Asian archives and archivists: travels and revelations

Dina Iordanova, University of St Andrews

15 May 2020

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I am not a specialist on archives. As an East Europeanist, I mainly know of archives in places like Tirana – magnificently supported through the Albanian Cinema Project and depicted in Mark Cousins’ film Here Be Dragons (2013) or Bucharest, the Romanian capital, where a number of B&W documentaries from the time of state socialism, made at the Sahia studio, were recently restored and published in a series of DVDs, in a project sponsored by the One World Romania film festival. Then, as a specialist on film festivals, I have had the chance to learn about the role of festivals in showcasing restored films, which expands far beyond festivals like Il Cinema Ritrovato or Pordenone, and comprises of a global network of festivals in places like in Chile or Japan, discussed in contributions to the Archival Film Festivals volume, edited by Alexander Marlow-Mann in 2013.

However, it so happened that in recent years I travelled a lot across Asia and had the chance to visit and get to know the work of quite a few Asian film archives and preservation organisations that I previously knew next to nothing about.

In 2013, friends from Kasetsart University in Bangkok took me to the Thai Film Archive, an imaginatively designed complex on the outskirts of the city which combines a film museum, a small cinema, as well as storage space. I came to know about the amazing life work of Dome Sukwong, the archive’s committed founder, who had been collecting old films on his own, with no support from the state nor institutional framework until his work came to be noticed many years later. Having commissioned a contribution from archivist Chalida Uabumrungit for the collection Film Festivals and East Asia (2011, which I co-edited with Ruby Cheung), I already knew about the adverse climatic conditions that affect preservation efforts in these parts of Southeast Asia. In Bangkok I witnessed on the spot how they address these difficulties in action, with dedication and perseverance.


Then, whilst guest lecturing at the Beijing Film Academy in 2016, I was invited to give workshops on film festivals at the venerable China Film Archive, which occupies a large 16-storey building in Beijing, and features an adjacent cinema that has a full programme of screenings of films from China’s rich film heritage, in many respects similar to the programme that one finds on a daily basis at the Cinematheque in Paris. It is here where I saw the largest screen I have ever come across in my lifetime. I also enjoyed the privilege to be shown around their restoration department, which occupies one of the floors and where over twenty young employees are seated in front of advanced computers, each engaged with clearing the scratches from the scanned old prints that they are in process of digitising. From a detailed flowchart displayed on the wall, I learned that a trainload of films for restoration are being shipped to them every week from the storage depot in Xi’an and then processed by the restoration unit. China’s whole film heritage is being digitized here. Even if this is not yet released to the public, I was able to realise that the global cinephile community will have access to an amazing resource once a decision is made for the release of this digitized material.

The Big Screen at China Film Archive

Fast forward two years later, to December 2018. Serving a term as Visiting Research Professor at the University of Hong Kong, I chose to live in Kwun Tong, a part of town where few foreigners ever set foot. A former industrial area occupied by large building blocks where various factories were clustered in the past, nowadays this is one of the places in the city where rents are still affordable. So no wonder that even if not obvious on the surface, Kwun Tong is the epicentre for the city’s cultural industries. Quite remote from Hong Kong’s glossy commercial areas such as Central, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui, it is the home of leading modern art galleries such as Agnes Lin’s Osage and the Sun Museum, as well as of popular music venues. It only took me a few daysin Kwun Tong to discover it is also the centre for Hong Kong’s burgeoning film industry, with the venerable Hong Kong International Film Festival having its offices here, as well as many production and distribution companies occupying co-working space in the buildings nearby. One of these older industrial space, The Milky Way Building, is owned by director Johnnie To and his associates – and it is on its staircase that many scenes of well-known Hong Kong action movies have been shot.

Today the Milky Way is home of various film companies. I visited it one day with my friend, documentary producer Peter Yam, who took me to meet Bede Cheng, the director of L’Immagine Ritrovata Asia, a highly specialised film restoration lab which is local subsidiary of Cineteca di Bologna. I was shown around their premises, witnessed the high-tech equipment and seeing several young women at restoration work in front of large computer screens. The big scanner in one of the back spaces – amidst buzzing FedEx trucks and commercial spaces storing Chinese herbs — was loaded with an old copy of a King Hu film which was being scanned and slowly transferred to the new digital format.


Most recently, whilst attending the first Film Festivals and Restoration Forum at Xiamen University in China in the summer of 2019, I was privileged to join the expedition to their brand new large campus, which, being the size of a small town, is home of one of the newest film archives in China. Its holdings, still in process of being organised, are occupying several floors within their 12 -storey spacious library, which also has a good-sized modern cinema equipped for showing various formats on the ground floor. With many historical posters displayed on the walls, the colleagues from Xiamen showed us many rooms where they had stored historical projection equipment, cans of 35 mm film prints, as well as many other film-related paraphernalia. I had the chance to browse and view some of the material they screened for me, along with colleagues such as Jan-Christopher Horak of the Pacific Film Archive at UCLA and Dan Streible and Juana Suarez from NYU. Even if this archive in Xiamen is not yet organised in a manner that would allow to systematically research their holdings, it is one that will stake its presence soon.

The Film Festivals and Restoration Forum at Xiamen University, July 2019

The restoration part of the conference itself was particularly interesting, not least because it allowed for encounters with archivists from China and various other Asian countries who spoke about their work. Several of the speakers had been invited by Prof. Ray Jing, a well-known archivist and anthropologist and long-standing director of the Taipei Film Archive, whose new venture is the Film Collector’s Museum (see Jan Christopher Horack’s blog entry on his subsequent visit to Taiwan and encounter with Jing). I was particularly impressed with the account given by an amateur archivist from Lanzhou, the capital of the remote province of Gansu, who is struggling for the preservation of rich material that he has discovered after the closure of older local cinemas.

Most importantly, the event included screenings of rare restored material with introductions given by Asian archivists who elaborated on how the films were brought back to life. The programme included early ethnographic films made about Yunnan province’s numerous ethnic minorities in the 1950s, for example. But there were also screenings of several other restorations of Asian films – including the Thai classic Santi-Vina (1954) which had long been believed lost and the Singaporean gongfu extravaganza Fist of Fury (1973), which had been banned at the time of making and only now restored and shown.

Scene from the restored Thai classic Santi-Vina (1954)

In listening to the amazing stories of these restorations as told by archivists such as Sanchai Chotirosseranee of the Thai Film Archive and Karen Chan of the Asian Film Archive, I felt I was particularly inspired to realise the extent of transnational collaborative preservation efforts that each one of these stories revealed. It was also clear that film festivals had played an important part in each case. So, as someone who believes in cinema’s transnational essence and the key role of film festivals in global circulation, I felt I wanted to create a resource that would showcase these important aspects of global archiving. So I invited the archivists from Thailand and Singapore to write accounts on the discovery and restoration of the films they were presenting at Xiamen. I also asked two of the doctoral students from our programme at the University of St Andrews to conduct interviews with prominent figures involved with preservations efforts in Asia – such as Bede Cheng of L’Immagine Ritrovata in Hong Kong and Nick Deocampo from the Philippines. The dossier we created will be published in June 2020 as part of the next issue of Frames Cinema Journal.


Dina Iordanova is Professor of Global Cinema and Creative Cultures at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, and director of the eponymous Institute. She has worked extensively on the dynamics of global film industries and transnational film cultures, with focus on non-Western cinematic traditions and contexts. The forthcoming dossier on Archives and Preservation in Asia which she curated for Frames Cinema Journal 17 will be published in June 2020. It contains contributions from the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand.


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.

Working in and with German Archives on German-German Media History

Mandy Tröger, University of Munich (LMU)

27 March 2020

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This blog post addresses international media scholars whose research focus is Germany and German-German media history. The term ‘German-German’ refers to the history of cross-border media relations between both German states, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), until German unification in 1990. This research leads you to working in German archives. I want to share my experience of doing archival research for my doctoral thesis on the transition of the press in the GDR 1989/1990. The focus of my thesis lay on structural conditions and shifts; I was particularly interested in the political and economic influences of different interest groups from the FRG. I tried to access archival material showing the dealings of West German political and economic players, however this became a problem and I want to show you the different ways I used to get around it.

In the end, the findings of my dissertation were entirely based on primary and semi-primary sources; I used secondary literature only if primary sources left gaps in the overall narrative. I worked in eleven public and non-public (publishers, association etc.) archives, and seven private collections. In addition, I held seventeen non-biographical interviews. This blog post summarizes what I have learned from this process.

The “Politics of Memory” in Germany

In various ways, archives are places of institutionalized “politics of memory” (Brown and Davis-Brown, 1998). In Germany, the policy of national archives is such that all files classified as “GDR” are generally open to the public (even if they contain material from after 1990). The National Archive in Berlin (BArch) holds the majority of “GDR” records. Files of the same time period labeled “FRG” are closed for at least thirty years to protect individual rights and potentially sensitive information of economic and political interest groups. The consequences of this imbalance for historical research are serious and well-known among archivists and historians in Germany. They relate to a broader political agenda to the writing and construction of German-German history. They also partly explain the often one-sided and GDR-centric approaches in current German-German history writing.

The holdings of the Wendemuseum in Los Angeles

Three ways to access archives

However, the transition period in the GDR in 1989/1990 cannot be thought of without the political, economic and social relations, pressures and affiliations to the Federal Republic. Not having had access to these files, made it necessary to adopt different strategies.

First, the filing of “requests to shorten the term of file protection” (Antrag auf Schutzfristenverkürzung) to be granted access to classified federal documents in the National Archives in Koblenz and Berlin. The archive in Koblenz holds the files of the Federal Ministry of the Interior (Bundesministerium des Inneren, BMI) responsible for media related issues. Berlin holds, for instance, those of the trust agency Treuhandanstalt. These requests are generally complicated and can take years. I was granted access to files of the BMI at the National Archive in Koblenz; two requests for the trust agency Treuhandanstalt in Berlin have been in process for four years and were just recently granted.

Second, the issue of classified access made the archives of political foundations affiliated with individual parties (Stiftungsarchive) more important. These archives are in general dispute with the national archive over new acquisitions. At times, they hold files of politicians who worked on a federal level. For instance, the Archive of Liberalism of the Friedrich-Naumann Foundation for Freedom, affiliated with the liberal Free Democratic Party (Freie Demokratische Partei, FDP), holds the record of several members of the FDP’s federal media commission. The Green Memory Archive (Archiv Grünes Gedächtnis) of the Böll Foundation and the Green Party in Berlin holds the estate of Gerhard Bächer, former representative of the Green Party at the Media Control Council (Medienkontrollrat, MKR) founded in 1990 (see Becker-Schaum, 2009). The Archive of Democratic Socialism (Demokratischer Sozialismus, ADS) of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the leftist party DIE LINKE in Berlin holds the estate of interim prime minister and later member of the German Bundestag, Hans Modrow (see ADS, n.d.). These archives have individually negotiated classified periods, and are generally easier to access.

The third way around the issue of access lay in the “GDR” files themselves. Since classification matters, not content, detailed communication between various East and West German interest groups can, if traced thoroughly, be found in these files. The part of my thesis telling the complicated story of early West German market interests in the building of a monopoly-like press distribution in East Germany was based on the files of the East German Ministry of Postal and Telecommunication (Ministerium für Post- und Fernmeldewesen, MPF). Labeled “GDR,” these files are open for research, even though several still-existing German interest groups might have good reasons for wanting to keep this communication off record.

Other relevant archives

Another important archive for GDR-media in 1990 was the ID-Archive at the International Institute for Social History (IISH/ID-Archive MKR) in Amsterdam. It holds an extensive collection (forty-two boxes) of the East German Media Control Council (MKR). This collection was transferred to the IISH/ID-Archive MKR in 1997. It contains minutes of the MKR-meetings, correspondence and documents regarding the reshaping of the media landscape (radio, television, newspapers and publishing houses) in the GDR in 1990, and an extensive collection of press clippings 1989-1990.

Also, the extensive library on media (policy) books in the corporate archive library of Axel Springer Publishers and the collection of the Wendemuseum in Los Angeles were valuable. Both allowed access to a variety of media-related sources.

The holdings of the Wendemuseum include the estate of the former General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), Erich Honeker, including his library

In particular the private (personal) collections took a central role in the original research. During the transition period, with fast institutional changes, it was common for those working at ministries, newspapers, publishers or in civic groups to take files home once the job was done and no archive was in charge of storing documents.

Expert interviews

Expert interviews further contributed greatly to my thesis. The communication with over twenty interview partners was, at times, extensive. The interviews were non-biographical, my questions related to a specific subject matter at hand, such as the dealings of a ministry, a newspaper or media policy institution. My goal was to fill gaps that could not have been filled based on archival material alone. This is important, especially for the transition period. During this fast-paced period, much of the communication happened verbally and/or was not documented systematically but noted by hand on pieces of paper. This was partly due to the grassroots like character of reform institutions (such as the Round Table or the MKR) and the often non-professional background of their members, as well as to institutional shifts more generally. Thus, archival holdings often contain numerous pieces of hand-written notes and papers that require context to make sense of them, and this context can often only be provided by those who were directly involved. This is an encouragement to step out of the archive and reach out to them.


Bibliography

ADS, n.d., ‘Bestände/Findbücher, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’, https://www.rosalux.de/stiftung/historisches-zentrum/archiv/bestaende-findbuecher/ (accessed: January 10, 2018).

Becker-Schaum, Christoph, 2009, ‘Der Archivbestand Gerhard Bächer und die Grüne Partei in der DDR’, Grünes Gedächtnis, pp. 71-76, http://www.boell.de/sites/default/files/uploads/2014/06/jb_2009_-_cbs_archivbestand_gerhard_baecher.pdf (accessed: May 25, 2016).

Brown, Richard Harvey, and Beth Davis-Brown, 1998, ‘The making of memory: the politics of archives, libraries and museums in the construction of national consciousness’, in History of the Human Sciences, 11/2, pp. 17-32.


Mandy Tröger, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Germany. Dr Tröger received her doctorate from the Institute of Communications Research (ICR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 2018. From 2015 until 2017, she was a PhD-Fellow of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, Germany. Parts of her dissertation, ‘On Unregulated Markets and the Freedom of Media: The Transition of the East German Press after 1989’, have been translated into German, and have been published in a German-language book, Pressefrühling und Profit, in 2019.


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… Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter

Amelia Seely, University of Exeter

28 January 2020

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Bill Douglas had a unique scriptwriting style of poetic prose and a filmmaking style that has been compared to European Art filmmakers such as Robert Bresson and Luis Buñuel. Douglas’s influence is discernible in the works of filmmakers such as Lenny Abrahamson, Peter Mullan and Lynne Ramsay. His films – The Bill Douglas Trilogy (1972, 1973, 1978) and Comrades (1987) – have repeatedly been praised by critics and have regularly made appearances in top British Films lists. For example, in the Time Out poll of industry figures The Trilogy was number 27 in a poll of the best 100 British films of all time. In 2019, My Childhood was included in Little White Lies 100 list of Best British films. As well as being a filmmaker, writer and actor, Douglas was also an ardent and devoted collector of cinema ephemera. He and his friend Peter Jewell amassed one of the largest collections of moving image memorabilia in Europe. Over several decades the pair collected anything relating to film culture and history, and it is this which forms the heart of The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum’s collection.

The museum is both an accredited public museum and an academic research facility, the rich resources of which are used not only by researchers, but also in the classroom. The extraordinary collection is used for a diverse range of subjects, including Film Studies, English, History, Theology, Geography and even a number of Science disciplines. The collection holds over 80,000 items dating from the seventeenth century to the present day, covering all aspects of cinema, pre-cinema and the history of the moving image. In short, the collection is incredibly diverse and provides a totally unique and varied experience of the moving image.

My own research project is concerned with the British film industry in the 1970s and 1980s and looks closely at the production of Bill Douglas’s films as a case study of an artist filmmaker working during this time. Along with the large assembly of cinema memorabilia, the museum houses Douglas’s Working Papers which were donated by Peter Jewell 2014-2016. These are an incredibly rich and valuable collection of materials that also include production materials from Douglas’s colleagues such as Script Supervisor, Penny Eyles; Editor Mick Audsley and Production Designer, Michael Pickwoad.

Along with Bill Douglas’s working papers, the museum holds several other archival collections which have been generously donated by key figures in British cinema. These archives have a strong emphasis upon modern British independent filmmaking and include the collections of: Don Boyd, Bob (Robert) Dunbar, Ossie Morris, James Mackay, Gavrik Losey, Anthony Attard and Peter Cotes.

The museum is located in the Old Library building on the University of Exeter’s Streatham Campus. The museum shares resources with the University of Exeter’s Special Collections, including some staffing, as well as spaces such as the Reading Room. The online catalogue lists the items that are held in the museum and you can create a collection of items online that can be retrieved for consultation in the reading room when you visit. In some cases, there are images to accompany the description of the item, however, to see most items they will need to be consulted in the Reading Room.

The reading room is comfortable and well-lit and working there has often provided me with many great opportunities to meet visiting international researchers. There are lockers available just outside the reading room where you can store your personal belongings. Items allowed inside the reading room are laptops, phones, notebooks and pencils and although the archive does allow photographs for personal use, usual guidelines of up to 5% of published works are followed. Permission from donors are required to take pictures of archive material.

The museum has two Galleries which provide a great way to spend your lunchtime or a break from research. The Upper Gallery looks more at the experience of going to the cinema and includes all sorts of objects and ephemera such as beautiful issues of Picturegoer, a lovely display of Chaplin materials (Chaplin was a special favourite of Bill’s), to Harry Potter lunchboxes and an R2-D2 shaped soap. The Lower Gallery, on the ground floor, displays an incredible collection of early and pre-cinema machinery and objects, such as one of two hundred Lumiere Cinematographe machines ever made or the camera on which we believe Battle of the Somme (1916) was filmed. It is an absolute treasure trove and a delight to explore. The museum galleries are free and open to the public between 10am-5pm seven days a week (except between Christmas and New Year). The curatorial team are available Monday to Friday and research facilities are open 10am – 5pm by prior appointment, except for bank holidays. You are asked to give at least one working days’ notice of your visit.

There is ramp access to the museum, a lift between the two gallery spaces and a disabled parking space outside of the museum. A great resource is that if you are arriving by train into Exeter St David’s train station then you can catch the University’s free minibus service. The collection point is at the right-hand side of the exit as you leave the train station. There is no signage, but you will probably see a small queue forming just beyond the taxi rank. These buses run throughout the year except from bank holidays and closure days and there is an early morning and evening shuttle service.

I am very fortunate that I am based at the University of Exeter so I am able to visit this fantastic resource regularly as well as use materials from the collection for my own teaching. It is an invaluable resource for academic research as well as wonderful place to visit.

For further details about the shuttle service: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/campushelp/minibus/

To search the collection and to find out more about the museum: http://www.bdcmuseum.org.uk/

A map to find the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum:


Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Dr Phil Wickham, Mike Rickard, and Gemma Poulton for their assistance.


Amelia Seely is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Exeter. Her thesis – ‘Creativity and Constraint in the British Film Industry’ – draws on the work of the Scottish filmmaker Bill Douglas, and utilises his Working Papers held at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. She is also the Founder of F | Screens – a monthly film event that celebrates women filmmakers and screenwriters. Follow her on Twitter @amelia_seely.


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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