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May Hong HaDuong: Preserving Film’s Past for Future Audiences

By Joanie Harmon
May Hong HaDuong

MIAS alumna serves the University as the director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. 

In recognition of the 94th Academy Awards on March 27, The Latest presents a series of alumni profiles. These graduates of the UCLA Department of Information Studies are using their training in the University's MLIS program, to work and enhance innovation in the film industry, both at UCLA and beyond.

A 15-year veteran of the film archiving world, May Hong HaDuong (’06, M.A., Moving Image Archives) was appointed as director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive last January. The fourth director in the Archive’s 55-year history, she is the first woman and first person of color to serve at the helm. 

Prior to returning to UCLA to lead the Archive, HaDuong was the senior manager of public access at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where she served as a principal representative for the Academy’s film archive, and as project manager for the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project for LGBT Moving Image Preservation, a collaboration between the UCLA Film & Television Archive and Outfest, which produces the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival. HaDuong currently serves on the Legacy Project Advisory Committee and on the Board of Directors of the ONE Archives Foundation.

The Latest had a conversation with HaDuong on the challenges–and opportunities–in assuming leadership of the Archive during a global pandemic; the ability to strengthen UCLA’s world-class film and TV archives with an eye towards not only scholarship but public service; and the lure of film as a window to other ways of being. 

What are the challenges and some of the silver linings to leading the Archive in a pandemic?

It’s an interesting time, for the field and just for the world, having this sort of reset and realignment of what our values are. What we want to do in terms of building the collection and sharing it with the world are big questions right now, particularly because of the need for folks to connect mostly through their computers. We had a tremendous virtual screening room presence once the pandemic happened, where we were able to broadcast programs to computer screens around the world, and that really helped us reframe not just what our audience looks like, but also what kinds of programs we can bring to them.

After the George Floyd protests, we were able to connect to audiences with programs that we felt like really were deeply about Black lives. We also were able to bring queer film programming to countries where maybe they didn't necessarily have that kind of presence. We had audiences from Poland and Vietnam tuning in. We were able to reach thousands of folks in 90 countries through our virtual screenings. It was a really great way for us to find these new audiences, and also build them in ways that folks had not really previously engaged with an archive in the same way.

Though I am biased, I think that the UCLA Film & Television Archive, unlike any other film archive in the country, really pivoted and made sure that we still kept those audiences engaged with free screenings. Finding those audiences outside of a theater and in a home was a challenge, but one that we took on, I think and met it. 

That to me was something that was just incredibly moving, to be able to see that people tuning in or in a chat window saying, “Oh my gosh, I can't believe I can see this.” Somebody said, “You know, as a young trans person, I’ve never been able to connect with archives in the same way.” So, this was a really gratifying moment, though humbling, given everything going on in the world. Shifting into this time now, where the pandemic has ebbed and flowed . . . we've been able to go back into the theater and be present, have filmmakers in the audience, filmmakers on stage, and really good audiences and feedback.

What else have been challenges and opportunities for you in your first year as director of the Archive?

Taking on this role and learning, not just the ins and outs of UCLA, on top of having a shifting global crisis has been of course, challenging. But it's been helpful for us to kind of recalibrate and think about what's most important.

One of the things we’re building up are digital resources, making things available for a virtual screening room. We also did a lot of transcription to make sure all our videos on YouTube have closed captioning. We’re also working to build our digital infrastructure, so that we can scan and make more things available for researchers, scholars and the public online. Any archive that isn't addressing or thinking about these issues or hasn't been thinking about these issues has really been forced to do so through the pandemic. I’m really excited about this opportunity to kind of reframe what our priorities are around this.

I think it is set within this framework of experiencing art in a different kind of space. We have to see it a little differently. As archives, we're sharing this content as material and film at least, is really meant to be seen on the big screen . . . in shared spaces. That’s the one thing we realized too with the virtual screenings, was that a lot of people were tuning in, but they were tuning in alone, and even though you have the chat function and there were ways to interact with the virtual program, there is something really special about seeing a 35-millimeter print or a brand- new restoration projected. It’s important for us to be able to keep that platform available, because that is how the art form was meant to be seen and to some extent, is meant to be available.  

To me, it's not one or the other–these are ways we build connections to our collection that allow for deep research, study and enjoyment. You can watch a newsreel on your computer, and then you can go to the theater and see this beautiful 35-millimeter print. I would encourage folks to engage with the archive and spaces beyond the theater and on the computer, and in other ways as well. That’s how I view the work that we do. 

What are some of your long-range plans for the Archive?

In terms of long-range planning and vision, the things that are important to me are digital infrastructure and shoring up absolutely the ways that we do things, not necessarily to automate, but to make more streamlined our processes so that things can be accessed, preserved, and shared more quickly. That is one priority that as an access driven person, is so crucial to me for the Archive. 

I’m continuing these platforms for screening. For example, we have this tremendous series called “Pioneers of Queer Cinema.” We really are excited to be back at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum. We know we're going to have a few hiccups with the pandemic, but having that space where filmmakers can engage with audiences in-person is an absolute priority. 

There’s a lot of work happening around equity, diversity and inclusion, and for me, it’s not necessarily a project–it's baking it into everything that we do. Asking these questions of what we're doing, how we're doing . . . how to engage with these conversations that also bring people in and not necessarily isolate ourselves even further in in this world, which I think is something we're all struggling with, is further isolation from connecting with humans.

Those are some priorities that I have. As the archive director, I like showing up and ensuring that we are building these new audiences. A lot of it is not just collecting what reflects the Los Angeles and global ecosystem around film and television, but ensuring that we're sharing things for not just scholars, but the public. 

To me, the Archive is a crown jewel for UCLA. The collection is over 500,000 items; it's the world's largest university-based moving image collection. We’re based in Los Angeles, with this huge independent and Hollywood collection that is wide-ranging. So, part of that is structuring it into thinking about not just EDI, but public programs and digital infrastructure. Those all flow together in a way that I think are really crucial in these next few years for the Archive. 

What are some of the most eye-opening things about the film industry that you found in your previous work at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?

I came to UCLA as a graduate student in the Moving Image Archives (MIAS) program, which is now the Media Archives Studies program. The MIAS program was centered around the research and study of film and television, but also archival practice.

The thing that surprised me the most about the industry–and I think this is just endemic of society–is that oftentimes we are focused on what's in front of us. We're focused on the present and the future, but we don't necessarily think a lot about the past. And so, part of what I’ve seen in the industry is that despite good intentions, what can oftentimes happen is our history is ignored and preservation is not a priority in the way that I think it should be. 

I’m an archivist, so of course I think it's so important. But I think it's a constant and important advocacy for archives to always be focusing on work that's needed to not just educate, but also showcase how important it is to preserve materials. People conceptually understand the idea that yes, you should preserve your past, but the work involved requires skill and expertise and strategy, and a different kind of thinking than just putting it in a cold vault–all of which I learned at UCLA. 

Most people know that cinematography is complex and requires a lot of technical knowledge. But with archiving, unpacking the kind of the work that's involved to mindfully collect, conserve, preserve, and showcase: all of that requires tremendous skill and expertise that is something that as archivists, we’re always trying to validate and share. It’s so much more complex than what people understand it to be.

And it wasn't that I didn't know that archiving was complex. It’s that I didn't realize that part of the role of being an archivist was also to be able to communicate, not just the need for, but the why, the how, because people just think archiving is putting a label on it and putting it in a shelf and it's done. We all know that it's much more complex, there are a lot of human factors involved.

What attracted you to the UCLA Moving Image Archives program and how did it prepare you for your career in film archives?

I joined MIAS at an early point in the history of that program. I was drawn to it because I was pretty embedded in the film festival culture: program a film, get it onscreen, bring audiences to the next screening, and the next screening and the next screening. 

After seeing a Barbara Hammer film called “History Lessons,” I realized that there are so many moving images that we just don't know what happens to them. We may know what happens to “Star Wars,” and you can access it and watch it.  

But, what happens to that small independent queer film? What happens to that musical that you saw that was a short? What happens to that tiny silent film that somebody showed you once? What happens to moving images after they've reached the “end” of their life–which is a fallacy–and how do we keep those stories alive? To think about the history of film as being much more than just what's onscreen today and tomorrow, but in the past, and thinking about what happens to it, was a curiosity that brought me to UCLA. 

I’m from Southern California and felt drawn to return. This is where the film industry is, and I felt that it was important for me not just to return, but to think about these questions. I saw UCLA as a public institution devoted to an important cause. UCLA recognizes that our future is dependent on education, research, and service, all areas connected deeply with archiving–and I wanted to be part of that. A lot of these programs are actually in private schools and I was drawn to the service component that UCLA was offering. 

Returning to UCLA, it's been such a privilege being able to work with colleagues who I not only learned from, but also have grown with in the field. UCLA being one of the top film and TV archives in the field, it’s absolutely been such an honor. My years of experience, not just through graduate school, but being here in L.A. and working with so many institutions that are dedicated to archiving, has really positioned me well and I feel absolutely grateful to be able to have done that.

I also had the opportunity to teach a few classes in Ed & IS over the last few years. Teaching is a really great way to learn, and it really helped me learn not just what the students are thinking about, but also to engage with the field in a way that I hadn’t had the opportunity to before. So, I felt lucky in that way to be able to return to UCLA in these small ways and to serve as director of the Archive has been tremendous.

Who was influential in your time as a graduate student?

I took classes with professors of information studies Greg Leazer and Anne Gilliland, both of whom I have admired deeply. There are other people I didn’t study under, such as Safiya Noble and Shawn VanCour who are also changing the field. Anne was really great. She was my advisor and helped shape some of the questions I continue to ask to this day. 

Curiosity is something that UCLA has as an educational institution, and it requires the Archive to think in a way–it provokes anybody associated with the University–to question how you're doing things and to continue to grow. Working with faculty and students side-by-side inspires greatness. If you're not growing, you're doing an injustice to your collection. That’s what's so cool about being at UCLA–private archives don't necessarily have that same linkage with that cycle of learning.

The Archive provides internships, and we also have students working with us. I was a student worker at the Archive at some point many years ago. I see absolute value in that. We obviously have some expertise to share, but we're also interacting in a way that's exciting with the students and we learn from them as well.  

What initially got you interested in film at this level?

For me, film was and is a medium that allows you to in some ways escape, but also find stories that reflect your own experience. It expands your world. I know this sounds kind of perhaps trite, but I saw film and television as a way for me to see the world through different eyes. 

Growing up, I didn't necessarily see myself reflected always in film and television, but I saw humanity in a different way. I don't think of it as escapism per se–I see it as a connection. I think that's why I gravitated towards that art form, because I wanted to experience the world in a different way. I mostly gravitated in the beginning towards queer film, because a lot of it had to do with my identity and finding an anchor in something, but an anchor that would let me explore. It was a very eye-opening experience to watch a film and know that there was so much more out there in the world than the tiny life that I felt I was living.

I think that’s a universal feeling about film, how it opens doors for audiences and allows them to vicariously experience things they might never have the chance to do. 

And then, wondering what happens to a film after it’s been seen or shown. I think that was for me, the humbling but exciting part of it. Every day, there's a new film made–there's another portal into a different world. And every day, we can share something from the past that transports us to a different perspective. That’s what is so amazing about working at the Archive.