The earliest color footage of Mahatma Gandhi might be housed in an unexpected place: midcoast Maine.
Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport was recently contacted by a national archive in India about the footage, which was donated by late Blue Hill resident Adelaide Pearson. During her visit to the country in the 1930s, Pearson captured Gandhi on film as he got out of a car and walked among a crowd.
The short clip highlights how this small-town archive, which has thousands of hours of Mainers’ grainy home videos and newscasts, has a long reach and regularly supplies old footage to household names in show business.
“It ranges from things of significance for a lot of people to things of significance to one person,” said David Weiss, the executive director.
The archive was created to collect and preserve the film and video recordings of northern New England, but the vault in Bucksport has collected a lot more than that and filmmakers from around the world know it as a valuable resource. As of late, a lot of documentary makers, including Ken Burns and Netflix, have come calling for footage.
“We get a lot of true crime,” said Karin Carlson-Snider, the archive’s vault manager.
Trial 4, a Netflix documentary about Sean Ellis who was unjustly convicted as a teen in the 1993 killing of a Boston police officer, used about 20 minutes of the Northeast Historic Film’s archival footage.
Another Netflix documentary on the famed art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston also pulled from the archive. Both delved into the collection of newscasts from WCVB, one of the main television stations there.
“A lot of what we get is people who want news footage,” Carlson-Snider said.
The archive, founded in 1986, has more than 15,000 film reels from the station between 1972 to 1979, as well as random pieces from the 1980s and 1990s. The collection’s estimated to run more than 3 million feet. Carlson-Snider is also working now on digitizing WCVB’s own programming from the 1970s, including several sitcoms. One, named “The Nature World of Captain Bob,” was a sort of “Bob Ross for kids” art show, according to Carlson-Snider, that has been sought out to use in another documentary on an artist who was inspired by the captain.
The archive has been asked for shots surrounding a Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston boxing match in Maine, fielded requests for film of boxer Marvin Hagler and Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, and supplied eight hours of footage for a documentary on busing.
Requests for archival film have gone up over the last couple of years as the nonprofit digitizes more of its collection. In 2014, there were 19 requests, Carlson-Snider said. In 2021, there were 38.
“We’ve been getting more and more,” Carlson-Snider said.
Once a filmmaker uses the archives once, they tend to come back for more if they continue to work on things about New England.
“Ken Burns uses us a lot,” Carlson-Snider said.
Not every request for footage can be fulfilled or even used if provided. In cases, the archive doesn’t have the footage. In others, they can’t locate it. There’s way more archive footage than is presently indexed.
Also, people who donate their videos, especially home videos, can tell the archive how they wish for them to be used and if they’ll allow the archive to sell the footage for certain purposes. For instance, an environmentalist didn’t want his videos to be used by the oil industry, Weiss said. Most people just want to be notified if it is going to be used, so they aren’t caught off-guard seeing themselves on TV.
The fact that an archive that was designed to document the life of Mainers has sprouted global connections is a point of pride for Weiss.
“I think that’s one of the strengths of our collection,” Weiss said. “To see how people here are connected to the rest of the world.”