sad look at her personal life and her struggle with depression. There were a lot of little surprises about the way different books had taken shape, some very much in line with what I would have imagined and other twists and turns I’d have never guessed in a million years. I’ll never forget finding the Patternist story she started to write set during the life of Christ, complete with a Virgin Mary sex scene.

I had a few a-ha moments, too, a lot of them revolving around my favorite book of Butler’s, Dawn. I’d recently taught the book and I was surprised to see things that had come up in our class discussions reflected so directly in the drafts of the novel, as well as in a letter where she discusses my favorite conspiratorial interpretation of the book (that the Oankali aliens caused the nuclear war that destroyed the human race). I was also floored to see that one my students’ outsized interest in a very minor character, Derrick, reflected a planned draft of the novel where he had been a much more important character; that night I wrote the student to let them know they’d intuited a hidden structure in the composition of the book that had been totally invisible to me.

When I broke some of the codes she used to describe her teenage crushes (including a crush on William Shatner), that was great fun too.

ArchivesAWARE: Did you encounter many barriers to accessing or using the collection?

Canavan: I had to be very careful about copyright, which is a huge issue in working with archives as US law gives copyright holders strong protections as to the right to determine the first publication of a work. I worked with the (very generous) literary estate to get permissions to publish a few photographs, as well as the essay that appears as an appendix to the book—and they also helped me lock down  an understanding of how much quotation would be “too much.” One of the last drafts of the book on my computer is the wildly overquoting version; I was so in love with her words and wanted to get as many of them across as I could, because I want everyone else to see what I had seen in the archives—but in the end I had to cut a lot of that direct quotation out and resort to my wholly inadequate paraphrase instead.

ArchivesAWARE: What was the overall impact of the Butler collection on the writing of your book?

Canavan: Without exaggeration, I don’t think the book would have been remotely possible without the archive. I never met Octavia, and wouldn’t have been able to write a biocritical “Modern Masters of Science Fiction” off her published interviews; I really needed this research space to get access to the larger arc of her life, especially what was going on behind the scenes. I think that’s really true not just for me but for everyone; the Huntington archive is transforming Butler studies as it allows for a fuller understanding of her achievement as the first (and for a long time only) black woman to earn her living writing science fiction. The Huntington has made an entirely new mode of Butler scholarship possible, and given us all a much better understanding of just how much she overcame.

Be sure to check out the next issue of SAA’s Archival Outlook magazine for the full version of our interview with Gerry Canavan on the Ocatvia E. Butler papers!