Lights, camera, action-- filming the past and saving history (at Ostia Antica)

FILMING is a ubiquitous way we document the past.  Mark my words, one of the most important contributions we can make today as professionals  to the fields of history, archaeology, and conservation is to tie them into the visual culture that is ever-evolving and part of our daily lives.

We already do it as tourists all the time, whether with our iphones or camcorders or digital cameras.  At the other end of the spectrum, I've personally been quite involved in a number of film documentaries, beginning with Engineering an Empire (History)-- and as recently as When Rome Ruled, still still airing on Nat Geo.  In either case, both recreational filming and professional documentary filming are engaging ways to record the past, remember it, and live history.

But between the tourist recording a rapid trip down the Nile or walking through Petra  and the documentary film team, usually working on a compressed schedule with a limited budget, there is a third protagonist, that is not yet part of the equation: the use of film by the scholar.  We (AIRC) are working to make this a reality. Scholars are such an important group of individuals, but they have not yet collectively gotten with the current trend.  There are a number of exceptions, of course, and film is finding its way into the recording aspect of scholars' work, but it is certainly not consistent or standardized.   Through the work we are doing in Rome, we are on the verge of ushering in a great change, regarding the scholar and the use of film.

For one who is unveiling the past, making new observations and discoveries-- whether it be the conservator working on preserving the site, an architect who has to create new structures to shelter the past, or  the archaeologist who is uncovering a previously unknown site-- it is through video documentation that we can best record that moment, in addition to reports, photography, drawing, virtual reality modeling after laser scanning, etc.  And making a documentary about the project allows the non specialist and specialist alike to gain insights about the nature of the site, the context of the monument or artifact (that is later placed in a museum or storeroom).  We scholars need to become better storytellers and engage colleagues and the general public alike to foster more attention to our cultural legacies-- for great appreciation and more involvement from the public (local communities, tourists-- probable volunteers and activists in preserving cultural heritage sites).  The motivation to create film documentaries is educational (with some entertainment value) rather than commercial (which underlines the production of film documentary projects).

In all of this, the American Institute for Roman Culture is a protagonist.  We began with a pilot project in the summer of 2010 with Northeastern University's Professor Vincent Roccchio (school of communications), and his students from various backgrounds. They traveled to Rome last summer to immerse themselves in history in  novel way.    Through the Institute's exclusive relationship with the Ministry of Culture and superintendency of Ostia Antica, they gained access to Ostia Antica to film, over a month, various aspects of the site, as directed by the AIRC and Prof. Rocchio, to create a series of educational videos that encapsulate the experience of Ostia Antica.  And we're doing it again this summer with Northeastern University; we're excited to produce new, exciting material on ancient Roman culture.  (AIRC is also conducting its own video documentation this spring with the Italian Ministry- so stay tuned).

The heavy lifting -- filming, interviewing, and editing-- was conducted the excellent, devoted Northeastern summer students of the program (some without any prior experience in film), who are cited at the end of every video.  Please take a moment to see these engaging, educational videos, about 7-8 minutes in length, accompanied by introductory texts on the individual topics. The entire production, over 40 minutes, gives a well-rounded 360 degree view of Ostia Antica. The videos are on the Institute's site is WEDIGROME on YouTube.

1. Ostia Antica Chapter 1- an introduction. You learn about the ancient city and its basic characteristics.

2. Ostia Antica Chapter 2: - the significance. Ostia Antica is the mirror of Rome. No other city captures what Rome was like in the imperial period.

3. Ostia Antica Chapter 3- conserving the past (a personal favorite) in which we address the issues of conservation that Ostia, and any cultural heritage site faces.  Each site's issues are particular and individual (vegetation type, funding resources, humidity factors, amount of tourism, etc.) and we address the reality of Ostia Antica- its greatest challenge is that so much uncovered  means that there is so much to preserve.

4. Ancient Ostia chapter 4: Daily Life What did the ancients eat?  How did they spend their days?  What was life like in a cosmopolitan, urban center, directly tied to Rome?

5. Ancient Ostia chapter 5: Religions of Rome Who were the gods that the Romans worshipped?  How did they come to Rome from all over the Mediterranean?  How were rites conducted, ,and who attended them?  Did worshipping the gods actually mean anything in your daily life in Rome and Ostia?

Please note: Each video is a co-production between the AIRC and Northeastern University (Prof. Vincent Rocchio). Filming was done in the summer of 2010.  The NEU film students who made the individual videos are cited at the end of each segment; the Institute salutes them for all of their hard work in an engaging, outdoor environment.  All rights to these videos belong to the American Institute for Roman Culture through the Superintendency of Ostia Antica. For further inquiries, contact me or  info@romanculture.org.