BELFAST, Maine — When the HMS Bounty tied up at the city pier this summer, a video tour of the vessel and interview with the captain seemed like an obvious subject for Ned Lightner to cover. Lightner operates Belfast Community Television, the local public access channel, and his programs capture such highlights of life in a small town.
On that August day, the visit and half-hour TV show featuring the ship, which was built for the filming of 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando, seemed to be nothing more than light entertainment.
But two months later, the Bounty was sunk at sea, a victim of superstorm Sandy, and suddenly Lightner’s video interview, in which the ship’s captain Robin Walbridge talks about chasing hurricanes, was important history. So much so that National Geographic sought out a clip from the Belfast video.
Walbridge is believed to have died in the sinking. Crew member Claudene Christian also perished.
For Lightner, a 35-year veteran of community TV, the Bounty interview and show illustrates the role public access TV can play in documenting history. Even before the Bounty visited, Lightner was thinking about how to preserve such video clips, the import of which may not be understood contemporarily.
“I’ve filmed a lot of things that could be considered historic,” he said, though most are less dramatic than the Bounty story. Lightner recorded the breaching of the Edward Dam in Augusta in 1999 for that city’s public access channel. The clip is gone, though, lost when a building in which tapes were stored collapsed.
Other examples of what might be historically significant, he said, are the opening of a new high school 30 years ago with views of the brand-new computers of that era which would be interesting for people today, or lobstering recorded 30 years ago in the days of wooden traps.
In recent years, Lightner joined the board of the Community Television Association of Maine and discovered that in 2000, the group landed a Maine Humanities Council grant to gather video from the 80 community TV stations across the state and edit it down to 20 hours on VHS tape, which would be placed in five of the state’s largest libraries for public access under the auspices of the 20th Century Archive Project.
The work was never completed. Lightner learned that the funds could be repurposed, and given the change in video technology, he aimed to digitally store far more clips from around the state.
His plan is to solicit clips from the 80 Maine stations and with the help of Belfast Community TV volunteer Anne Allee of Belfast, sort and “tag,” or categorize, them so they can be found using relevant search terms and upload them to archive.org, a nonprofit site that stores a wide range of video.
The key, Lightner believes, is helping the various stations, many of which are staffed by volunteers, be able to identify what might be historically significant in five, ten or 20 years.
“That’s been our biggest challenge so far,” he said.
The grant is paying Allee to contact the stations and talk their managers into digging into their archives, something Lightner said Allee is well suited to accomplish.
“The key to the project is to have someone bugging people to submit stuff,” Lightner said.
It’s difficult, he admits, and it may be easier to describe what it’s not than what it is — a video of a speaker at the local historical society recounting a community’s Civil War ties is not what he wants.
“Your submission need not be from yester-year,” he said. “The fun thing is to imagine what might be what someone would want to watch 20-30 years from now.”
Lightner’s model for the project is Northeast Historic Films in Bucksport, which catalogs early 20th century films of events which often were routine at the time such as river log drives, ice cutting and sailing ship launches.
“Something as mundane as a parade” could be interesting, he said, citing a clip called “Knox County on Parade” shot in the 1940s. Clothing, hairstyles and cars all illustrate the era.
Lightner recently filmed the potato processing operation inside Belfast’s Penobscot-McCrum factory, a company whose equipment today may seem ancient in a few years. Sadly, Lightner said, “I don’t have any old footage of the old sardine plant, the shoe factories, the poultry plants,” all of which are gone from Belfast.
To help interested people find these videos, Lightner and Allee created a form that lets stations check off categories such as weather, farming, music, paper mills, holidays and education, among others.
Already, video from the project is being uploaded to archive.org in the Maine community TV section.