Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art maintains a collection of 8,000 films, 2,000 of which are available for distribution. Up to 15 new feature films and documentaries a year also find their way into German cinemas. Another 15 feature-length films and around 60 experimental films, video works and installations are taken on every year and go on to find their place at festivals, in curated programs and exhibitions.
The collection has been developing in parallel to film screenings since 1963. It all began when Jimmy Vaughan deposited his colleague Lionel Rogosin’s film COME BACK, AFRICA (a 1958 classic about the apartheid policy in South Africa) at Arsenal (which was still called the “Friends of the German Film Archive” at the time or “Friends” for short), requesting that they “Please do something for the film!”
In the late 60s, it was mainly short films by Latin American filmmakers, with the exception of such longer works as Fernando Solanas' film trilogy LA HORA DE LOS HORNOS (THE HOUR OF THE FURNACES, Argentina 1968), that found their way into the collection and were thus protected from the Argentinean and Chilean dictatorships of the time. When the International Forum of New Cinema was held in 1971 for the first time, the organizers made it their priority to not just put together a set of films for a ten-day event, but also to keep selected films, usually subtitled, in Berlin and to make them available as far as possible for both commercial and non-commercial film work in Germany.
The stock of films increased by around 30-40 Forum films per year by often still-unknown filmmakers. Some of these films went on to dominate art house cinema programs nationwide in the years that followed, such as Herbert Biberman’s SALT OF THE EARTH, as well as films by Derek Jarman, Ulrike Ottinger, Theo Angelopoulos, Manoel de Oliveira, Andrei Tarkovsky, Nagisa Oshima, Park Kwang-Su, Jonas Mekas, Mrinal Sen, Mani Kaul, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Ousmane Sembène, Alexander Sokurov – the list could go on nearly forever.
Rivette’s mammoth film OUT1 – SPECTRE, such documentary epics as SHOAH by Claude Lanzmann and MANUFACTURING CONSENT by Peter Wintonick and Mike Achbar, as well as films by Marcel Ophuls, Frederick Wiseman, Robert Kramer, Yvonne Rainer and Raymond Depardon became classics of “Another Cinema“ thanks to the work of the “Friends”.
Even today, the films selected for the Forum form a significant part of our distribution range, including films by Guy Maddin, Philip Scheffner or James Benning. Since 2008, the work of our distribution arm has gone a step further, with each cinema release receiving an individual distribution concept in order that a greater focus can be placed on individual films, how they can be communicated and the different ways in which they can be presented.
Since 2011, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development has awarded a prize during the Berlinale that includes a special cinema release for the winning film. arsenal distribution has been given the task of implementing this prize in collaboration with the Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (Federal Center for Political Education). An integral part of the project involves working with up to 25 different cinemas in order to create an educational / publicity program for the film that is in keeping with the local area.
The work of the Forum and our close collaboration with the Artists-in-Berlin program organized by the German Academic Exchange Service meant that strong links with the New American Cinema and thus also to representatives of Underground and Avant-garde Film had already developed in the 70s and 80s.
Arsenal staff member Alf Bold, who died in 1994, was involved in particular in establishing a comprehensive network when he started putting together an experimental film collection based on films donated by numerous different filmmakers. These donations included works by almost all the famous names in experimental cinema, such as Bruce Conner, Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Su Friedrich, Joyce Wieland, Ken Jacobs, Kenneth Anger, and Jonas Mekas, as well as many unknown jewels. Following his death, Bold bequeathed the institution an experimental film fund intended to continue with, and expand upon, his work.
In 2003, Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art was awarded the Federal Government Commission for Culture and the Media’s innovation prize for their experimental film and video art distribution concept, which not only encompasses distribution packages for cinemas, but also for exhibitions and other medial and cultural concepts. Filmmakers and artists are thus able to find a place for themselves, whether in film clubs, microcinemas, galleries, museums or somewhere in between. Matthias Müller, Sharon Lockhart, Ayse Erkman, Florian Zeyfang, Angela Melitopoulos, and Harun Farocki are only some of those that have benefitted from this approach.
Since 2006, many of the works we distribute in the area of experimental film and video art come from the Forum Expanded program, which forms one of the sections of the Berlinale.
Nearly 50 years after its foundation, Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art does not just possess a comprehensive collection of films, but has become an archive of its own history. Unlike most film archives, no official criteria were ever agreed for acquiring works.
The archive grew instead from our own curatorial and communicative practice, emerging both from film programming work as well as through cooperation with an international network of contacts and the necessary responsibility this implies. In this way, following the fall of Berlin Wall, Erika and Ulrich Gregor were able to obtain parts of the Soviet Army’s film holdings which would otherwise have been destroyed. The institution also saved a private collection of Hollywood classics on 16mm, which had filled the programs of art house cinemas across Germany for many years, thus providing cinematic socialization for whole generations of moviegoers.
In the 80s, over 100 African films were obtained for the German public thanks to the work of the Forum and the Arsenal cinema, while the cinemas of India and Hong Kong came to the foreground in the 1990s. Filmmakers with close links to Arsenal also passed on their entire oeuvre to us, including Heinz Emigholz, Birgit Hein, Ulrike Ottinger and Helma Sanders-Brahms.
In 2008, the Plaster Foundation, the legal executor of queer underground cinema icon Jack Smith, also ceded his entire film estate to Arsenal. Deeply rooted in the lively history of a Berlin institution, the arsenal collection reflects a way of seeing the world that is constantly changing. Since 2011, Arsenal has thus been taking measures to process the archive in a more intensive manner. The first step in this process was to publish an online database.
In conjunction with the Goethe Institute, two annual three-month grants will be awarded to international curators, who will then develop projects based on the archive’s holdings. Any necessary restorations and digitalization that come to light through their work will be carried out as far as possible. This enables their projects to be realized whilst securing the archive’s survival at the same time.
The same principle lies at the heart of the "Living Archive – Archive Work as a Contemporary Artistic and Curatorial Practice" project, which around 30 artists and curators will be working on from the second half of 2011 onwards. They will each receive training and supervision from archivists to enable them to carry out their projects and will exchange ideas in regularly scheduled colloquia. The results of their work will be presented to the public in 2013.