Thank you for agreeing to speak to me today, Elif. I thought I'd begin by asking you what your job is, what your role is as an archivist, and how you came to it.
This will be a long answer, I am afraid! At the moment, I am the silent film curator at EYE, so I am in charge of the silent film collection. Our silent film collection is remarkable in many respects. It contains, for example, the [Jean] Desmet Collection, which is very big on its own, but also some other very important early films. What I do is take what comes in, because there is still a lot of material out there, and it is still coming in. I go through it and decide what to do with the films: what needs to be restored and what the thematic importance of things are.
For example, we worked on the First World War project [on the European Film Gateway] that obviously required us to look again much more closely, maybe also from a different perspective, at the films of that period. What we are therefore doing at EYE is in accordance with what is happening outside [the EYE Film Institute].
I also try to go through the collection and decide if there is anything that urgently requires attention. Perhaps a film needs to be restored; maybe a nitrate original is practically melting away. [I look at] these kinds of things. I am also in contact with a lot with programmers and writers-researchers from around the world. Sometimes their priorities may also shape our priorities. If I hear that an important, groundbreaking book is being written about somebody, for example, then I may also decide to put our efforts toward that. This was the case a couple of years ago when Daisuke Miyao was writing his book [Sessue Hayakawa].1 Miyao had contacted us long before the publication to do his research. This prompted us to pull out the materials. And the material was incomplete. But still, as I saw Daisuke's research progressing, I also decided that whether or not the films were complete, it was important to make these films available.
We also did some interesting things in relation to this project. For example, we decided to restore The Courageous Coward (dir. William Worthington, 1919; figures 2, 3). We had only the last reel of this film, roughly the last twelve minutes of it. I think an archive would normally consider this unsuitable for audiences because you don't know what happens in the film and you are looking at its happy ending.2 Yet we decided to take that into consideration, too, so we came out with three lost (well, presumed lost) Hayakawa films. In the end, I was very happy with how this project went. It got a lot of coverage: it was shown at Pordenone [Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 2008]; it went to Los Angeles [International Film Festival]; there were a lot of interviews. Of course, this was all in conjunction with the publication of Miyao's book as well, so it was topical.
You restored the film so that it could be shown?
Exactly, that was the reason.
Is the restored film also available online?
No, not in this case. We do that kind of thing, too, sometimes collaborating with researchers. We did that with The Rose of Rhodesia [dir. Harold M. Shaw, 1918], for example [figures 4, 5]. This is a film that nobody knew existed. Stephen Donovan convinced me that he could get attention for this film, and then, based on that, we decided to restore it.3 Eventually, at the end of that process, we put it entirely online. Again, I think that was a wonderful example of collaboration with researchers, with the archive creating an agenda, if you like. I think this is important.
I am mainly interested in the forgotten and lost part of the cinema. In the silent period, of course, there is a lot of material. Sometimes it is really difficult [to present it]. There are people who have become known over the years, and audiences have seen some of their films. But some [films] are really difficult to present to a general audience because there is no real interest in them. On the other hand, there are examples where we have enjoyed massive success. A film like The Rose of Rhodesia is one example. There is also Rosa Porten [figures 6–8]. This is something that we, at EYE, brought to [Il Cinema Ritrovato in] Bologna.4 We were actually hearing people, even Germans, say, “I've never heard of her.”
How did Rosa Porten evolve? What you are saying is that “the archive” has become a place that you can engage with. Instead of saying that there are only lost and forgotten films, there is also a genuine engagement with the archive [in terms of programming].
Absolutely. I think this is the main thing that the archive should be doing. Of course, we are also doing [programs] the other way. When a programmer or curator says, “I want to do a Henny Porten film retrospective,” obviously we have Henny Porten films, obviously we help this program, we contribute our material. But Henny Porten is the obvious diva for the film historian, so I don't think there is a lot to question there. Whereas in the archive, you notice that Rosa Porten, the sister, also made films. Nobody seems to realize this. Of course, people don't have access to the films, and [because of this] I think that is exactly our role. Because [otherwise] it becomes a vicious circle, since everyone is talking about Henny Porten and nobody talks about Rosa Porten. This is where the archive should make the extra effort.
That is really interesting in terms of thinking about how your role is so engaged, not just in research, but also in getting [films] to places like Bologna, where you have a big audience.
Over the years, I have come to realize how important this is. Generally speaking, the curatorship at EYE has also shifted toward presentation. Or, at least, let's say, curatorship has shifted to have presentation as an important goal. When I started, fifteen years ago, with every film that I viewed, I was required to write something about how this film would work with a general audience. So the idea was always to give an opinion about what would happen if you were to show this film in a theater.
This was the case with every film?
Yes. Even if in the end you would decide not to restore the films. This was from the beginning a requirement asked of me by our chief curator; I was a simple viewer who watched the film. So [Mark-Paul Meyer] always asked: “Did you enjoy watching it?” However, over the years, I also realized that archives or curators can have an even more active role in getting films screened. Because it is one thing to announce, “This is a lovely comedy; audiences would enjoy this immensely,” and then wait. Really, there was a tipping point with some of the films that we restored that we really enjoyed. The restorers and I and everyone saw an enjoyable film at the archive, and then we realized that nobody was asking for it, that nobody would ever show it, because they didn't even know of its existence. They didn't know that the film is really funny. This situation led to a moment of frustration, or whatever you want to call it.
I realized that you have to take a more active role. We have to propose films very actively to the programmers, realizing it is only fair that they haven't seen [a film and] so they are not asking to show [that] particular film. But we should be the catalyzing factor. We need to say, “Look, if you watch this [film], you will want to show it.” And this happened, I think.
Programmers who dare to do this—because this is a daring attitude from their side, for the festivals—are important. People like Mariann Lewinsky have been particularly important to this process of working together, of opening horizons, if you like. And we have come to a point today where it has become a bit easier for me to say, “I really think this is an important film.” People will listen.
Initially, however, we really had problems. For example, with the Olive Thomas and Mary Miles Minter films, we had difficulty. We found two lost Mary Miles Minter films and two Olive Thomas films more or less around the same time. There is no apparent relation between these two actresses except that they are generally thought to be minor actresses and (despite their immense popularity during the time) an amazing number of their films are lost. With these films, fighting against the prejudice that “these were pretty-looking girls who could not really act” proved to be a very hard battle, and I still feel these films should be seen more often.
This raises a lot of questions in terms of your role professionally. There are historiographic questions, questions even about nationalisms, the opening of the archive, the pushing or promoting of these programs, or even how making the public aware [of actresses] changes the way we think about performance or national cinemas.
Yes, I think so. Definitely. For example, Minter and Thomas are neglected, and this has something to do with Hollywood. It has to do with our general conception of what Hollywood is or was, and so on. I try to look at Hollywood critically, if you like. Because when I was doing the Mabel Normand programming, I also noticed that especially the earlier Normands, when she had her own Mabel series at Keystone, the films that survived are those that have Chaplin in them. They actually survived because of Chaplin. That is a horrible thing to realize, actually, because Mabel was the star at Keystone. I understand that this has been forgotten, but still we should try to do something to better understand how it could be that Mabel was a star comedienne of Keystone. Chaplin actually started out as the sideshow. Of course, he took over, and he became very successful and so on, but today Mabel Normand is talked about largely in terms of the [William Taylor Desmond] scandal. This is completely unfair. Again, I think [this happens] because we have an idea of Hollywood and the careers of Hollywood people and so on. There is so much to do [to counter this], it is almost scary.
It is fascinating, hearing you talk like this. It really makes you aware that what we need [to happen in film history is] to bring all the students here. It's interesting to think not just about careers, but about the way we have actually thought of evolution or change.
There is so much [going on]. For example—and talking again about the Hollywood system—these people's careers were created by the media. Theda Bara was presented as an exotic princess. The same goes for the men, too, in a way. The media romanticized their backgrounds or their careers or even how they passed their free time and so on: which parties they attended, all of this stuff. This was manipulated by the PR campaigns of the studios. This is also part of the game, obviously, which is important to follow and realize. But shouldn't we also try to dig a bit further? Go beyond the surface of what the studios were trying to create around a persona, and try to understand this a bit more?
But then you are asking that archives really work also as an intermedial [nexus] beyond film; you are saying that as viewers and researchers, we really have to learn to look a bit more.
That is something I would expect from researchers: to dive into paper documentation. I am sure that a lot of paper documentation recounts the story that was manufactured by the studio. There must be something else, even the sheer number of films, or maybe contracts with the studios, how much the people got paid, and so on.
What you are asking is that we look more historically, not just historically at film.
I guess that is what interests me, although I am also a film historian. But looking from the [point of view of the] archive, what strikes us is the popularity of these people. We keep finding [for example] Rosa Porten films. I mean, last year in March we found this film that we showed in Bologna.5 [The film print] begins to move around. We can take the example of the Netherlands [EYE Film Institute], where we keep finding films. This already shows that these films were popular. They were being shown. It is not fair to neglect these people. The same is now true if you open the newspaper archives. These have become digitally available, which is great. You see amazing numbers of film adverts, also [film promotions], saying that this is the last film of Mabel Normand, these kinds of things.
Do you think newspaper archives can or should work in tandem with film archives? Do you think digitization has really impacted how we engage with the archive? How do you think the archive has changed in that way?
From my point of view, the archive has changed in countless ways. First, the availability of external sources helps you. Almost instantly, you can research what you are seeing. This is important. Obviously we always did research before, but it is different to see a film and then go to the library the following weekend. I can now stop while I am watching a film and walk to my computer and immediately find things about that film. Then I can just keep watching the film, which is important.
Getting the Pathé filmography online has also been important for us. We had the [Henri] Bousquet catalogue—it was printed, obviously—and we used it. But now it can take you just twenty seconds to find a film title. This has a positive impact on our work and how we work. Also, everything is now on the server. This impacts [me] when I am working, for example, on the Desmet Collection. The collection is huge in volume (it boasts almost a thousand films, almost a thousand posters, and a hundred thousand scanned papers). Some of these papers are on the first floor, so I can walk down to pull them out of the closet. But it is, of course, easier to pull [materials] out digitally and even put them next to one another on the screen. It has a visual impact upon you.
I find that [digital access] also has a downside. For example, I have been looking at the [Desmet Collection] posters digitally for so long now that I have completely lost any sense of physical dimension. When I see them in real life, I realize that this poster is actually bigger than this other one. On your screen, they all look the same. Although of course sizes are mentioned, you don't look at that. Onscreen it is just visual. And then in real life, you realize that one work is a tiny poster and another a huge poster. That is strange. I think that it is almost negative, but the availability, the access, the ease [of access in the digital archive] is very important.
The same goes with films. We have our films on the cloud. I can access them anytime, anywhere, just by logging in. It is not open to everybody. This is so important. Because obviously I have seen the films already, and they have been restored, and there has been this long trajectory [of engagement and work]. But I can log in just to see one scene or to check something. Maybe I need to read an intertitle again or so on. I don't know what I would do without this access, especially when I'm creating programs with shorts and so on. I know the films, but I definitely watch them on my computer. Sometimes some films are actually too similar, and you just want to refresh your memory; you just want to see them back to back. Also, we give access, temporary access, to others. This is, I think, a great possibility. This allows us to work around the world very quickly. If somebody asks me: “Do you have that film? Can I watch it?” and if we already have it on the cloud, I can give a temporary link and they can immediately watch it. We give access for four weeks. Again, this is a great tool for a lot of programmers, for us to work together and give each other feedback.
What about in terms of the public? I know there is some open access for the general public, not only scholars. Could you comment a little about the kind of public access you have online and about how you organize that?
We have a collections page where you can find some films.6 These are thematic presentations. We also have our own YouTube channel, [where] you should search for the collection thread because there are also other things such as promo[tional] films from our exhibitions there. We don't have everything online; it is a fraction of everything we have in the collection.
We also sometimes do topical things. When it is Christmas, for example, we may put online a Christmas film from the archive. When it is the Olympic games, we are going to put something about sport. So those are really thrown at the audience, if you like. I think any kind of access for the public is interesting. It hopefully makes people more curious.
Curious to actually come in to see the screenings? I know you do online access where you mash up bits and pieces, and you have the “Bits & Pieces” program, which is really important. We can talk about that quickly, too.
Yes. Those celluloid remix programs are the ones that you can actually download and work on; you can add your own raw material if you like.7 These were actively promoted campaigns to involve people in archival material. We did use “Bits & Pieces” [for this]. I think the curator's voice in this is again important. A project like this emerges, and in our institute people say we can do something like this. They then, hopefully, ask the curator what the useful fragments for this type of project are. I really believe there needs to be a selection, not only in terms of copyright, but also in terms of knowing how something is going to be presented. Because sometimes it may be pointless to throw a film online without the proper context and expect people to watch and enjoy it. You need that context sometimes. Other times you don't.
Early on you said you were receiving materials. You were restoring and making decisions. But again and again, it is also about trying to present [materials].
Absolutely. I can say that everybody on our curators' team—we have five people—agrees that you can make things available online, but it does not always make sense to do so. You should be selective. You should be able to say what it is that you are watching. I really think that people appreciate this. Look at The Rose of Rhodesia: no one was asking for the film, but the way it was presented made all the difference and generated a lot of publicity for us. I mean, interesting new knowledge comes out. This does not mean that I think you should throw everything that is in the public domain out there [online] just because it is in public domain. These are not natural ways of presenting the material. Working, for example, on the European Film Gateway 1914 [EFG14, on the First World War project], you realize very early that it is not helping the general audience when you put everything online without being able to guide them around a little, tell them what it is. Because how is the general public going to know where to start?
Yes, how will they know to look?
For example, in the EFG14, we have curated segments. These are very loose. I did the “Children at War” section, the “Refugees,” and so on. I was not saying that these are highlights regarding the children in the First World War. I hope to intrigue people to search more. It is like giving them a point of entry.
What I liked about that—and I saw your “Children” section online—was that it was not too much. There was enough that if you wanted to start to look, you could start another search, maybe. But it was a critical point of entry that was also engaging.
Exactly, and that is the idea, [to get people to] talk about the First World War. I have been working on that [project] for more than two years. The project has finished, but, of course, the work continues because of the importance of it.
What I realized [when I worked on this project] is that people have preconceived ideas about how this footage looked. They would say to me: “It is so horrible that you are looking at this material every day.” But that was not my feeling. I did not regret looking at this material. I did not think it was all about dead people or starving people and so on. Of course, that material was in there somewhere. But actually the majority of the material was not like that at all. And it does not show a lot of suffering. Every now and then, yes, [there is suffering,] but it [generally] just showed how people were living a hundred years ago.
I found that out myself recently by looking at British material [from the same period]. I was looking at women in munition factories, and I was surprised. It was quite interesting because I had presumed I would see bombed buildings. But instead I thought the footage was really interesting in terms of labor, of how women appeared in terms of what they were doing. It does start you thinking.
The same thing occurs particularly with the children. I think this is a great example. My idea was, in a way, to surprise people by showing that if you look at the fragments that I chose, the children (except for a few moments) are actually quite cheerful. And this is because they are seeing the camera. Maybe this is the best thing that has happened to them in the past day; they are seeing the camera and the cameraman. The cameraman is engaging them; perhaps he is giving them candy or something, I don't know. The fact is that when you see the children in front of the camera, the children are excited, and they are playing and happy and jumping. This is exactly what I wanted to do. To surprise the people. To say it may be different. I am not saying that children were not suffering in the war. Of course they were. But archival footage may be different from what you think [it will be].
With the EFG, it is only really now that you are able to do a project like this, put it all up together, and say here is another way of looking at things.
Yes. I think it was very, very important for us, for ourselves. It was very educational for me and, I am sure, for everybody involved. That is what I meant, [when I said that the films can help us] to look at this material from a slightly different perspective. I was always working with material from 1914, 1915, 1916. That has not changed. But knowing that this footage will be regrouped and put online, maybe next to another archive's work, and looking at them back to back (and maybe sometimes even thematically), it really makes you realize many more things. The newsreels are another case in point. I recently presented something about newsreels during the First World War. The newsreels are very similar to the news items that we are seeing today. They talk about everything. They talk about suffering, about war, about fashion, about new exhibitions. They are very short, almost shorter than the news items we are used to seeing now on television. And they are amazing. At one moment we are in St. Petersburg; the next moment we are following a steeplechase in England, and suddenly you are seeing soldiers, but then you jump again to people goose hunting. They are very unpredictable, actually.
That is interesting. I have seen some of the unpredictability in your curating. I mean, in particular, your “Suffering Men” program in Pordenone [in 2013].8 This is not what I expected. But then you think it is right. [A program like this] forces you to look anew. Things are there that you did not expect to see there.
That is exactly my point. When I came to the archive (as a film historian), I already had the attitude of not really believing what I was reading. I very much doubted—without having seeing a lot—that everybody would work in the same direction. Why would they? And this is my point. It sits at the center of my general attitude. Things may be different from what we believe. Maybe the best examples [of style in film] came from a certain direction. These are remembered well. I would like to understand, however, a little more of the general picture.
I find it important to think in this way today as well. Today when you look, there are so many things happening. If you look at the exhibitions and the art scene, many things are happening at the same time that may or may not seem related to each other. I am sure it was always like that. Some things become timeless over time, and become classics; others are forgotten. The things that are forgotten—again, this is a bit of popular culture, an interest that I always have—does not mean that they were less important. They may have actually had a bigger impact on the people at that time. Think again of today, of some of the things that we may forget about in ten years' time that actually influence us and what we like and don't like.
This is particularly true of the cinema. I feel that the cinema is at the center of popular culture. You want to go to the cinema to see something that you already more or less like or are curious about. When we talk about fashion, for example, it makes sense that part of the joy of watching a diva film or something like that is to see the latest fashion, what they are wearing. This is the same today when we watch some of the actors and actresses who we like. We also criticize them; maybe we do not believe that they [should] dress like this. That is the whole point. [It is] like [the debates generated around fashion in] Sex and the City. I am sure that there was a part of the audience watching films for this reason, too. Maybe they do not say this, but that was part of the joy of watching film.
These are the things that I am looking for when I am approaching a group of films, or a time period, or whatever you like. These are the things that I try to distill from the bigger things that I am seeing. Also, there are things that intrigue me. For example, on my “Suffering Men” program: I found it endearing to see these men crying, for example. It was something that was unexpected.
Another important element of my work is my involvement with Mariann Lewinsky's “100 Years Ago” [an annual program presented at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna]. I will explain how that works. Mariann comes to us [in Amsterdam], and she visits and stays for a week and works very closely with me. Of course we prepare prior to this. I order the films she has selected from one hundred years ago when she comes. We are only looking [at films] from one year. This has a randomness to it. Sometimes, we just sit down and watch films for the whole day, from one year. They may be French, Italian, or German films, and so on. This is exactly what you can do at EYE because our collection is very international. And then you start asking, for example, why there so many films with suicides. Or why are there so many films where people are making fun of (for example) hats. You notice things like this, very easy things. The program “Suffering Men” comes after this. After watching films from one year, I will [identify and isolate a theme and then] include films from the previous or subsequent years. For myself, the specific year is not my criterion. That is for Mariann; she is focused on one hundred years ago. Looking at film triggers something: the way film shows a man crying or having a nervous breakdown and so on. It is not the macho thing that you are used to, even now.
I was thinking that with [Sarah] Bernhardt's La dame aux camélias. [On film], she dies, and then there is Armand who screams and shouts and hollers. And it is an image of absolute desperation. It was only after your program that I went back and looked at it and thought: “I've missed that.”
Exactly. Again, as I was saying, it is important to look back at films. Sometimes I also think, “Wasn't there something like that in that film?” and I go back and check it. And, of course, there was.
It is only when you look, though. This is what you are saying with [your collaboration with] Mariann, with the two of you sitting down and really looking. It is about engaging with the material.
Exactly. That is the most important thing because you go into it without preconceptions. Obviously you have [preconceptions] somewhere, but there are no criteria for what you are looking for. I find this important. Now, when a person comes to us and says, “I want to look at the films made by this director, this actor,” that is also an entry point to subject matter. But then you already have notions of why it is important, so you may be a bit less open to these kind of [chance] discoveries.
These kinds of discoveries create space, I would say. They create space for a reconsideration [of content]. Perhaps the same way that you talk about children [on film in World War I] could then also allow us to speak about gender or women. Someone like myself could come in and find those kinds of spaces because you are creating them or enabling them.
I think the most important thing is that a film program opens this new space. When you are approaching material only from the name of an actor, actress, director, or a even a company, you are acting on something that you already know. It may be small, but still … it means that you are going to create a retrospective, like [on] Mabel Normand. This is great, and I think it is important, but it also leaves aside many other things that may be just as important. The great thing about being able to make programs around themes—loose themes like “Automobiles,” “Suffering Men,” even “The Mother-in-Law”—is that it also includes some of the films in which we don't know the identity of the actors, we don't know who the directors were. It takes these films from that place of invisibility and it gives them a space in the program. This is, to me, the most important thing [that programming in the archive can achieve]. This is why I do this with such a passion.
Obviously, in these compilations I also always have things we know, like a great actress. Léonce Perret [was included] in the [“Al volante/Driven: The Desmet Automobile Show”] program [figure 9] at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, 2014. I wanted to do this. I love Suzanne Grandais [figure 10]. But it is also as important for me to include some films that nobody has heard of and nobody will be able to find. How are they going to ask the archive? Because if they are going to look for material, I need a film with an actress, and if that actress is not in the catalogue, they will not find the film, even if the film is there. So this is fundamental to me. I always have always stressed, throughout my career, the importance of being able to retrieve material, the importance of cataloguing. You may remember Cunégonde, for example.9 How is it possible that we have so many films with the Cunégonde character but still do not know who the actress is? How are we going to put Cunégonde back on the chart?
That also asks for you to have a very specialized or very good skill at looking [at film].
It is something you develop after seeing many films. I have definitely felt that growing, too. I did not necessarily start archiving in silent cinema. Actually, when I started I was working on the 1930s. But I think I got drawn into [the silent period] because of my interest in this, because I really have suspicions about how well that period is described. I see possible handicaps, if you will.
How do you even go to try to establish what you are looking at? What do you do?
I let myself be influenced by what is happening around me, as I said. I observe what other researchers are doing, but also [engage in] forums like the “100 Years Ago” research. Again, the First World War created so much for us. Look at the “Views of the Ottoman Empire”10 that we are doing now [figures 11–12]. This is a combined result of looking at the First World War material and of looking at the “100 Years Ago” material. For example, when we were looking at these films there would be a snippet showing Syria, and you just don't know where to put it. You cannot, you do not use it in the end. But [this snippet of film would] keep bugging me. You then realize, “Wait a minute. There may be a different context.” For example, with the Ottoman program, we have now created the context enabling us to show not only films of the bombardment of Syria, but also all those odd films with strange harems, comedies, pashas, and the belly dancers and so on.
That you could not have otherwise shown.
Maybe you could, but maybe they were better films for different themes. Now having made the [Ottoman] film program, you realize that you could use the same film for different programs. This also works the other way: a film that may not be important within the program may become the star of a different program. This requires watching the film. I do not really mean that you have to watch it again and again—although for some of the films I do—you need to go back to that film and say that the film did not fit that [program, but] it will fit this one. The point of departure is always the same: of trying to create a platform to show the film that people may have overlooked. [They have overlooked the work] unfairly, just because they do not know [any better]. Somebody has to start by showing films. If you show films and people are indifferent, that is okay. This has been our philosophy for a long time now: we want to allow people to see films and decide for themselves.
Within the EYE Institute itself, how do you, between yourselves, decide what to program in relation to your curatorial team?
We do not necessarily discuss the individual films. Just to give you an example: the Maarten Visser films. They are from the 1980s, I think, or the 1970s. You see, I don't even know the material very well because it belongs to the experimental film collection with my colleague Simona Monizza. She worked on this. Maarten Visser had a different career, but he had as his hobby making animation films. And only after he died—because he never showed the films to anyone else—the family gave them to us. Simona was very excited. She said that this is a big discovery. We felt that this is very odd, this is very difficult to do. We are going to present something as a big discovery when nobody has ever seen any film made by this man. The name of this man does not appear in any Dutch sources. And so on. But then we realized that we knew how to do this.
It is the same as I do with silent film, because when I say, again, Rosa Porten, when I say Cunégonde, without even being able to say the name of the actress, again, nobody knows the material. We therefore realized that this is what we [already] do, and we can launch, if you like, Maarten Visser into the world. I think we did a good job of it. It got screened in Oberhausen, in Canada, in a lot of places. It garnered a lot of attention. Of course, we can do it to a certain extent with different things, but this is just to show you how it works across the collections. It is our shared attitude.
That is a really good example, I think, of how methodologically—or perhaps how research in early film—might impact [later developments]. Not in a direct way, not in terms of an actress being copied or a film being remade. But in terms of methodology: how you curate, moving into the 1980s and on to today.
Yes, because Maarten Visser was never known. He was not forgotten; he was never known. You are launching somebody who is not alive. He cannot promote his own works. As an archive, you are bringing these restorations to the public. You have to account for the fact that you are restoring these materials straight from the living room of a person. We felt that this is what we do. We do this all the time with silent film. To say that Cunégonde is important, and Léontine—you know, the unknown actress—are important, but to look at it [in a new way], as Cunégonde and Léontine are now in the Desmet exhibition, too.
The curator of the [Desmet] exhibition is Mark Paul-Meyer, who is also our senior curator.11 That is what I mean. It becomes an attitude that we share, and that is our driving force, if you like. When I come with a single title of a film, and I say I want to use the budget to restore this film, of course they [my colleagues] have never heard of it. That is the whole point. But I feel their support because they share the same ideals, they share the same position. For example, we did Tragico convegno [1915, dir. Ivo Illuminati, discovered by EYE in 2013; figures 13–14]. We did the restoration while we were still missing the last reel, for example.
What is interesting to me is the idea of “Bits & Pieces,” this idea of looking at lost and forgotten materials, and not just realizing that “whoops, we have overlooked this” but that we might not know. It is really interesting the way it moves [us] forward.
I would not be able to say we overlooked this [film], because what would prompt that? Nothing. I think this is what makes our tradition quite unique. Starting with the “Bits & Pieces,” which is something that I also find very important. Again, the idea is just to go to the material, watch the film, and see what impact it has. I must say that the generation before us—Peter Delpeut, Eric de Kuyper, Mark Paul-Meyer (who was already in the archive), and Nicole de Klerk—they were even more fanatic [than we are] about this approach. They would just watch a film, and if they liked the film, they wouldn't even (I think) bother to identify the film. It was just “I like this film, so I am going to restore it. I don't even care what this film is called.” I don't know if they were this broad, but it almost looks like this now. I am more thorough than that. I really want to know everything about the film before starting any work. I want to be able to research if the film is also available in other archives. Maybe it is under a different name, and so on.
And you can do that now. It is a lot easier.
Exactly. It is a lot easier. I can imagine their [Delpeut's, de Kuyper's, et al.] impatience when seeing a film that they really liked, and saying yes, we are going to restore this, and I don't care what the title is. That led, of course, to “Bits & Pieces.” Because with “Bits & Pieces,” they were watching fragments and they were incomplete, and they were like: “I don't want to throw this away just because it does not have a beginning and an end.” That kind of involvement in what you are seeing. That passion about sharing what you are seeing is what “Bits & Pieces” is all about. That is, being able to show these to other people, too. That has become a very interesting philosophy that we cherish.
This forces, in a sense, a way of looking at history. [It is against] the teleological idea of an entirety. Also there is this clever idea that “I am just going to do bits.” It is interesting how it forces a more “genuine” sense of history as a profession.
In the end, it also came back and allowed a different thing, too. Because what happens now? For example, they were [previously] restoring films because they were interested in content, in what they were seeing. They found it spectacular; they loved the colors, [there were] all kinds of reasons to [restore film]. And they were sloppy; the cataloguing was [just] okay. But then over time—and especially with the Desmet Collection—there have been amazing efforts at cataloguing things, identifying things. Frank van der Maden, from the moment he started [at EYE], did a great job as the curator of the Desmet Collection. He was in contact with people around the world, trying to identify everything. They did a great job. Ivo Blom, of course, a little later, also did a great job.
What consequently happened, even with the films that were not found to be so important, was that the cataloguers started to be able to watch the films. This is because the film was already restored, so it could be watched. Maybe you could send, for example, a videotape at that time to someone, so the films circulated and their identification got better. This information came back to our catalogue. What happens today is that when you are researching a forgotten or obscure name and you ask us for material, we may say yes, we have three films. We already have them preserved, because they were preserved decades ago on the basis of them having a nice color or something. That is fantastic for people doing research. They do not expect this because they think they are doing something very obscure. It comes full circle. For example, when you look at Valentina Frascaroli—an actress Mariann Lewinsky is very passionate about—it is still possible to go into our own films and find a new Frascaroli film from films that are restored and have been shown maybe ten times.
Because they haven't been identified?
Yes, because there will be no source. I think this is important. All the sources will tell you the name of the comedian, the man, but they will not mention the woman's name. And the film may have been shown. But every time you perpetuate the same thing: we give them the catalogue and the festival cataloguer repeats it.
Thank you for breaking these cycles, Elif.