Shifting Grounds: Reflections on National Identity in the Archive


My approach to the Living Archive project is to explore films in the collection that could be termed migrant, diasporic or exilic cinema. More specifically, I am interested in experimental or essayist modes of filmmaking made by exilic and diasporic filmmakers who live and work in countries other than their country of origin and are engaged in filmmaking practices that in some way explore the relationship between themselves and their existing or imagined home-places.

Though migrant and diasporic cinema is often broadly characterized by fictional, realist narratives, I am interested in modes of filmmaking that are "characterized by experimental styles that attempt to represent the experience of living between two or more cultural regimes of knowledge" (Marks 1999:22) and that posit representational challenges through either the narrative, aesthetic or production strategies employed.

The aim then is to explore the archive for films that investigate concepts of home and belonging be it through disruptive or poetic strategies. Thematically such a programme will encompass the themes of migration, displacement and exile as well as memory, nostalgia and belonging. Other characteristics of such films are that of the interplay between the autobiographical and the national, fiction and non-fiction, narrative and non-narrative and the personal and the political.

Key to the selection will be to seek out the interconnectedness of the films chosen, be this through aesthetic forms, film personnel and so forth. Moreover, the programme will seek to move beyond films in which the narrative or form is constitutive of these themes but will also take into account the locations, practices and methods in which these films were made.

Given that transnational mobility and migration belong to "the key forces of social transformation in the contemporary world" (Berghan & Sternberg 2010:1), the exploration of such a diverse, international collection of films through the twin lenses of "migration" and "experimental film" allows for other of questions to be raised. How, for example, does the archive challenge fixed notions of "national cinema" and cohesive "national identity"? Certainly, the concept of a "national cinema" has been an especially contentious in the realm of film studies. Indeed, in countries such as South Africa, where there exists a complex relationship to notions of nation and national identity, such theoretical terrain is often fiercely contested.

By journeying through the archive, the purpose of the project is to explore the relationship between experimental cinema and national identity and to ask how these films articulate the often complex relationship between filmmaker and place.

Film series in June 2014

Taking as a starting point the first title of the Arsenal's collection COME BACK, AFRICA (Lionel Rogosin, USA/South Africa 1958), this program brings together films that deal with the themes of mobility, landscape and memory in a particular way. The program examines the function of the archive as a platform for making a critical analysis of the concepts of "nation" and "national identity", looking at the films themselves as well as at the circulation processes (distribution and presentation) they ended up in when they came into the collection, and how a counter-public sphere and alternative national narratives are produced.

Films from our archive:

COME BACK, AFRICA (Lionel Rogosin, USA/South Africa 1958)
Lionel Rogosin's 1959 powerful classic is one of the bravest and best of all political films. After witnessing firsthand the terrors of fascism as a soldier in World War II, Lionel Rogosin vowed to fight against it wherever and whenever he saw it reemerging. In an effort to expose "what people try to avoid seeing," Rogosin travelled to South Africa and secretly filmed COME BACK, AFRICA, which revealed the cruelty and injustice suffered by black and colored peoples under apartheid.

CANADIAN PACIFIC (David Rimmer, Canada 1974)
Vancouver harbour, with its railyards, mountains and passing ships, is a vista in fluid transformation as three winter months are reviewed in ten minutes. What interested me about the shot were the horizontals: train tracks, the water, the mountains, the sky and the way those four elements would change. (David Rimmer)

IMAGES OF ASIAN MUSIC: A DIARY FROM LIFE (Peter Hutton, USA 1973–1974) represents footage compiled during 1973-74 when Peter Hutton was living in Thailand and working at sea as a merchant seaman. It is a personal celebration of Asia formed by a sensitivity to filmic composition and to the perception of these images in a silent time created by the filmmaker. (Whitney Museum of American Art)

WAS BLEIBT (What remains, Clarissa Thieme, Bosnia and Herzegovina 2009)
WAS BLEIBT is about the empty spaces left behind in the wake of war and violence. The film is composed of long static wide shots of places and landscapes in present day Bosnia Herzegovina. The places in the film are present for their own sake. They do not explain themselves to us. They throw back the answers we ask of them.

GIRL FROM MOUSH (Gariné Torossian, Canada 1993)
A poetic montage of the artist s journey through her subconscious Armenia. It is not an Armenia based in a reality but one which appears, like the mythical city of Shangri-La, when ones eyes are closed. (Gariné Torossian)

LA NACION CLANDESTINA (Jorge Sanjinés, Bolivia 1989)
Sebastian Mamani, a coffinmaker and member of the Aymara people, decides to return to his village in the Altiplano, from which he was expelled years ago, after he had betrayed the Indio community. On his long way back, he remembers his past behaviour and his loneliness in the city, where he worked for the notorious ministery of the interior and volunteered for service in the repression army. The consciouness of alienation made him seek out the place of his birth, to die in a dance of death and redeem his sins.

GOING HOME (Adolfas Mekas, USA 1971, 25.6.) feels like an amateur travelogue (which leads, among others, through Italy, where Adolfas Mekas discovers St. Tula). The commentary, spoken by the director and his wife Pola Chapelle (herself a filmmaker), i staken from his diaries from Lithuania and the German labor camp.

Biography of Darryl Els