By: Mark Cooper
HRDI’s launch of the Free Burma Rangers Collection introduces the small, public face of a much larger partnership between the HRDI and the Free Burma Rangers (FBR). The twelve short videos on the site, ranging from five to ten minutes with two half-hour documentaries, total less than two hours of content. But this small selection represents the HRDI’s work over the past two years to ensure the long-term preservation and accessibility of the over 1,000 hours (and growing) of video documentation created by FBR during the past decade of their operations in Burma.
The partnership between the HRDI and FBR began in 2009 with the goal of digitally preserving FBR’s archival records and documentation, in particular their video materials. FBR trains, equips and supports humanitarian relief teams whose members come from many of the diverse ethnic groups within Burma. Since 1997, over 130 teams have conducted 400 relief missions into areas under attack by the Burma Army, providing aid to internally displaced peoples (IDPs) who have been driven out of their villages by the Burma Army.
Along with medical aid, clothing and educational supplies, each FBR team carries a small, handheld video camera for the purpose of recording the team’s operations, the living conditions of the IDPs, and evidence of human rights violations committed by the Burma Army. With so many teams operating concurrently, FBR produces an enormous wealth of video. To date, they hold over 1,200 MiniDV tapes, most of which contain a full hour of field documentation; few of these tapes have been backed up or digitally copied.
Digital Video Preservation: From Burma to the Archive
The task of digitally preserving FBR’s videos began with working through the quirks of capturing digital information encoded on physical tape media. I experienced this first-hand when I joined the HRDI team in July 2010 as a Graduate Research Assistant, continuing the work begun by my predecessor Nicholas Rejack (Read about his experiences on the project). In July, I traveled to the FBR offices in Southeast Asia, where I worked capturing video and inventorying the collection at my small desk crowded with three MacBook Pros, a tape deck, cameras, stacks of hard drives, and piles of MiniDV tapes to be captured, sorted or cataloged. Over the course of my six weeks on site I captured over 400 MiniDV tapes, totaling 5 terabytes of video.
Even under the best of conditions, MiniDV can be a finicky format. Capturing the same tape on the same equipment can result in often slight, but occasionally large, variations in quality. The challenges grow exponentially when the tapes have been carried through the extreme field conditions in the jungles of Burma, with each new tape seeming to present a new difficulty to resolve. However, though the format presents its challenges, the preservation process is aided by metadata embedded within every frame of the DV video. Using programs like DV Analyzer from Audiovisual Preservation Solutions, error correction information can be extracted and analyzed to potentially identify whether errors stem from defects on the original tapes or from problems with the playback device. This can inform when performing a new capture could improve video quality, ensuring the best possible copy is preserved. In addition, every frame includes an embedded date and time stamp marking when it was originally shot, allowing for precise creation date metadata and for verifying and narrowing the date ranges written on tape labels.
Though the HRDI team has digitally captured a significant portion of FBR’s video archive, over 750 hours thus far, the challenges of long-term digital preservation do not end after a tape has been captured. Digital preservation is an ongoing process that aims to ensure the preservation of both the files themselves and the ability to read and interpret the information they contain. In this case, it involves not just maintaining the 1s and 0s of the video files but making sure they will continue to be readable in the future. The preservation process encompasses not just storage systems with significant redundancy and error checking, but also the maintenance of detailed technical metadata and ongoing monitoring of format obsolescence and evolution. Anyone who has struggled to find a working floppy drive to open an old document file, only to find the file format is no longer supported by current programs, understands the effect of a break in the preservation lifecycle.
The FBR Collection Online: A Look into the Archive
The online videos, each edited from raw FBR mission footage, provide glimpses into FBR’s video archive. Prayer of Peace: Relief and Resistance in Burma’s War Zones follows FBR teams operating in Karen State, Burma. The half-hour documentary is told through the personal stories of FBR team members and IDPs, including a medic, a team videographer and a father attempting to get medical care for his sick daughter. In Hiding: A Year of Survival Under the Burma Army (contains graphic content) depicts the lives of IDPs in the Karen, Karenni, Shan and Arakan States over the course of 2004-2005. It features documentation of villagers fleeing their homes and living in hiding, the devastating effects of Burma Army landmines, and testimonies from IDPs. The extensive preparation of FBR teams is detailed in Steps to Freedom (contains graphic content), which follows the teams as they train and enter attack areas across Burma.
The preservation of FBR’s complete archival record will be an ongoing project for the HRDI, as FBR continues to generate documentation on a massive scale. Advances in technology, such as FBR moving from MiniDV to file-based video recording, will present new challenges and preservation concerns. However, through this partnership, the FBR video archive will remain secure and provide one means through which the people of Burma tell their own stories, in their own voices. The videos will remain under restricted access to protect the safety of those depicted and not compromise FBR operations. They will be opened to researchers and documentarians at FBR’s discretion, and will be preserved for use by FBR and its partners to bring attention to the situation in Burma.
In Prayer of Peace, the FBR team videographer known as Monkey describes why he wanted to use a video camera. He says, “I started this work in 1998. At that time the Burma Army came and the villagers fled into the jungle. As they fled I took photos with a still camera. When people looked at the photos I couldn’t explain. I wanted the photos to open their hearts. I tried but the photos were not enough. I thought, if I had a video camera it would be better. Instead of me speaking for them they speak themselves.”
Mark Cooper is a second year master’s student at the UT School of Information. He is specializing in digital moving image preservation and recently interned at the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. Previously, Mark worked as a Producer / Director at Penn State Public Broadcasting, where his projects included feature documentaries on water infrastructure and domestic violence broadcast nationally on PBS.