The Archives Artist

PBS Becca Bender joins the Rhode Island Historical Society as film archivist

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“The job was too good to pass up,” says Becca Bender, the new film archivist and curator for the Rhode Island Historical Society. “The job is totally varied. Sometimes I’m just working with the film, with Q-tips and X-acto knives. And sometimes I’m working to build a video digitization rack. And then I’m having meetings with the education department, and I’m looking for film to use in their lesson plans...”

Bender has loved film since she was a child, growing up in Acton, Massachusetts. She majored in film production and history at Vassar, and she worked in Hollywood for a couple of years before settling in New York, where she focused on documentaries. But it wasn’t until Bender helped produce a Frontline episode about September 11 for PBS that she found a passion for historical footage.

“I always had an interest in archival stuff,” recalls Bender, “but for this 9/11 project I became an assistant to the archival researcher, and immediately I was like, ‘This makes sense to me.’”

To become a film archivist, Bender had to learn the history of cinema technology, from crank-cameras to digital video, as well as preservation techniques. She completed a rigorous film preservation program at NYU. In conversation, her expertise is palpable.

“Any type of moving image, you’re basically fighting against things degrading,” she says. “In truth, if you take film, video, and digital, film is actually the most stable, even though it’s the oldest. If you keep film in a relatively cool, dry place, it’s pretty much fine. And you can pick it up and look at it. I can see that image, I can scan that image, I can shine light through it. Whereas if you take a video tape, you’re looking at a piece of brown tape covered in magnetic particles.”

Bender has big plans for the Historical Society, including educational engagements, archival movie screenings, and even “home movie nights,” where 8mm films and VHS tapes will reveal daily life in Rhode Island households. Despite the treasure trove of raw material – including nine million feet of film, shot by local stations WJAR and WPRI – Bender feels no compulsion to produce her own works anymore.

“I want to be the best friend of Rhode Island documentary filmmakers,” she says with a laugh. “Like, come and bring your projects! We have most of the Twentieth Century here.”