“Researching Cinema in the First World War” Workshop Report, 25 August 2023, Maynooth University, Ireland

Alan Corley

30 November 2023


Throughout my academic journey, I have largely relied on the writings of others, searching through books and articles in search of details and perspectives that could help me approach whatever my research. My biggest challenge has been independent research as I found it difficult to know where to look for potential sources. My current research examines the cinema-going experience in Ireland during the 1910s and 1920s, with a focus on what sort of films were shown to audiences and how they responded to them. Naturally, the First World War affected the distribution of film across Europe, and so I was interested in this time period especially. When I heard about this workshop, it sounded ideal. I can definitely say I came away from this workshop far more confident in my knowledge of available resources and my ability to use them.

The event was sponsored by the International Association for Media and History (IAMHIST) through the IAMHIST Challenge awarded to Dr. Veronica Johnson (Maynooth University), and hosted by the Media Studies department at Maynooth University, with presentations by Dr. Denis Condon (Maynooth University), Kasandra O’Connell (Irish Film Institute), and Dr. Johnson.

The focus of the workshop was on efforts to research and study cinema during the First World War. Given the delicate and fragile nature of material items of this time, much has been lost in the century since; many films have been lost due to decay, purposeful destruction, and/or negligence, while paper material was seen as discardable ephemera. These facts can make it extremely difficult to research early cinema – and with the added element of global warfare, information from the time can be hard to come by. This workshop was designed to showcase what is available and how to go about accessing it, from online resources to physical documents held in libraries and archives.

Dr. Condon, author of Early Irish Cinema: 1895-1921, opened the presentation portion of the day with his talk: “Researching Newspaper Archives”. He began by discussing how the film industry was disrupted by the war, moving on to the benefits of using archival newspapers, which he called the best way of researching this time in history as most information was spread in this format. Newspaper articles, advertisements, reviews, etc., can all show the cinema’s relationship to the Irish public and vice versa. He encouraged researchers to look outside of purely digital sources and pursue analog material with the same energy, going into detail about the microfiche holdings of the National Library in Dublin. Dr. Condon also spoke about the travelling nature of early film screenings, with groups bringing films to rural areas in an evolution of the travelling theatre groups of earlier times, with the films themselves being the main attraction.

Kasandra O’Connell followed with a presentation on “Using Film Archives,” detailing the holdings of the Irish Film Institute and the Irish Film Archive, explaining some of the IFI’s early history and how it began to build up its collection of film and ephemera. One of the things I found most interesting in her talk was the relationship the IFI has with donors and owners of film material, and the legal rights surrounding this material. Despite little indigenous film production in Ireland until relatively recently, the archive currently houses over 30,000 cans of film, with much work being put into making as much material public as possible, through the IFI Player and a variety of other access routes. I have previously viewed the O’Kalem and 1916 Collections of the IFI Player and it was extremely interesting to hear how one can go about contacting the access officer for access to other material.

Dr. Johnson closed the presentations with her talk on “Using Multiple Resources,” highlighting how researchers have to utilise all available sources as well as consider alternative routes. She spoke about her research into the Film Company of Ireland, the first indigenous narrative film company in Ireland, about which little has been written, which I found to be a fascinating topic (I had only been familiar with Irish Destiny (1926) prior to this). Providing an extensive list of journals, archives, and online libraries, including a large number of resources available to researchers that I had not come across before: Early Popular Visual Culture, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, the Media History Digital Library, and also pointed to Ancestry.com as a potentially useful resource. Dr. Condon and Dr. Johnson’s presentations taken together provided a vast and helpful education around both availability and the varying formats worth exploring. There are numerous online newspaper archives that have been digitized from original paper prints and can be searched digitally, research groups that freely share their findings for others to read and build upon, physical holdings in universities and libraries, microfiche copies of documents that have not been digitized due to time and expense limitations but are available to search through.

Following the talks, there was an hour-long workshop, during which attendees could share their research projects with the speakers and fellow attendees and receive feedback and advice. Much of my study, when I was working towards my Masters, was in the German film industry, with my dissertation being on the portrayal of gender and sexuality in the films of F.W. Murnau, which I am hoping to expand to book length. Since then, I have decided to look into the cinema-going experience closer to home, finding out what sort of films were imported into Ireland during the silent era, what films proved successful, or how audiences of the time responded to them. Were certain genres more appealing to the Irish people en masse, and were there themes or concepts that drew them in more so than others? I enjoyed hearing feedback from the speakers and my fellow attendees and was fascinated by their own topics and what drew them to researching them.

After lunch, the group moved to the Irish Film Archive, housed a few minutes away on the Maynooth University campus, for a tour of its facilities. I must admit that this was what initially caught my eye about this workshop. Film preservation and restoration have long been a source of fascination and passion for me and I was eager to see the inside workings of a professional film archive. It was staggering to see the volume of film cans and I spent some time seeking out titles I was familiar with (such as Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984), a personal favourite).

Tour of the Irish Film Archive (Maynooth University)

Before breaking for the day, we returned to the workshop room to view an extract from an early Irish film, Knocknagow, directed by Fred O’Donovan in 1918. Produced by the Film Company of Ireland, it is the oldest surviving Irish-made film to be produced in Ireland. I found the extract fascinating and thought its use of on-location shooting in Tipperary an excellent way to boost its production value. One of the charms of the silent era, from my perspective, is the immediacy of the film itself, almost functioning as a direct connection to a place and time in a way that I don’t particularly feel in other eras of film history. Despite being set in the 1870s, it is a window into the landscape of Ireland in the 1910s and I think it is well worth a watch.

I found this workshop to be massively beneficial and thanks to it I feel more confident in my research abilities, and more familiar with the material available to me. Beyond my research into the Irish cinema-going experience, I have used the resources mentioned by the speakers to build up my knowledge of my main areas of interest and use that to build up my regular articles and writings. I want to thank the organisers for setting this up, creating an easy and welcoming atmosphere, and for presenting myself and my fellow attendees with a wealth of information in such a great way.


Alan Corley holds an M.Phil. in the Theory, History, and Practice of Film Studies from Trinity College, Dublin. His interests include the silent film era, the development of film as an art form, social contexts of horror films, and film preservation. He currently writes for the FanFare publication on Medium, where he explores a variety of films through aesthetic, historical, and critical lenses (https://alancorley.medium.com/).


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

New Year Films in Spring Festival: Documenting and Reviewing Life

Qi AI (Journalism and Communication School, Shandong University, China)

23 November 2023


During Spring Festival, going to the cinema for New Year comedies has become a consumption habit and part of the holiday ritual for many Chinese. New Year films are made to screen around the New Year holiday season and cater to the joyfully festive atmosphere. They depict the social changes happening in China over the past year.

Initially, in the 1920s, there were no strict genre requirements upon the films released in this season. The release was a marketing choice given China’s traditional year-end consumption of entertainment. The season was then flooded with both imported films like Monkey Business (dir. Norman Z. McLeod, 1931) and domestic ones like Between Tears and Laughter (Ti xiao yin yuan, dir. Zhang Shichuan, 1932). The resulting increase in seasonal competition led Chinese filmmakers to associate their filmmaking with the festival. Their works self-reflexively involved Lunar New Year celebration rituals and elements, from writing Spring Festival couplets and lighting firecrackers to preparing family reunion dinner and greeting relatives and friends.

A case in point is the 1937 film New Year’s Coin (Ya sui qian, dir. Zhang Shichuan). Made by Mingxin Film Company, the film describes a journey of one silver dollar, a girl’s luck money given by her grandparents on New Year’s Eve, passing from hand to hand. In Hong Kong, a Cantonese-language New Year comedy was released in the same year. Directed by Tang Xiaodan, the film Bloom and Prosper (Hua kai fu gui) tells a story of a family recovering the lottery they lost on New Year’s Eve, which is interwoven with a romance between a young man and woman.

Figure 1: The opening scene of ‘Happy New Year’ in New Year’s Coin, 1937

The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) discontinued the production of films of this category. The subsequent Chinese Civil War (1946-1949) continued the situation. From the 1950s, propaganda films had become mainstream in both Mainland China and Taiwan in a long time as the two sides had the demand for ideological consolidation. By comparison, the film category gained development within the Hong Kong film industry partly because of Chinese inhabitants’ nostalgic longing for home and the motherland. Regarding the mainland, similar films did not appear until the turn of the 1990s. Later, Feng Xiaogang’s works outshined others and became the most popular mainland version of the New Year films.

Both Hong Kong filmmakers and their mainland counterparts prefer the genre of comedy when making New Year films. Along with the mainland film industry’s development, more and more films were chosen to exhibit in this commercially viable season. This preference for comedy became less pronounced. For most of the films, what remains is their direct projection of situations of the societies of the time.

Hong Kong New Year films of the 1960s address Hong Kongers’ diasporic mentality and a collective homesickness pervading their society. The films’ themes usually revolve around homecoming, marriage and settlement. June Bride (Liu yue xin niang, dir. Tang Huang, 1960) and A Spring Celebration of the Swallow’s Return (Chun man hua kai yanzi gui, dir. Mok Hong-si, 1966), for instance, follow Chinese sojourners who desire to return home but fail and put down roots in Hong Kong.[i] Certain new features presented themselves in the 1980s. Hong Kong New Year films developed into comedy franchises. Clifton Ko Chi-Sum’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World series (Fu gui bi ren, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1992) is a compelling case. Topics such as lottery and emigration to Canada are repeatedly represented in the series. They are given concurrent meanings, namely, being rich and the worry of the 1997 handover, which correspond to Hong Kongers’ common concerns of the time.

Figure 2: The scene of winning lottery in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, 1987

These concerns were even more evident in the comedies made in the 1990s as the deadline was approaching. The Stephen Chow vehicle film Fight Back to School 3 (Tao xue wei long, dir. Wong Jing, 1993) explicitly mentions the time point and captures many Hong Kong rich people’s distrust of the mainland. In another film starring him, All’s Well, Ends Well 97 (Jia you xi shi 97, dir. Alfred Cheung Kin-ting, 1997), a new character, a Beijing girl (played by Jacklyn Wu), appears and eventually becomes a member of the film’s Hong Kong family as the future daughter-in-law. Several misunderstandings and conflicts occur between the girl and the family. But the comedy ends with a grand celebration for the reopening of the girl’s restaurant in Hong Kong. Such reunion captures the indigenous people’s complex emotions regarding Hong Kong’s return to China.

Figure 3: The scene of writing Spring Festival couplets (the Chinese characters highlight the film’s celebration for the upcoming year of 1993, the year of the rooster in traditional Chinese culture) in Fight Back to School 3, 1993

Coincidentally in the early 1990s, there were also some mainland films set around and released in the Spring Festival holiday season. Yet, both mainland filmmakers and audiences did not call them New Year films at that time. Huang Jianzhong’s The Spring Festival (Guo nian, 1991), for instance, directly borrowed the name of the holiday but also was released three days before the Chinese New Year Day. It describes a series of family conflicts around money between parents and their adult children that finally culminate at their homecoming dinner. The conflicts highlight the social changes under the country’s concurrent economic reform.

Since 1994, Hong Kong New Year films have entered the mainland market under the import quota system the government initiated in the same year. Following this wave, mainland filmmakers produced their version of New Year film on the basis of their previous filmmaking related to the holiday. A batch of New Year comedies, typified by Feng’s films, sprung up.

Similarly, these films address contemporaneous social issues and widely held concerns, a series of problems caused by the country’s social transformations of the day. For example, the film A Tree in House (Mei shier tou zhe le, dir. Yang Yazhou, 1999) reflects the housing problem in Tianjing. Beautiful House (Mei li de jia, dir. An Zhanjun, 2000) concerns laid-off workers’ reemployment and their children’s schooling problems. Thanks to his continuous production, Feng’s New Year comedies clearly exhibit the social changes happening each year and popular concerns such as the massive wave of layoffs in state-owned enterprises (Dream Factory/Jia fang yi fang, 1997), going-abroad fever (Be There or Be Square/Bu jian bu san, 1998), labour disputes (Sorry Baby/Mei wan mei liao, 1999), WTO challenges (Big Shot’s Funeral/Da wan, 2001), the ethics of technology and extramarital affairs (Cell Phone/Shou ji, 2003), rural migrant workers and issues of conscience (A World Without Thieves/Tian xia wu zei, 2004), and marriage trends in China (If You Are The One/Fei cheng wu rao, 2008). The last film unprecedentedly touches upon the subject of homosexuality.

Figure 4: The opening scene of a cartoon tiger (which highlights the film’s celebration for the upcoming year of 1998, the year of the tiger in traditional Chinese culture) in Party A, Party B, 1997.

Representing these hot topics leads mainland New Year films to become visual summaries of annual changes in China, thereby reinforcing the association between the festival and the film category. It builds audience expectation, which has developed into a consumption habit. The lasting expectation fuels the popularity of mainland New Year films over the years and up to the present day.

Recent mainland New Year films still deal with annual hot topics, albeit in a limited number. Some of them are road trip comedies, such as Lost in Thailand (Tai jiong, dir. Xu Zheng, 2012) and Lost in Russia (Ma jiong, dir. Xu Zheng, 2020) which describe stories of Chinese outbound tourism and reflect the rise of the country’s economy. Some of them are tailored to the current patriotic sentiment of Chinese people, such as the forthcoming war film The Battle at Lake Changjin 2 (Changjing hu zhi Shuimen qiao, dir. Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam Chiu-Yin, 2022).

A diversification of genres suggests that the mainland New Year film has become a film category for the season. Comedy is just one of the options. Moreover, mainland New Year comedies have evolved into stories of nostalgic romance or dream-seeking, for example, films starring Shen Teng such as Crazy Alien (Feng kuang wai xing ren, dir. Ning Hao, 2019), Pegasus (Fei chi ren sheng, dir. Han Han, 2019) and Hi, Mom (Ni hao, Li Huanying, dir. Jia Ling, 2021). Such films indulge the mentality of the post-80s and post-90s generations. These Chinese, born in the 1980s and 1990s respectively, have become the major drivers of film consumption. So, are the filmmaking intentions and outcomes of these films also a document record and review of life?


[i] Fiona Yuk-Wa Law, “Timely festivity: Chinese New Year films (hesui pian) in the 1950s-1960s,” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 4, no.2 (2010), 105-126.


Qi AI is a postdoctoral fellow in media and communication studies at the School of Journalism and Communication, Shandong University, China, where he is the associate director of Research Center for Culture, Art and Communication of Film and Teleplay. He is a visiting scholar at the School of International Communications of the University of Nottingham (Ningbo) and also a member of Shandong Film Association. He holds a Ph.D. in film and television studies from the University of Nottingham, UK. His research interests primarily include genre and stardom studies, film industries and regulation, and film festivals.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Film Review: Hole in the Head (Dean Kavanagh, 2022)

Ciara Chambers, University College Cork (UCC)

9 May 2023


When the curtain fell John hoped that his life would flash before his eyes just like so many people had said in films and books. In this flurry of images, he hoped to glimpse the missing pieces, all of the moments and faces that were concealed for him in his waking life.

Tantalisingly mysterious, Hole in the Head is simultaneously utterly original and self-consciously cineliterate. An ode to obsolete audiovisual formats (small-gauge film, analogue video, tape), the film effectively combines the conventions of narrative with experimental form. A dizzying array of textures is deftly interwoven by director Dean Kavanagh and producer Anja Mahler. The film is a spellbinding celebration of the image and its extricable link to an enlightened understanding of the human condition. It tells the story of John, a cinema projectionist who has no memory of his life before his seventh birthday when his parents disappeared, leaving only home movies and his father’s photographic collection behind. John, who hasn’t spoken since the disappearance, hires actors to restage the 16mm family films in an attempt to unlock his past.

The film’s labyrinthine bricolage of formats and modes of viewing makes it a clever (and often darkly comedic) reflection on the essence of spectatorship. Its exquisite cinematography is full of painterly landscapes overlaid with immersive soundscapes. The placing of John in epic natural settings neatly symbolises the complex question of nature versus nurture in identity formation. This train of thought is expanded upon through John’s constant association with equipment – film cameras, tape recorders and the mechanical voice emanating from the phone he uses to type his sentences. Kavanagh’s composition is also masterful; each shot is beautifully framed and every sumptuous interior presented with an impeccable mise-en-scène. Every object, every colour, every word, every image in this film are expertly constructed – nothing is redundant – and the result is captivating from beginning to end. In a film with performativity at its core, the actors offer accomplished, nuanced and intricate performances. There are countless reminders of the constructed nature of the audiovisual – edits in camera, a slip of the needle on vinyl, video distortion, static and white noise – all of these point to the mediated nature of what we see and hear and the precarious lifespan of obsolete formats. It is striking that the protagonist appears to die in a cinema while he watches a piece of film crack and burn out of existence on screen. There are many such reflexive interactions between the filmer and the filmed, the creator and spectator, where the roles are interchangeable and the viewer must realign their perception of what is unfolding.

The film’s cinematic allusions are wide and diverse, from Michael Powell’s story of perverse image-making by both father and son in Peeping Tom (1960), to Bill Morrison’s experimental tribute to decaying cinema Decasia (2002). There are nods to the lone hero of the Western, grappling with an individual quest against forbidding but beautiful landscapes, and the head-exploding moments are undoubtedly Cronenbergesque. It is also reminiscent of the work of Canadian directors Atom Egoyan and Sarah Polley. Egoyan places video at the centre of complex family dynamics in Next of Kin (1984) and Family Viewing (1987) while Polley controversially staged Super 8 films using actors in order to solve the real-life mystery of the identity of her father in Stories We Tell (2012). In his independent spirit, Kavanagh also been influenced by Co. Down-based amateur filmmakers the Spence brothers. Twin brothers Roy and Noel Spence have garnered a cult following (and many awards) for their prolific catalogue of B-movie-inspired films which they screen in their non-commercial cinemas, utopian spaces of filmic heritage. Kavanagh himself has written about how these spaces are constructed like Frankenstein’s monsters “using cannibalised artefacts of the now defunct or ‘deceased’ cinema theatres of their youth.” Hole in the Head reminded me of another important amateur filmmaker, Terence McDonald, known for socio-political films often made in collaboration with John Hume. Alongside his documentary work, McDonald produced award-winning experimental films such as Nebelung and Zwischen, both made on 16mm in 1978 and both of which focus on image-making and cinema projection.

Kavanagh and Mahler worked with a collective of creatives and some scenes were shot in the Irish Film Institute, the heart of artistic cinema exhibition and film preservation in Ireland. We see both the public and private spaces of the IFI: the cinema screens, the basement archive and the preservation vaults. In one sequence John is positioned offscreen with an archivist, authentically played by real-life archive legend Manus McManus, also a cinephile of great distinction. We see a Steenbeck laced with what appears to be John’s home movies (one reel of 16mm film “spliced together from odd and ends”) while the archivist describes the complex nature of acquisition. Flickering shots of the vaults filled with cans of film and shelves of tapes serve as a reminder of personal and collective cinematic heritage, essential for both family myth-making and nation-building.

The crux of the film for me is a heart-stopping moment where two hands are joined across different formats and timeframes through a cine camera. We see John in the present day setting up his 16mm camera, positioned to shoot a painterly landscape evocative of the work of another independent and aesthetically-awe-inspiring image maker, Patrick Carey. As the camera whirrs, John moves his hand in front of it; there is a cut from digital video to cinefilm, from John’s hand to what we are led to believe is the hand of his mother. As Barry Monahan has suggested, “the cinematic medium is ideally constructed for the symbolic capturing of memory” and within this function, the hand may constitute “a character’s means of accessing personal recollections, and the psychic trigger concurrently becomes the site wherein the memories reside” (2022: 127). The symbolic function of two hands performing the same gestures across generations and formats creates an achingly nostalgic moment that seems to capture everything that we seek in trying to understand our existence. In this way the film is profoundly philosophical, questioning identity, familial relationships and the significant place occupied by image making in the contemporary world.

The textural and temporal move from the digital video of the present to the 16mm cinefilm of the past.

In Kavanagh’s foray into narrative filmmaking he has not abandoned his experimental roots. This is, thankfully, not a film with a neat ending –we are warned at the beginning: “John Kline’s story is one of many unknowns.” As spectators, we watch but do not fully understand what we see; often meaning appears intriguingly just out of reach. As Godard once suggested: “He who jumps into the void owes no explanation to those who stand and watch.” This is a brave and unique intervention into the Irish cinematic landscape (one funded by the Arts Council), and it is both exciting and inspiring to see its critical success. As Donald Clarke noted, it “shows there is space in Irish cinemas for the avant-garde” and it paves the way for other filmmakers to share experimental work unapologetically with “mainstream” audiences. Hole in the Head will no doubt make its way into the canon of Irish film (and the vaults of the IFI Irish Film Archive) and it is best enjoyed in the sacred space of the cinema.

Hole in the Head will screen at Seattle International Film Festival on 16th and 17th May 2023.


Works Cited

Clarke, Donald (2022) “Hole in the Head: An imaginative and infuriating cut from the edge of Irish cinema.” The Irish Times (August 6). https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/review/2022/08/12/hole-in-the-head-an-imaginative-and-infuriating-cut-from-the-edge-of-irish-cinema/

Kavanagh, Dean (2018). “Keep Watching the Skies: The Cinema of Roy Spence.” (July 18).

https://www.deankavanagh.com/royspence#:~:text=Roy%20and%20Noel%20Spence%20built,cinema%20theatres%20of%20their%20youth

Monahan, Barry (2022). Hands on Film: Actants, Aesthetics, Affects. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.


Ciara Chambers is Head of the Department of Film & Screen Media, University College Cork, a council member of the International Association of Media and History, and co-PI of the AHRC/IRC-funded Make Film History, in partnership with Kingston University, BBC Archive Editorial, The Irish Film Institute, The British Film Institute and Northern Ireland Screen.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

 

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