Off the Shelves: Digitizing Filmmaker Recordings from Cassette Tape

Audio cassette tapes with labels featuring speakers David Lynch, Ousmane Sembene, and Pauline Kael

By Jason Sanders, BAMPFA Research Associate

Off the Shelves: Treasures from BAMPFA’s Film Library & Study Center is a new feature designed to highlight some of the rare treasures of BAMPFA’s Film Library & Study Center.

Curious about hearing one of David Lynch’s first live Q&A’s for Eraserhead? Wondering what unscripted moments Pauline Kael shared with a hometown audience? Intrigued to sit in on a 1976 panel with Ousmane Sembene, a giant of Senegalese cinema, translated by none other than the legendary political activist Angela Davis? Thanks to a generous grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), these rare moments—and many more—can now be shared and made accessible to the public. Through the project, “Saving Film Exhibition History: Digitizing Recordings of Guest Speakers at the Pacific Film Archive, 1976 to 1986,” BAMPFA is digitizing a decade’s worth of guest-speaker recordings, filmmaker presentations, panel discussions, and Q&A’s from the early years of the Pacific Film Archive (1976–86), and making them available online through the Internet Archive.

Originally recorded on analog consumer cassette tapes that could only be accessed in-house, this content showcases a wide range of invaluable filmmaking and cultural voices, many of which have little “recorded live” representation. Some speakers are well-known names in filmmaking, film criticism, and the arts (Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch, Roberto Rossellini, Fred Astaire, Shelley Duvall, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael); these recordings provide rare and intimate access to their unscripted insights. Numerous recordings reflect important voices from independent, anti-establishment, or marginalized movements, including women directors embodying the feminist filmmaking wave (Chantal Akerman, Yvonne Rainer, Ulrike Ottinger); independent American artists in resistance to Hollywood (George Kuchar, Wayne Wang, Trinh Minh-ha, Kenneth Anger, Lourdes Portillo, Marlon Riggs); and global filmmakers representing anti-imperialist, occupied, or “Third World” cinemas (Ousmane Sembene, Tomas Gutierrez Alea, Vera Chytilova, Sohrab Shahid Saless). This project will resurface their own concepts and creativity, contributing to scholarship in film and media studies, history, journalism, political science, ethnic studies, and other fields, while also serving more casual listeners interested in particular filmmakers.

The recordings will be made available online later in 2020, through a collaboration with the Internet Archive. Until then, here is a small sampling of the project: David Lynch live in person introducing Eraserhead in March 1978 (“This is the first time I’ve done this, so go easy on me.”); Ousmane Sembene, translated by Angela Davis, during a February 1978 panel on Senegalese cinema; and Pauline Kael, returning to Berkeley after living here in the 1950s (and helping run the famed Berkeley Cinema Guild), speaking on her career in March 1980. Enjoy!

This project is supported by a Recordings at Risk grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). The grant program is made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

David Lynch on Eraserhead

Hear one of David Lynch's first live Q&A's for Eraserhead from March 1978 ("This is the first time I've done this, so go easy on me.").

Ousmane Sembene with Angela Davis

Listen to insights from the "father of African film," Ousmane Sembene, from a February 1978 panel on Senegalese cinema—translated by none other than legendary African American activist Angela Davis.

Pauline Kael in two parts

In March 1980, American film critic Pauline Kael returned to Berkeley after living here in the 1950s (and helping run the famed Berkeley Cinema Guild), discussing her career to a hometown audience at the PFA.