On April 21, 2011, a twenty-two-year-old Basque film student named Aitor Gametxo uploaded this remix of D.W. Griffith’s one-reel Sunbeam (1912) to Vimeo:
Variation on the Sunbeam (Aitor Gametxo, 2011)
By the end of August 2011, Variation on the Sunbeam had begun to attract the attention of cinéphiles, professional scholars, and film historians. On August 31, Kevin Lee celebrated the work as “remix video at its best.” On September 5, Kristin Thompson posted the film—in a “bid to help it go viral”—on the blog she shares with David Bordwell, Observations on Film Art. On September 6, Roger Ebert tweeted about Gametxo’s Variation with a hat-tip and link to Thompson and Bordwell. On September 8, Luke McKernan shared the “singularly inventive film” on Bioscope, a blog dedicated to silent cinema.
To date, Variation on the Sunbeam has been viewed just under 2,000 times. It’s not exactly a viral sensation, but neither is Griffith’s digitized original with just over 6,000 views on Youtube. When one searches for Sunbeam online, both versions appear: Griffith’s first; Gametxo’s a close second. Had the video gone viral, this visual hierarchy could have easily shifted (and, of course, there’s still time).
In the end, there is perhaps little risk of viewers confusing Gametxo with Griffith. The real threat emerges elsewhere and is one that Thompson indirectly announces in her own reading: “What is remarkable is that a 22-year-old film student […] found a simple, elegant method to demonstrate what we already knew, but with greater precision and vividness than could be done with prose analysis. To experts, that is what should make Aitor’s film so appealing.” In this brief passage, Thompson not only frames writing as a form of historiography among other possibilities, but she also nominates Gametxo’s video as one of those possible alternatives. Film history could be otherwise (and, it seems, better).