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Stefanie Schulte Strathaus is co-director of Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art, which puts on the Berlinale Forum and Forum Expanded each year.
Since it was founded, Arsenal has collected around 10,000 films in its archive, including numerous ones first shown at the Forum. Over the last ten years, the “Living Archive” project has been developed, which considers archival work such as digitisation and restoration to be an artistic and curatorial practice of the present, a practice which actively incorporates archive users and other archives.

Films can be friends

In September 2013 Harun Farocki came into our office at Potsdamer Platz. At his side was a friend of his, carrying a large, very heavy, old leather suitcase. Harun introduced him to us as Ruchir Joshi, a writer from India, who had shot a few films in the 1980s and ‘90s, about music, about cinema, about Calcutta. For years they had been stored in an attic in London, which now had to be cleared out. Harun suggested the Arsenal as the suitable new homestead for his films. Ruchir was delighted to see them not only alongside those of Harun, but also in the same setting as a film by an old friend, Deepa Dhanraj, and other documentary films.

Anyone who does research in the archive is an archivist: Providing access is not the end, but the means

Archive users don’t take anything away, instead they add something. The film scholar Nicole Wolf had often heard of the film Kya hua is shahar ko? (What has happened to this city? Forum 1988) by Deepa Dhanraj, but it was years later, while doing research for an exhibition, that she was able to find a print of it at the Arsenal. Through her we found out that the Arsenal print was the only one in existence and thus of great value. The collaboration led us to being able to restore the film digitally and to bring it out on DVD. The public engagement with the film began: Deepa talked about films that had been made in collaboration with the film collective Yugantar, which was founded in 1980. In describing their creation – the political climate, the collaborative film work, the development of the political in film, the understanding of feminist politics, the particular form of public discussion that the film produced – the films seemed to materialize more and more. The film material itself, however, was close to complete disintegration. The Arsenal was able to digitize it as part of the project Archive außer sich.

Anti-cinema (I) The archive’s contents determine its parameters: An archive does not need one, but many archivists

„Shot in 1974, in Casablanca, a group of filmmakers conduct discussions with people around their expectations of, and aspirations for, the emerging Moroccan national cinema. At the heart of De quelques événements sans signification is an interrogation on the role of cinema (and art) in society, documentary and the Real, and what constitutes an urgency for a national cinema that is being born. This unique filmic experience was conceived as an independent and collective effort of militant filmmakers, actors, musicians, poets and journalists at a time of heightened repression on freedom of expression in Morocco and was funded by the sale of paintings by several well-known contemporary painters. The film was taxed with censorship and forbidden from exhibition and export. It was forgotten until a negative print was found in the archives of the Filmoteca de Catalunya in 2016 and restored there. Forty-five years after its completion, the film will finally be released.“ (Rasha Salti)

Anti-cinema (II) Film history asks: “How did Medusa feel seeing herself in Perseus’s mirror just before being slain?”

„In the 1970s, legendary actress Delphine Seyrig could be seen on the big screen as a singing fairy, a lesbian vampire, an ethereal ambassador’s spouse, and a potato-peeling housewife. She was active as a feminist at the same time, which equally meant taking the camera into her own hands. Along with Carole Roussopoulos, she was one of the first video activists in France, not only documenting protests by the French women’s movement, but also using the new medium to counter the dominant representation of women on TV and elsewhere with their own images and commentaries. As part of this project of narrating their own stories, they held video workshops too and founded the feminist archive Centre audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir.“ (Birgit Kohler about Delphine et Carole, insoumuses)

The gap in the archive is also an archive

According to Alexander Kluge, the gap left by the devil includes the area of the undecidable, the ghostly, the imagination. We are sometimes asked why this or that film is not in our collection, but we think the idea of completeness is a construct. Nonetheless: At the very moment it is spoken aloud, the gap is there.
After acquiring a new print of the film Chircales by Marta Rodriguez and Jorge Silva (1971) for the 50 year anniversary of the Arsenal, the film curator Tobias Hering found out that there was another film by the two about the oppression and resistance of indigenous people in Colombia, Planas, testimonio de un etnocidio (Forum 1972), hiding in the database due to a misspelling, and that a third short film of the trilogy was missing. It had never been shown at the Arsenal. There was, however, a print in the archive of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, where it had won an award in 1975. In the Oberhausen database, however, it is not listed as the third, but as the first film in the series “Peasants.” “While Planas, testimonio de un etnocidio and Chircales had analyzed conditions using a Marxist vocabulary, starting with Campesinos (1975) it was the indigenous cosmogony that increasing took the foreground. The result of this clarification process is Nuestra voz de tierra, memoria y futuro (Forum 1982).” (Tobias Hering)

To the same degree as the archive remains incomplete, it cannot make any conclusive statement about the completeness of individual works

Some of the copies from the Forum that stayed with us are longer than the versions, that later on got released and went down in history. Does this make our archive more complete or incomplete?
Three cases of incompleteness: What We Left Unfinished by Mariam Ghani is about five unfinished films made between 1978 and 1991 during the transition between various communist regimes in Afghanistan. The filmmaker Barbara Hammer found material in her own archive that she had shot in Guatemala in 1975. She asked Deborah Stratman to adopt these images, which led to Vever (for Barbara). In 2000 the Sudanese filmmaker, painter, and poet Hussein Sharrife began working on his last film, Of Dust and Rubies, an attempt to examine the contemporary Sudanese poetry of exile. Due to his unexpected death the film was never completed. Five people are approaching the material.

Every screening before an audience turns a film into a new film

But what if the film lives on beyond the gaze of spectators? In 1977 Arthur and Corinne Cantrill shot At Uluru, a film about Uluru/Ayers Rock in Australia, the most sacred site for the Indigenous people. Four years later the monolith no longer seemed as foreign to them as it had the first time, and they devoted themselves completely to its geological formation. At the same time they had also developed a more critical stance, for instance to the attraction that the mountain holds for tourism. A new film emerged:The Second Journey (To Uluru) (Forum 1982). The Arsenal has digitally restored it. This will once again lead to something new at the premiere in 2019.

Archival work is production work

„A sequence by Griffith from 1916‘s Intolerance. There are numerous forms of montage: naturally, the wide shot, the varying camera angles, shot-reverse angle, parallel montage, leaps in time across many decades. But one sequence is especially notable. It causes one to think that with it, the shot-reverse angle form of expression was invented. Or that it‘s meant to emphasize, through repeated affiliation, something one wasn‘t yet sure of. This sequence is like one of those animals that only exist to provide an example for the correctness of Darwin‘s Theory of Evolution. But cinematic Darwinism is neither right nor wrong.“ (Harun Farocki) Farocki’s video installation On Construction of Griffith’s Films was shown at the first Forum Expanded in 2006, but had been created for the exhibition “Cinema like never before”, which brought the film into the exhibition space. “But this didn’t turn the art space into a new cinema, but instead into an editing room, a cinema lab. Instead of celebrating the mythology of the cinema, works were produced and compiled for the exhibition that use experimental means to help us understand something about cinema.” (Antje Ehman, Harun Farocki)

Film history is global history

How did certain films from various regions in the world end up in our archive, and why not others? The era of digitization provides us (once again) the opportunity to rethink the western film canon. Jagdpartie (Hunting Party): Shot in 1964 to look like a Western, this film by Ibrahim Shaddad, co-founder of the Sudanese Film Group, tells of a hunt for a black man in the forest in Brandenberg, making it extremely timely today. This isn’t always so clear cut: Even or perhaps precisely film languages that do not immediately seem accessible to us can provide a way out of the echo chamber.

Film history narrates institutional history (instead of the other way round)

Bette Gordon’s feminist classic Variety (1983), which exposes the male dominated structure of the gaze in narrative cinema by reversing it, and the almost eight-hour-long Sátántangó by Béla Tarr (1994), a meditation on time and an allegory for the cosmos, have not only lastingly influenced film historiography, but also the history of the Forum. Due to being subtitled in German and included in distribution here, they have embedded themselves deep into the history of the Arsenal and the history of alternative and art house cinemas in Germany.

The archive is a shelter

„One way to understand a museum is as a kind of archive, a safe-house for vulnerable objects and their concomitant histories. But under the conditions of continued occupation, threat of eviction or outright devastation, the very idea of preservation and protection is put into question.“ […]
The Communist Museum of Palestine is an idea for a museum that houses its collection inside the homes of Palestinians. It names an effort to create a decolonizing and deterritorializing museum, one which emerges like grass between the concrete slabs and walls which have been planned, designed and crudely placed atop our imaginary to stifle and contain it. Thus, it is a proposal for restoring the indeterminacy and potency of art both in its capacity to alter the way we see the world and in its ability to interrogate life as it is lived today.” (Ayreen Anastas and René Gabri)

Trust the Archive

„Derek Jarman had two gardens. One was in Dungeness, he started to work on it after being diagnosed with HIV. ‘The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end’, he wrote in his journal. The other one is this film.“ (Dane Komljen, The Garden)

Archives need alliances (I)

Since 2007 the New York company Milestone Films (Amy Heller and Dennis Doros) has concentrated on the restoration and worldwide distribution of films outside the Hollywood mainstream featuring “lost” films by and about African Americans, Native Americans, LGBTQ and women. Milestone‘s motto is “We like to mess with the canon.” In this year’s Forum: Say Amen, Somebody by George T. Nierenberg (USA 1982).

Archives need alliances (II)

SAVVY Contemporary is right next to the Arsenal Film Archive, and not just physically. As a “Laboratory of Form-Idea” SAVVY takes for granted that another knowledge is possible. With regard to the present an “unlearning”, “undoing” is needed, and this is where we meet, in film historiography, in the history of what has not yet been said, of the missing film, or in a completely different history. Now for the fourth time as part of Forum Expanded, SAVVY presents an exhibition showing that every film is itself an archive. This year: Shadow Circusby Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, curated by Natasha Ginwala and Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung.

Archives need alliances (III - ∞)

In 2015 Didi Cheeka (Lagos Film Society) came across some old film rolls while searching for a space to hold film events in Lagos. We traveled to Nigeria to check the condition of the materials and found out that the films belonged to the holdings of the National Film and Sound Archive under the broader framework of the Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC) in Jos. There Didi Cheeka then discovered rolls from a film made in 1976 by Adamu Halilu, Shaihu Umar (Forum 2018), which we restored in Berlin. With the aid of the German Federal Foreign Office we were able to install a film scanner in Jos. Since 2016 we have been able to continue this cooperation, presenting it each year as part of Think Film–Archival Constellations, and involving the participation of more and more people in Lagos, Jos, Berlin, and now also Frankfurt and Cairo. What’s new this year: We are showing the first material scanned in Jos. The Cimatheque in Cairo, which has the same scanner (Edeltraud), participated. And: as of 2019, with the support of the DAAD, the practice-oriented masters program “Film Culture: Archiving, Programming, Presentation,” which the Goethe University has been offering since 2013, is now also being offered in Nigeria. Project partners of the university include not only the NFC but also the University of Jos, the Deutsches Filminstitut/Filmmuseum, the Arsenal, and the Lagos Film Society.

An archive is cinema in the spectators’ minds. Collective memory is the archive of the archive. This is why showing films is as much a part of archival work as film preservation

Collective memory is the archive of the archive. This is why showing films is as much a part of archival work as film preservation.

Archive außer sich

The Arsenal Archive collects films that have shaped the history of a „counter cinema“. Their inherent critique of the mechanisms of exclusion and canonization seems to run counter to the idea of a defined community of heirs, which could be responsible for their preservation and digitization.
The project Archive außer sich [Archives Beside Themselves] is a collaborative series of interdisciplinary research, presentation, and exhibition projects dealing with film cultural heritage and its archives. The archives involved become laboratories for critically reflecting on the category of film heritage, but also ‘heritage’ in general, for instance in relation to colonial or migration history or to the history of political and aesthetic movements. The term film heritage will be positioned in relation to other classification categories such as ‘transnational cinema’ or ‘world cinema’. From political, aesthetic, or even chance connections, elective affinities will emerge from the present, contributing to devising new concepts of temporality.
In terms of institutions, our elective affinities for this project are the Archive of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Film – Feld – Forschung, the Harun Farocki Institut, SAVVY Contemporary, pong film, and the masters program “Film Culture: Archiving, Programming, Presentation” at the Goethe University in Frankfurt and the Seminar for Films Studies at the Free University in Berlin.

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur