GSFF: AFTER THE ARCHIVE

Many thanks to Matt Lloyd and the organizers of the Glasgow Short Film Festival for organizing a wonderful day of all-things-archive.  The discussion(s) got me thinking in several directions through the archive (financial, physical, digital, conceptual).  My contribution to the discussion after the jump:

Many thanks to the conference organizers for inviting me here today to say a little bit about my work and the concept of “half-films.”  I am a Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen with research interests in minor cinema, film historiography, and archive theory. I am especially interested in ethnographic film and I am currently writing a book that explores the challenges that this particular mode of filmmaking poses to film history.  I would like to just say a word or two about ethnography before explaining how the concept of half-films developed out of this visual material.  I will conclude by outlining the ways in which half-films encourage us to think differently about our film objects, archives, and histories.

The period of ethnographic filmmaking that I am interested in stretches from the 1890s until just after WWII when ethnographic films become self-reflexive and purposefully experimental (I am thinking here of the work of Marcel Griaule, Jean Rouch, Robert Gardner, David MacDougall, and others).  Before this turning point, ethnographic filmmaking existed at the margins of ethnographic practice in the hands of scientists, colonial functionaries, amateurs, and professional explorers.  These films circulated before and beyond narrative film production and distribution, in and for unusual and interstitial spaces: the personal archive, the academic department, the natural history museum, and the colonial government.  Many ethnographic films index “real” bodies and events.  But these indexical claims are undone or undermined by ethnography’s imprecise and wandering search for any and all signs of ethnic, racial, cultural, and geographic difference. 

I often describe ethnography as a cinema of boredom, punctured by radical violence.  The only generic conventions that extend across this cinema include the eruptive representation of death on screen and haptic scenes of ceremonial dance.  Ethnographic films are formally defined by their technical imperfections, disjunctive editing patterns, erratic screen times (from a few seconds to multiple hours), and incoherent or excessive intertitles.  In the contemporary archive, they routinely inhabit a kind of no man’s land or border zone: untitled, unauthored, seemingly infinite in number, and unrestored.  Archives often create compilations of these uncategorizable films with titles like “Etc.” or “Bits & Pieces.”  By way of example to the ethnographic film tradition, I would like to share two short clips.  The first comes from a film entitled Cameroun, which was made by the French colonial ministry in the 1920s.  The second clip comes from Adventures on the Upper Nile, an expedition film made around 1927 for the American Museum of Natural History.

In March of 2011, I visited the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam (formerly known as the Netherlands Filmmuseum).  I spent three weeks viewing ethnographic films not only from the Netherlands, but also from France, Germany, and Britain.  As some of you may know, this particular archive contains large numbers of amateur films, travelogues, home movies from the Dutch colonies, and colonial films made by assorted government institutions around the world.  The boundaries of this national archive are quite unusual and, in many ways, not national at all.  The EYE Institute collects not only Dutch-produced films, but any moving images that were distributed and screened within the Netherlands.  Its vast holdings of non-professional films, combined with this rather unusual approach to determining the boundaries of its national film heritage, give the EYE Institute an expansive orientation toward film history.  Nevertheless, it was during my time in the Dutch archive that I first heard the term “half-films.” 

Nico de Klerk, one of the archivists at EYE and an early film scholar in his own right, used the term to describe the films that I had inadvertently forced him to watch.  I say inadvertently because, before my arrival, I had no idea that many of the films I had requested to view would only be available on nitrate.  The Eye Institute’s policy required that Nico handle the films and be present during the nitrate sessions.  This screening situation ended up being enormously productive.  It forced me to make arguments for these films, to justify their intrinsic value for film historiography and theory, if not their use-value for national film archives, film historians, or contemporary anthropologists.  For many reasonable historians and scholars, these films aren’t films.  They are half-films.  They are incomplete, fragmentary, failures.  From an institutional perspective, there is little in these works to motivate further restoration or preservation.  At most, they will be cleaned before being transferred to safety stock, with their signs of aging and deterioration still intact.  More likely, they will continue to deteriorate and disappear.  

So.  What are the arguments?  Why do half-films matter? 

The term half-film implies a standard that the ethnographic image (and many others) will always fail to meet, a standard that we might call the model, the arché, the good object, or perhaps simply the whole film.  The term half-film also proposes a kind of easy binary for evaluating film artifacts: good and bad, in and out, whole and half.  The measure of half swiftly orders the disorder of the archive.  It categorizes the content waiting to be restored, saved, researched, and written into our film histories.  But half-films are not missing parts.  They are not fragmentary or failed versions of their former, whole selves.  While these films bear the trace of their time in the archive and the projector, we do not lack the “real” origin or the “right” version.  These films were anonymous, boundless, wandering, and technically flawed from the start.  In other words: half-films are whole records of non-normative film practice.  Recasting the term against the original critique of failure or fragmentation, half-films produce a rupture, a tear, a site of resistance to the hegemony of productive, consumable objects and coherent film histories.  They also, in the case of the ethnographic image, resist the demands of a discipline motivated by racial difference.  Half-films force a confrontation with the film object as such, with the standards we have set for film-historical artifacts, and the historical methods we have imported from intellectual history, art history, and anthropology. 

Film history has always come with extensive caveats.  We are warned, not unlike turn-of-the century anthropologists, that our source material is not only on the brink of collapse, but always missing.  Film’s first decades are defined by loss, fire, deterioration, accidents, and absence.  In his mourning/memorial to celluloid, Paolo Cherchi Usai insists upon the absences at the center of film history.  We have lost 80% of our film material and what is not already gone is on its way to extinction.  However, reframed by the concept and content of half-films, the challenge to history is not too few pieces of evidence, but an overabundance of images that do not behave like the others.  These films offer altogether different orders of lack and waste (time and space).  They are excessively present in the archives and yet fundamentally defined by absence (of authors, form, structure, and meaning).  As historians, we have excluded half-films.  We have constructed a half-history of whole objects, bypassing film history altogether.  Half-films force a new historiography, one in which we do not mark out the films/images that are missing, but recognize and analyze the sites of absence and resistance (to history, narrative, telling) that have been there all along.

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