To passers’ by it is just an unassuming multi-story building in Doha’s bustling corniche district, but then the plain exterior belies the importance of work taking place inside to preserve and archive a major part of Qatar’s cultural heritage. But to the team tasked with restoring, digitising and archiving thousands of hours of Qatar’s filmed heritage, the most pressing concern is the project itself.
Indeed, the project started from scratch in 2014 to ensure that the country’s rich video archives, which date back to the early 1940s, should be preserved in their full glory in digital format for future generations to enjoy and learn from.The man tasked
with this immense project was Abdullah M. Alyazeedi, an IT specialist who had previously led large projects for the government of Qatar at the Private Engineering Office (PEO). Alyazeedi, who was new to film restoration and digitisation when he started the project, quickly immersed himself in the role in early 2014. However, he soon discovered that there were few projects in other parts of the world that could be used as a template for Qatar’s ambitious plan. Indeed, Alyazeedi admits that the scale and scope of the project made it unique, and after visiting numerous restoration and digitisation facilities around the world, from the US to Europe, he was unable to find anything that quite matched the demands of what he needed to achieve. One of the challenges was the sheer volume and diversity of video stock to be preserved and digitised and the tight time-frame allocated to undertake the task.
“We are restoring and digitising more than 19 types of film including two-inch, one-inch, and telecine. Within one-inch film alone there are three separate types, which helps to highlight just how complex this project is,” Alyazeedi says.
Work on the project began in 2014 with the PEO collecting all archive material from different authorities and departments in Qatar. Simultaneously, the new department also found a suitable location to establish its headquarters. This in itself was no simple task as the facility required large storage rooms with high specifications of temperature and humidity control, as well as safety and security for storage of thousands of film reels. In addition it needed adequate space for heavy equipment for cleaning and treatment of the various types of film, ingest and digital restoration and correction.
As the project started, so new challenges came to light. For example, acquiring the right restoration equipment was itself a challenge. “We searched for old and modern equipment for digitisation and archival of the collected materials, and materials which were soon to be handed over,” the project leader says.
After undertaking in-depth research and travelling to numerous countries to see different equipment, Alyazeedi and his team managed to find the correct range of equipment and skilled technicians to operate it. However, another challenge followed: finding spare parts and modifying the equipment to increase its durability. Indeed, the machine used for ingesting tapes was only designed to work for about six hours a day but with the tight deadlines that PEO wanted to work to, the machine needed to be operational 24/7. “Our technicians and engineers working on the project tried to find a solution to develop this equipment and make it work all the time, and we succeeded in achieving this,” he says.
The operations were made 24/7 by providing extra equipment and by modifying some machinery, Alyazeedi explains. “There have been modifications to equipment as some of these are no longer manufactured; a few parts have been changed, for example heads for a few players and tape recorders were replaced with spare heads for continuous running. The problem of heating up was solved with solutions such as automated climate controlled air conditioning and a built-in cooling mechanism.”
He adds that the PEO also has redundant equipment and maintenance engineers on-site 24/7 in case of a break-down.
The PEO team also learned and mastered the latest techniques to repair partially damaged film. “With great efforts exerted from our side, we could fix the semi-damaged films through some phases up to ten stages,” Alyazeedi says. “These take a great effort and a long time from our side. However, we achieved satisfying results which we are proud of. Despite the large variety of films and tapes, difference in their years of production and type of manufacture, we overcame all the challenges, including finding the skilled specialists. ”
The team working on the project consists of about 100 people, including engineers and specialists in restoration, digitisation, digital curation and file management.
While Alyazeedi didn’t provide specific numbers about how many hours of footage have been digitised, a walk around the facility offers some insight into scale of the project. Two floors at the facility consist of enormous open-plan rooms with row-upon-row of shelves specially equipped to store individually-cased film reels. The rooms are temperature and humidity controlled for optimum preservation of the tapes and every case is meticulously logged and labelled.
While the bulk of content is expected to be digitised and archived by the fourth quarter of this year, the project can be viewed as an on-going initiative. Once digitisation and ingest is complete, the digital archive will be further enriched with metadata. “The next step is inauguration of ‘Digitisation & Electronic Archiving Project’ after completing all the materials we have. In my point of view, the work will continue during the foreseeable term and perhaps in the future with the rapid technological development,” Alyazeedi says.
The digital archive will hold huge potential for broadcasters and content producers who want to tap into the library archives. Alyazeedi points out that the potential for historical and cultural documentaries is huge. Furthermore, having personally viewed much of the historical footage, Alyazeedi is also convinced that the archive can help change perceptions about Qatar. For example, after viewing footage of Qatar hosting three or four GCC championships in past few decades and tournaments such as Army World Cup in 1981 and Asian Soccer Games in 1987, Alyazeedi says that he is filled with optimism about the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Doha. “These films remind us of some of the amazing achievements from Qatar’s past. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation were handling numerous major sporting events but this generation doesn’t always realise it. Now, thanks to this archive we have a lot more to show to our future generations. I am optimistic that we are not only creating a national asset out of our film heritage, but that we can also give future generations an even greater sense of pride in their national history,” he says.