REPORT: BRITISH LIFE ON FILM: HISTORY AND THE FILM ARCHIVE SYMPOSIUM, 11 MAY 2019, KING’S COLLEGE LONDON

Stephen Morgan, King’s College, London (KCL)

17 June 2019


The flourishing of digital resources in recent years has undoubtedly transformed the practice of film scholarship, especially the work of film historians. Digital access to archival records, as well as repositories such as the Media History Digital Library, the British Newspaper Archive, and the National Library of Australia’s Trove Newspapers collection (amongst many others), have greatly increased our flexibility in drawing upon disparate sources to shape more rounded understandings of the past, and have arguably allowed for a much greater sense of the media and cultural ecosystems within which film texts emerge at particular historical moments.

Alongside these resources – and running in parallel to the rise of mainstream video streaming services such as Netflix – has been the increased access to archival films afforded by institutional websites and social media. In Britain, this has been led by the BFI Player, which draws not only on the national collection, but also from the collections of regional film archives across the UK. Digital platforms such as these have become a primary way of engaging with archival film, and many scholars and creative practitioners – whether casually browsing or searching with intent – have found such resources shaping their work in a myriad of interesting ways.

These engagements with digital archival resources – particularly the BFI Player’s Britain on Film portal – formed the basis for British Life on Film, a one-day symposium hosted by Lawrence Napper at King’s College London. Across a full day of papers, speakers were invited to consider the impact of these repositories in helping to shape, or re-shape, our approaches to film research, practice, and pedagogy. In doing so, the symposium was consciously picking up the baton of recent thinking about ‘useful cinema’, which aims to move the focus of film scholarship beyond the sacrosanct world of the theatrical feature film as entertainment and/or art. As a result, the day also shared considerable terrain with the recent British Women Documentary Filmmakers symposium held across the Strand at LSE.

Screenshot from Amateur Talkies (Sid Douglas, 1956). Source: BFI Player

Drawing together film historians, media scholars, educators, programmers, and archivists, the day provided a fascinating and stimulating range of papers, all sparked by – or directly relevant to – this recent proliferation of online archival film, and associated digital technologies.

The day began with a panel focused on the use of archival film in various forms of practice. Angela English kicked things off with a discussion of her work engaging local audiences from ‘new towns’ with films from regional archives, and a consideration of some of the ‘microhistories’ this opens up. In a paper that combined some heavy theorising with some equally mesmerising imagery, Marc Bosward (University of Derby) outlined some of the approaches that underpin his PhD in creative practice, for which he draws upon the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales and some digital wizardry to create stunning works of ‘realist collage’.

More technical wizardry was required to facilitate the final speaker of the first panel, Alberto Gerosa, who introduced us to Think Young LAB’s Deep Memory Pier project, which aims to consolidate a sense of identity and community in the Sham Shui Po neighbourhood of Hong Kong through shared memories and experiences. The outputs of this fascinating project include a collaborative sci-fi film (inspired by Chris Marker’s La Jetee), and the simultaneous creation of an ‘amateur’ moving image archive that documents the everyday realities of life in Asia’s ‘global city’.

Teaser for Deep Memory Pier (ThinkYoung LAB, 2018)

After a well-earned coffee, the day’s second panel began with Lucie Dutton, whose stellar work in reviving the reputation of British film director Maurice Elvey has taken her down some rather interesting, often fruitful, research routes. For this paper, Dutton treated us to the virtues of archival streaming as investigative tool, ably demonstrating how a newsreel allowed her to highlight a key detail in the making of Elvey’s ill-fated masterwork The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918).

Also on the second panel were two papers demonstrating the importance of regional archives in helping to uncover overlooked contributors to amateur film collections. Zoe Viney (Wessex Film & Sound Archive / University of Southampton) outlined her PhD project, which seeks to look beyond the ‘man with the movie camera’ by exploring questions of gender and class that arise within the amateur holdings of WFSA. This was followed by a part presentation, part-reminiscence, led by filmmaker Martina Attille, who introduced us to the work of prolific Teesside-based amateur filmmaker Betty Cook, via the reflections of Betty’s son Martin Cook and the work of the North East Film Archive.

Screenshot from Teeside Inaugural Procession (Betty Cook, 1968). Source: North East Film Archive / Yorkshire Film Archive

The lunch break allowed for much needed reflection on a morning packed with stimulating papers, and a brief respite before another fascinating panel, this time shifting the conversation to the place of archival film in pedagogy and programming. Kulraj Phullar (King’s College London) proposed a shift away from the standard view of British Asian cinema, and one that places great importance on the greater integration of short films and television – much of which is available via the BFI Player – in helping to reorient ourselves towards a specifically anti-racist vision of British film history. This direct challenge to the established canon was further underscored by the work of SUPAKINO founder, Ranjit S. Ruprai, whose searches of online film archives have helped shape his curatorial practice, and given added impetus to his Turbans Seen on Screen project. In the final paper of this panel, Shane O’Sullivan (Kingston University London) highlighted his Archives for Education project, a pedagogical resource that seeks to open up the digital archive to creative re-use, and provides an illustrative case study of how archival film can enhance the teaching of documentary film practice, whilst also engaging students with local and national histories.

Kulraj Phullar on ‘British Asians and Anti-Racism: In and With the Archive’

The potential for archival film to help disrupt the canon was also central to the final panel of the day, which contained a trio of papers highlighting the intersections between political, activist, and instructional filmmaking. Stephanie Cattigan (University of Glasgow) offered an account of the work of the Scottish Film Council’s Industrial Panel, and how film’s use as a promotional and instructive tool shaped its very production and circulation in post-war Scotland. George Legg (King’s College London) drew upon several films – including Chris Reeves’ 1980 documentary H-Block Hunger Strike – to help articulate the importance of monotony and control in the incarceration practices employed during the Northern Irish Troubles. Finally, Hannah Hamad (University of Cardiff) sought to place the Leeds Animation Workshop’s Give Us a Smile (1983) in its precise historical context, demonstrating its role in making sense of persistent cultures of misogyny in post-‘Ripper’ Yorkshire.

Extract from Give Us A Smile (Leeds Animation Workshop, 1983)

Despite a packed day of stimulating papers, one of the disappointments of this symposium was that the inclusion of such a broad a range of topics inevitably left relatively little space for discussion and debate. This was particularly evident during the rather truncated closing roundtable, which nevertheless allowed for both summarising remarks and some brief provocations.

As Head of Non-Fiction at the BFI National Archive, Patrick Russell queried the nature of academic engagement, or the perceived lack thereof, with archival film. A longer roundtable may, perhaps, have got around to debating persistent issues of access, with the contention that academics are ‘finally’ engaging with archival film having a lot to do with legacies of inaccessibility, especially for scholars who were not within easy distance of physical archives. Other questions of access, meanwhile, spoke to the public’s engagement with online archives, and thus to their ‘usefulness’ for the general public.

Likewise, the question and answer sessions after each panel consistently threw up questions of ethics, not just in terms of production, but also the role of memory and the creative reuse of archives. Indeed, among the persistent themes of the day were the political implications and applicability of archival films, not only as texts themselves, but also in terms of the institutional systems and structures that govern what is made available and when.

Regardless of academia’s history of engagement with archival film, British Life on Film: History and the Film Archives highlighted the growing importance of online archives in our ongoing intellectual engagement with British cinema, and its intersections with social, cultural, industrial, and political histories. In drawing together both practitioners and academics – many of whom are current or recently graduated doctoral researchers – this symposium went some way to demonstrating that such engagements should occur not just in the supposed ‘ivory towers’ of elite institutions, but within the public sphere in which these archival films are being given a new lease of life.


Dr Stephen Morgan is a film and cultural historian, programmer, and occasional moving image archivist. As well as teaching film studies at King’s College London and the University of Greenwich, he is the screening coordinator for the Menzies Australia Institute (KCL) and assistant programmer for the London Australian Film Society. (www.drsmorgan.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.


 

Cinemas and Soldiers, 1914-1918: Reflections upon my doctoral research during the final year of centenary commemorations for the First World War

Chris Grosvenor, University of Exeter

29 July 2018


As I write this blog post, I am in the final stages of bringing together my doctoral thesis –‘Cinema on the Front Line: A History of Military Cinema Exhibition and Soldier Spectatorship during the First World War’. I began my PhD in September 2015, although I had actually started researching the topic of my thesis for my MA dissertation the year before, so in a sense, my research has from its inception been undertaken against the background of centenary commemorations for the First World War. It has been a long, challenging, but incredibly rewarding process, combining my interests in film history, military history and war studies to produce some 100,000 words on a subject which, from my perspective, has until this point lacked a comprehensive history and analysis within the discipline of Film Studies [1].

The fact that I have undertaken this research during the centenary period has proved to be hugely significant. More than the ample amount of First World War-related academic conferences, research networks and publications prompted by the beginning of the centenary in 2014, the history of the conflict – its significance, impact and legacy – will perhaps never again be as prevalent as it has been within our contemporary political and cultural environment, certainly not within my lifetime. It is my hope, therefore, that by accident rather than design, my research can contribute something hitherto missing from, not only our own academic field and discipline, but an internationally shared cultural history and ‘memory’ of the ‘Great War’, particularly as we leave this monumental milestone of the centenary of the conflict behind us in 2018. Indeed, even a century after the close of the conflict, I hope that research such as my own showcases the wealth of stories and histories that are still waiting to be discovered in the archives of the First World War.

Image 1: Two British soldiers standing beside a projector (most likely a Pathé 1913 model) c.1916. Courtesy of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter. EXE BD 84481

So – what have you discovered then? – you’re probably asking. Fundamentally, my research outlines how cinema exhibition during the First World War did not begin and end with theatrical exhibition on the home front, but encapsulated a whole, largely forgotten, demographic of wartime spectators: British soldiers. From the domestic commercial venues where potential soldiers were targeted with cinematic recruitment propaganda in the hope that they would enlist, to the make-shift venues constructed for exhibition on the front line itself, and the appropriation of the medium within the context of soldier rehabilitation and recovery in military hospitals and convalescent camps, the cinema intersected with the average British soldier at practically every point of their military career. Painstaking research undertaken using official military documentation held by the National Archives has revealed the previously unacknowledged scope of cinemas established by different formations of the British Expeditionary Force – Armies, Corps, Divisions, Brigades – on the Western front between 1914 and 1918. Moreover, detailed information about front line exhibition practices, from film programmes to venues, equipment, finances and musical accompaniment shed further light on this unique instance of historical exhibition. Furthermore, careful examination of soldier diaries, letters and ‘trench publications’ held by institutions such as the Imperial War Museum, the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds, and the BFI, has placed front and centre a fundamentally singular body of wartime spectatorship. Whilst cherishing the psychologically restorative powers of escapist comedies and dramas within the immediate environment of the front line – where ‘the grim realities of warfare are temporarily forgotten during the performance’ – I argue that soldiers also evolved to become intellectually discerning spectators in their own right, equipped to interpret, negotiate and ultimately deconstruct the artifice and manipulation of wartime propaganda and fictional films depicting the conflict, including major topical releases such as The Battle of the Somme (1916). [2] More generally, the diverse range of exhibition practices utilised for the entertainment of British soldiers either on the front line or at home – from films projected onto hospital war ceilings for the bed-bound wounded to shell-damaged barns or huts within close proximity to the dangers of the front line trenches – evidences the fact that cinema exhibition for soldier spectators during the conflict was rife with variety, experimentation and unprecedented spectatorial encounters with the medium at this early juncture within the 20th century.

Image 2: Postcard of Larkhill Camp, Salisbury. The top of the ‘Military Cinema’ can just be seen on the right-hand side (white building). Author’s Collection.

At its core, however, it is the soldiers themselves who have come to reside as my primary focus of research. Indeed, despite the distance in time and supposed objectivity required of the historian, it is the stories of a generation of young men fighting and even dying for their country which have had the most impact upon me during these last four years. Whilst I sit in the Imperial War Museum’s research room holding a mud-stained and partly faded diary, it is impossible not to think of the man who held it one-hundred years ago. Turning the page, I may find some comment about how the antics of Charlie Chaplin or the familiar romance of a drama momentarily removed the soldier from his immediate war-torn and psychologically oppressive surroundings for the duration of the programme. He didn’t care that the ‘cinema’ he sat in was nothing more than a barn stocked with ‘empty petrol boxes’ or ‘old pieces of wood, all sizes and thicknesses, to take the place of tip-up seats’. [3] In these instances, the power of the medium as a morale-boosting, engaging and fundamentally escapist form of entertainment highlights the influence and impact of the medium during this unprecedented and horrendous conflict. It is no wonder then, that soldiers took the medium of the cinema with them from the civilian lives to the front line; for some, it was an absolute necessity for survival.

Image 3: Postcard depicting a column of British soldiers marching past a cinema, c.1916. Author’s Collection.

Whilst the specific objects of fandom or the popularity of certain genres may have changed, the fact that soldiers paid what little money they earned to visit a military-run cinema behind the lines, even in the most extraordinary of circumstances, underlines the same fundamental attraction of the medium that continues to engage audiences today in the 21st century. This, more than anything, has been one of the most important conclusions I have personally drawn during my research over the last four years – that the cinema’s social and cultural function can, in a certain sense, serve to bridge the gap in time between audiences of yesterday and today – a poignant, albeit simple reminder that these men were real people, with real lives and families, hopes and dreams, sacrificing all for their country and their fellow men in the trenches, who found in the medium of cinema a momentary respite from their anxieties and fears. More than ever, this notion should be maintained and safeguarded as we draw to the close of the centenary in 2018, with the war having now resolutely slipped from living memory to the memory of the historical archive.


[1] For some introductory material on the subject, as well as writing on the YMCAs provision of cinematic entertainment for soldiers during the First World War, see: Kevin Brownlow, The War, the West, and the Wilderness, (London: Secker and Warburg, 1979), pp. 44-47; J. G. Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies, 1914-1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), pp. 110-113; Emma Hanna, ‘Putting the Moral into Morale: YMCA Cinemas on the Western Front, 1914-1918’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2015), pp. 615-630; Amanda Laugesen, ‘Forgetting their Troubles for a While: Australian Soldiers’ Experiences of Cinema during the First World War’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2015), pp. 596-614. Of course, it is my hope that my research will offer the most comprehensive and detailed account of this historical practice.

[2] ‘Weekly Notes’, The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 20 September 1917, p. 75.

[3] C. G. Lilley, ‘Back of the Front! A Description of Tommy’s Cinema Shows’, The Bioscope, 7 September 1916, p. xv.


Chris Grosvenor is a final-year PhD student at the University of Exeter, UK. His thesis – ‘Cinema on the Front Line’ – examines the role of the cinema as it intersected with the lives of those who served for Britain during the First World War, shining a light on a largely unacknowledged history within the discipline of Film Studies. More broadly, his research interests include silent cinema, British film history, exhibition studies and the work of silent comedian Charlie Chaplin.


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.

 

‘A Day at the Archives…’: Life Writing in the Swedish Film Institute Archive

Emil Stjernholm, Lund University, Sweden

12 June 2018


For the past four and a half years, I have been doing a PhD in film studies, spending most of my time tracing the biography of the enigmatic Swedish cinephile, filmmaker and historian Gösta Werner (1908-2009). During this period, I have visited a range of archives––from the makeshift archive of the Lund Film Society which is stored in boxes in the cellar of the arthouse cinema Kino a stones throw from my office at Lund University to the all but complete company archive of Universum Film AG (Ufa) at Bundesarchiv in Berlin. In this piece, however, I would like to focus on my experiences working with Gösta Werner’s large personal archive, which is deposited at the Swedish Film Institute (SFI) in Stockholm.

Gösta Werner was an omnipresent figure in Swedish film history––as a theorist, filmmaker, and scholar. In the postwar period, he gained recognition as a director of sponsored films and next to the well-known documentarian Arne Sucksdorff he was probably Sweden’s best-known short film director during this period. In Werner’s own narrative about his career, the war years are glossed over. Instead, the canonized experimental short film The Sacrifice (Midvinterblot, 1945) has habitually (and wrongly) been labeled as the director’s debut film. However, long before the release of this film, Werner began to pursue filmmaking under the auspices of the Nazi controlled German company Ufa and he participated in the shooting and editing of the German Swedish-language newsreel Ufa-journalen that was distributed in Sweden between 1941-1945. Accordingly, one of the main aims of my dissertation is to investigate what Werner’s role was in the production of German propaganda and how these transnational film practices affected the authorial discourse surrounding him during and after the war. After his filmmaking career, Werner became a scholar and prominent film historian. In fact, he became the first to earn a PhD in the newly instated subject filmvetenskap (film studies) in 1971. In this sense, I argue, his life and work shines light on the formation of Swedish film culture.

The archive and its origins

Gösta Werner’s personal archive is deposited at the Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm so let me first say a few words about the place where it is being held. The film archive at the SFI is one of the oldest in the world and the foundation also holds a number of special collections. The special collections range from a number of major company archives, like the silent film company Svenska Biografteatern’s archive, parts of the major film company Europafilm’s archive and Svenska Biografägarförbundet’s (Swedish Association of Cinema Proprietors) archive, to the personal collections of filmmakers like Victor Sjöström, Arne Mattsson and Sven Nykvist. A big part of both the film archive and the special collections comes from an organization called Svenska Filmsamfundet (“The Swedish Film Society”) which was founded in October 1933 with the ambition to preserve the legacy of Swedish silent film, an era oftentimes referred to as the Swedish golden age of cinema. Like many other European countries, Sweden had a large film society movement in the 1920s and 30s, and a number of leading critics, filmmakers and cinephiles active in Stockholm film society aimed to promote the standing of film, release publications and create a forum for public debate and to establish an award for outstanding work within the film industry. From a scholarly point-of-view, however, one of their most important initiatives was the creation of an archive where they collected manuscripts, press clippings, photos and other types of film paraphernalia. In 1940, the archive became a more independent entity and it was given the name Filmhistoriska samlingarna (The Film Historic Collections), and the collections were transferred to Tekniska museet (The National Museum of Science and Technology). In 1964, the collections were taken over by the then newly established Swedish Film Institute (founded in 1963).

The Swedish Film Institute is located in the Film House on the borough Östermalm in Stockholm. From T-Centralen, which forms the heart of the Stockholm metro system, it is just a five-minute train ride followed by a ten-minute walk from the metro station Karlaplan. The archive is located in a large Brutalist building which was designed by the architect Peter Celsing. During one of the early meetings planning the house, the founder Harry Schein allegedly said that he did not want “no ordinary bloody building”, and the Film House indeed catches the eye of the passers-by. Besides the SFI, the Film House caters to a number of film production companies and also has two major cinemas where Cinemateket screens films daily.

The Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm, author’s own photo.

The personal archive and beyond

The material that my dissertation builds on chiefly consists of two components: the personal archive that which the filmmaker deposited at the SFI in 1993 (and later complemented with additional material in 2005) and Gösta Werner’s films. The well-organized archive – approximately 20 running meters of documentation from his career – was structured by the filmmaker himself and deposited at the age of 85.  It encompasses a great range of materials –manuscripts, drafts, contracts, drawings, photographs, correspondences and financial records – of which a majority is annotated. These materials range from notes from his earliest assignments as an assistant director on the drama film Skepparkärlek (Ivar Johansson, 1931) to his research on the work of Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller in the late 1980s and 90s. One particularly interesting feature is the carbon copies of letters, which documents the director’s relationship to producers, critics and other filmmakers. Regarding Werner’s films, one must note that a number of them, more specifically 6 out of 45, are considered lost films, while the rest are held in the Swedish Film Institute’s film archive and have been made available to me digitally with the help of the National Library of Sweden’s Division for Audiovisual Media.

When I began this project I was not fully aware of the controversies that surrounded Gösta Werner’s persona. Even though rumors about his past political sympathies have been persistent throughout his career, Werner’s connections to Nazi Germany have never been explored in-depth. Here, one should note that the personal archive contains relatively few traces of his activities during World War II. Instead, the starting point for my investigation into this topic was a five-page dossier on Gösta Werner assembled by the Swedish intelligence agency (Allmänna säkerhetstjänsten). The fact that I discovered this file, more than two years into my research education, led me to explore other sources of archival material and research literature. This has been challenging because there is no comprehensive archival collection from Ufa’s Stockholm branch, neither in Germany nor in Sweden. Moreover, there is little information overall concerning Ufa’s operations abroad because the so-called ”UFA-Zentrale“ located at Dönhoffplatz in Berlin, was badly damaged by Allied bombs in February 1945, whereupon a large part of the archive material was destroyed in a fire. Given this, it is impossible to fully reconstruct to what extent the German company controlled the Swedish branch, and also to know exactly what Werner’s duties were at Ufa.

Given that he became a scholar himself and published biographies on several Swedish authors and filmmakers––such as the author Stig Dagerman, playwright Hjalmar Bergman and director Mauritz Stiller––I would argue that Werner could be seen as a particularly self-assured agent when it comes to the organization of the personal archive. Therefore, the personal archive that I am working with is in itself not a neutral place but actively constructed. Art historian Joan M. Schwartz and Archive scholar Terry Cook has argued that: ”Whether over ideas or feelings, actions or transactions, the choice of what to record and the decision over what to preserve, and thereby privilege, occur within socially constructed, but now naturalized frameworks that determine the significance of what becomes archives.” The gaps and absences concerning the most controversial and vexing period in his life – the war years – raises questions about what is included and what is excluded in the archive. While research in the Military Archives in Stockholm, the Swedish secret service archive (Allmänna säkerhetstjänstens arkiv) at The Swedish National Archives and at the Bundesarchiv in Berlin have helped me piece some parts of the puzzle together, many questions remain unanswered.

Even though Werner and his contemporary Ingmar Bergman are on opposite spectrums of the Swedish film canon, one being an appreciated legend and the other being marginalized, stigmatized and forgotten, their archives bear a striking resemblance in terms of the collector’s meticulousness and eagerness to save for posterity. Today, Bergman’s massive personal archive, also located at the Swedish Film Institute, attracts scholars, journalists and filmmakers from all over the world whereas Werner’s archive is full of unopened folders and envelopes. In other words, Werner took his artistic process seriously and considered himself a figure worthy of serious academic study, even though his filmmaking career never lived up to his own expectations.

Gösta Werner’s archive, The Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm, author’s own photo.

The Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm, author’s own photo.


Emil Stjernholm is a PhD Student in Film Studies at the Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University, Sweden. His areas of research include documentary film, propaganda studies and media history. His doctoral dissertation focuses on the Swedish film pioneer Gösta Werner (forthcoming in the book series Mediehistoriskt arkiv (Media History Archives), http://mediehistorisktarkiv.se, in 2018). He has published articles in journals like Journal of Media, Cognition and Communication, Studies in European Cinema and BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies.


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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