Student Assistants in the Film & Media Archive

24 Aug
Small film reels in the Film & Media Archive

Film reels in the Film & Media Archive

Original film boxes in the Film & Media Archive

Original film boxes in the Film & Media Archive

Elliot Wilson has been a student assistant in the Film & Media Archive for the past two summers. We have been very lucky to have him and other dedicated and knowledgeable students working in the Archive this summer. In a guest blog post, Elliot shares his experiences working on projects in the Film Archive including transcribing interviews from the Blackside series, The Great Depression. Thanks to Elliot and all our student workers for their valuable  contributions!

Elliot Wilson:

The end of my second summer at the Film & Media Archive snuck up on me. Yesterday, I suddenly realized that only a few days remained before I went back to school. I won’t have finished everything that I started – never the plan, luckily – but I can look back in amazement at the exciting projects that have progressed during my time here.

I’ve never felt like a student worker at the Archive. Sure, there have been days when I’ve considered changing my permanent address to the copy machine in the Cataloging Department, and I am certainly no stranger to the (squeaky) Archive shelving carts, but I have been lucky enough to spend most of my hours in the extremely engaging work of transcribing video interviews. As I tell my friends, I get paid to listen to old people talk. I couldn’t be more thrilled about it. For two summers, I’ve listened carefully to stories collected by Blackside Inc. for their 1993 documentary The Great Depression. The people interviewed include luminaries Gore Vidal (profiled here) and Maya Angelou; politicians and activists, like Congressman Hamilton Fish and United Auto Workers’ Victor Reuther; and countless others who survived hunger, unemployment, political unrest, and drought, and whose stories and names would have disappeared without Blackside. It’s both frightening and inspiring that almost all of these interviews were filmed before I was born – and that nearly everyone featured in The Great Depression has since died. A summer job in a library transformed into something much greater for me, an electrifying opportunity to immortalize the lives of those who enabled our own.

Indeed, so many of the men and women whose interviews I’ve transcribed feel alive to me: Ruth Ring Morgan’s loving memories of her uncle Pretty Boy Floyd paying for a poor family’s shoes jarringly contrast with John Lee Kelley’s, whose father, Erv Kelley, Floyd shot and killed. Joe Robinson, nephew of the Arkansas Senator by the same name, chuckles when he thinks about being a drunk passenger in a drunk airplane (“‘Lawrence, that’s the last time I’ll ever take a ride with you, old boy!’”). Dave Moore hauntingly remembers the Hunger March at the Ford River Rouge Plant in Detroit, where four marchers were fatally shot by local police and the plant’s private security.

Together, the other student workers and I have transcribed over 140 interviews, and are close to finishing the remainders. I can’t wait until they are all available online.

We’ve also made great strides cataloging the Dana Brown Collection, an assortment of film from a local legend who died when I was far too young to drink his Safari Coffee. We’ve also published the complete transcript, which I finished last July, of an interview with poet, journalist, and activist Frank Marshall Davis, whose friendship with a young Barack Obama has ignited light controversy.

I’ve been tremendously lucky to spend my summers here. I’ve learned so much about the civil rights movement and Great Depression, while contributing, at least in some small way, to work that will preserve some of the most important moments, big and small, in American history. That, and I’ve had the pleasure of knowing a great team of staff, whose dedication, knowledge, humor, and baking skills have each contributed to this incredible Archive. I know that the work the Film & Media Archive does will last much, much longer than my wonderful memories of this place.


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