Thank you, Bryony, for agreeing to talk with me today. I thought we would begin with an explanation of what you do professionally. What do you do, what is your post, and what is your job?
I'm one of the curators at the BFI National Archive, which is the United Kingdom's national collection of film. I'm one of a team of curators. There are curators that specialize in all different subjects and categories of the archive. We have, broadly speaking, fiction, nonfiction, and television. Then there are two “odd” curators: one deals with artists, film, video, and I deal with silent film, because it is a sort of category in and of itself, and there are slightly different issues, perhaps, with dealing with silent film in terms of how you might treat it. It also accounts for a good, solid block of cinema's history, film's history.
Has there always been silent film curation? You're a curator, you're a programmer; do you restore?
Yes, we do all that. Each of the curators does all aspects of the job, which used to be—in former days, before about 2005 [when the curatorial unit was formed]—done in a different way. It used to be a kind of linear method, so you'd have somebody acquiring the films, you'd have somebody doing technical work on the films, you'd have people doing things like cataloguing, and then you'd have someone at the end doing things like access, programming, taking it out and about in the world, doing educational work, and that kind of thing. What the reorganization into a curatorial model did was to give people specialist subjects. So now, if I am doing silent film, I will do the acquisitions, [and] I will work with my colleagues in the technical departments to do the technical work, preservation, copying, and all the other restoration projects. And I will do the cataloguing and access work. [I do] the mediation of the film—what it means is that I write books about it and do festival programming, all of those kind of aspects. So you kind of own your bit of territory.
When you said that in 2005 it kind of changed, is that the point when you became the overseer of silent film? Was there always silent film [at the BFI archive]?
No, no, it was in with everything else, really. Silent film often gets slightly privileged treatment because a lot of the stuff, the early stuff, is out of copyright, so it is more easily usable.
I never thought of it like this. I always thought it was a genuine engagement with history, but you are right.
Yes, there is a certain convenience, but also things that are that old are inherently interesting. Television wants to use it all the time, and people are fascinated by “firsts” of anything, so it is slightly privileged, I think, compared to some bits of film history.
Has it always been privileged? In terms of my questions—say, silent film cataloguing or programming, all of that—as a kind of category and focus within the archive or institute. Has that always been part of its history?
Do you think this focus has been increasing, or do you think this interest or focus in the archive has remained?
Well, it is acquiring the patina of age, which makes it more interesting as it goes along. Anything that is “a hundred years old”—there is something about that antique quality that is interesting for people. I think it can only continue in the same way; it is inherently interesting by its nature because it comes before.
And how long have you been working on early film?
My job before working particularly on silent film was at the access end. So I was doing programming of festivals internationally and booking films from the archive for other cinemas and cinémathèques, mainly internationally, so as a part of that process I got to know the material very well. I was interested. My background is in history; hence the interest in nonfiction and early film (as opposed to films and art). There are many people much more expert than me in these areas in the curatorial unit.
And in terms of looking at nonfiction, is it because of what you were looking at on the screen, or was it because of your interest in history? Are nonfiction films something this institute is particularly rich in?
Yes, we are, actually. We have always had a big collection [of nonfiction], right from the very first films we brought in. I think that as well as looking at films as art and collecting key classic feature films, there was also a recognition that we would document social history through film. So it was always expressed as a twin mission to collect those two things. And then, like any archive, these big blocks of materials come in. Things like newsreels, or Mitchell and Kenyon, these big groups of material, which are usually nonfiction.
As those materials come in, have you seen any shifts in the arc of the past ten or twenty years? What kinds of shifts are you seeing in terms of your engagement, and what you do in terms of preservation and access?
It has changed slightly because there has been this huge technological revolution. When I first came to the archive, the way that we dealt with our material was to duplicate everything, from nitrate onto what we call safety film—that's acetate or triacetate or polyester film stock—to give it longer life and have a chance of surviving. The thinking at the time was that nitrate would inherently decay. So that's how we were dealing with early film, the nitrate stock made up until about the 1950s.
Since the 2000s, we have been dealing with things in a different way because of the digital revolution. What we now do is passive conservation, which with our early material in particular—nitrate specifically—means that we reduce the temperature at which it is stored. This will give it, as far as the thinking goes and the science tells us, considerably longer life. Instead of slavishly duplicating something onto another film stock, with a concomitant loss of quality, we are storing material at subzero temperatures. We examine it every now and again and make decisions on whether or not it needs copying onto another format. And we will be digitizing stuff for access purposes as well, so there are twin things going on.
Now, of course, we have hit a wall. Film is not really going to be a long-term option in terms of preservation, so we now are looking at how we can preserve digital things forever and ever. We are not there yet, no one is, but it's where we're probably going next.
So ideally you try to keep the nitrate print if you can. How do you decide what you make digitally available? There is so much material. I know you spoke about nonfiction; is there a specific focus, and how do you decide?
How do you decide what to digitize? It is interesting. There are several programs that we have at BFI, for example. We are undergoing a big five-year program at the moment, which is called “Unlocking Film Heritage.” It is a fabulous project to really make that intervention, because cinemas can no longer show 35mm in many cases, although we keep that going as well as long as we can. So we are digitizing material so that is it available for a number of different platforms: for cinemas, for programming, for various other [classic] film shows, and so on. Also as an online platform; some of it is free to view, some of it is video on demand, behind a paywall, and so on. It will be grouped according to all sorts of different criteria. So we've got programs that are doing, say, all the Mitchell and Kenyons: they are all on there, four hundred-plus films, and they are online, free, and with a certain amount of text or context. Then we are doing things with the First World War. We are doing a big project on Britain on film, which covers the whole geographical spread of the United Kingdom, working with other archives as well. It is geomapped. We are doing various other kinds of subjects and categories.
Some of [your work] seems to be really looking at national cinemas and national histories. Are there issues or questions you think you are opening up? Or is it that you see material that is just visually interesting? How do you even decide? I imagine you deal with so much material. You know, what are you going to put online, what are you going to take to festivals, and is there a distinction? All those kinds of issues.
Yes, there are certain things that suggest themselves. As always with programming, everybody is in love with dates and centenaries. Increasingly, I live my life one hundred years ago. Everything I do is all about what was happening one hundred years ago. It is one of those magic numbers. The First World War, of course, is a massive commemoration that, very unusually, takes place over a long period of time [figure 2]. We are tracking through it, sort of almost as it was lived, from 14 to 18. So that is a very interesting and almost unique, an unprecedented kind of anniversary celebration—commemoration, I should say, not celebration—which is throwing up all sorts of fascinating material, as one would expect.
Other things are more intellectual projects. One might follow filmmakers; one might look at things that have been neglected, like women filmmakers. That is a very good case in point. We have a very active diversity policy here. So we are always looking for the unusual, the underreported film, as we go along. Then there are people's individual interests and things that come up.
In a sense, you really have to know, in inverted commas, your “canon,” to see the underrepresented. I mean, you would be seeing it all the time, you would probably be able to identify actors, actresses, people we just don't know. I myself would not know what to see.
Yes, you do have to immerse yourself in it completely. You have to have watched a huge number of films; any curator is really only as good as their knowledge of the films they have seen. So people who have been here a long time are of more value, as it were. It is not a job you can just come into and get and be good at. It is not just about talent—it is about work and having lived long enough, watched enough films.
And also having the visual memory to be able to identify. Someone might not have that specific way of looking, reading history. The way that traditionally, perhaps, the historian might have been looking for nuances of words or whatever—you see them on the screen and say, “Hey, look at this.”
And you have to have an eye for the thing that does not fit. There are those little things that are surprising: you look at a film from 1912, and you see something and go, “Wow, that should not be there,” “That's the first time I have seen that,” or whatever.
Have you got an example of a program or even a film where that occurred, that sense of engagement or surprise?
Yes. It can be all sorts of things. It can be the first time you see a particular shot. I was doing a thing on early wildlife films, for example, and there was a shot of birds in a 1909 film hovering off a cliff that looked like it had been taken with some kind of strange lens that brought them closer. Some kind of telephoto lens, perhaps. Anyway, there was a different depth of field than you would see in a film from 1909—it just did not fit in a film from that year. It was “Why is that like that?” So that makes you delve and find out. And, in fact, this filmmaker did design his own lenses in order to get his shots of birds. Because that was the way he did it, he thus unwittingly became the first to do certain sorts of shots with different types of focal length, which then went on to affect how films were made. Wildlife filming is always at the forefront of technique. If you look nowadays on TV, the place that you see innovative filmmaking will often be big-production wildlife programs or sports films—for example, a “sports personality of the year” show, where they are making a little montage film of David Beckham or something. They've got the money and the time. It was the same back then.
Does it make it easier now for you, in terms of identification, to use a computer and be able to look up images? Has that practice changed?
[It has had a] massive effect, yes, of course. Just being able to swap images with people internationally and send them a photo, or to look at a clip of a film and ask, “Do you have any idea what this is?” Chances are, somebody knows like this [clicks her fingers] because that is what they are working on. We all work on our own little national blocks; we're still in our national silos a bit because governments need to spend money on their national production. Plus, if I find something with American or Dutch intertitles, I can phone Elif [Rongen-Kaynakçi] and say, “What's this?” And she will probably know.
So there is a real collegiality.
There's a real collegiality, [and] it has massive effects. Also, [there's] the data that we can move around, which used to exist in card indexes in drawers when I first started. Just being able to swap and accumulate data, and those coincidences of things. It is very exciting. The thrill of the chase, you know, that detective work that all curators love to do—there is just much more of it now, and it's fantastic.
In terms of your own programming or how you curate film, collegiality obviously impacts that engagement or that capacity to able to locate and decide. …
To cross national boundaries a lot of the time is very, very helpful. So the Women's Film History Project is interesting for that reason. You can track [information]. We did a little piece of work on a filmmaker called Mary Murillo, who featured in one credit in the British catalogues that we've got. On further investigation by Luke McKernan, it turned out that she went to the States and became one of the highest-paid women screenwriters of the teens and '20s: this massive career we knew nothing about. There must be many more examples. …
How did you establish it? How did you figure our the details of Murillo's career?
You can now look up people's birthplaces and dates and shipping lists to find out where people went. These will tell you that somebody got on a boat and went to Canada and then ended up in New York and Los Angeles. It is all online if you look for it. It is amazing.
That is really interesting in light of what you are saying; you review, in terms of gender, what people are doing transnationally.
They were much more connected than you think. Okay, it did take two weeks get across the ocean to America, but that did not stop them, did it? They were doing it all the time, you know, and the amount of cultural connections there are among the European cities is immense. People are always popping over to Paris, Berlin, Rome, or whatever.
And now it is easier to establish or trace that. Can you say a little more about the Women's Film History Project? Where did that example came from?
Projects like the Women's Film History Project are good because they make you look. There's all this material in the archive, [and] some of it will rise to the surface because it is in a canon or because it's got some important name like Hitchcock connected to it, and so on; all those different reasons. Now when you choose to look at a particular subject area, you start to look at material that would not normally rise to the surface. There's an enormous amount of material that might be quite obscure. So outside of things like feature films, you might find people who were working in, say, education film, or science and nature stuff.
So we have [the example of] Mary Field, who is one of our great producers, who had a long, long career in film and then TV. [She was] very influential. You know, there are other films that women were making on the artistic end of things, but mainly [those were] short films, and those don't get much attention. And there's all those kinds of jobs in film, the below-the-line credits—not to knock the directors and producers and the screenwriters—maybe even the musicians or people doing other things. So it makes you really look, and then it explodes out. You might find that there are an unusually large number of women working in costume design or something, and there's some interesting relationship with the art schools, and it just expands your knowledge from there. Then you can interact with people who are working on different types of collections. So with, for example, costumes, [you can interact with] people who are studying fashion or design industries. Of course, when you show them film, they are so excited by it.
It is like the classics people or the fashion people or whatever. …
Yes, there are opportunities to engage with film, and for particular audiences, it is terrifically exciting.
In that sense, too, we have touched on transnationalism, but it is just the genuine interdisciplinarity and the histories it opens up. It does not just have to be, in inverted commas, “the history of finding female workers in the film industry,” but also of other industries like fashion. That is really interesting.
And mentally it also gives you—or opens up—a kind of past that we did not think we had. When I was a kid, there was that kind of playground talk you would get: “Oh, well, women are no good because there are no famous women painters,” yes? “There are no famous women film directors.” So they don't do film, they don't do painting, they don't conduct orchestras or compose symphonies, and so on. And I really thought that. We all did. So now we know that there were actually women painters, and they were writing novels right from the beginning, and yes, they were making films right from the beginning.
That is really interesting; that is like what you were saying before in terms of social history. You know, it makes you review [things] not just in terms of film history [but in terms of] social history. You really are opening our eyes, in a way, about the way things were. And if we decide to focus—as a film historian, I am going to write about film history—we can do that, but we can also broaden it out to social history.
You can work against a kind of auteurism, which is a real factor in why we think women don't make films. It's because of the attention that is paid to the director in the great team of people who go to make up a film. The director is one person, and yes, there are directors who are great auteurs, of course there are, but it is not everything. Particularly in early film, a director is almost irrelevant, so, you know—
That is a really interesting thing to say. I think also that your view is very generational, too, in a way. You know the auteur studies, we have all done them, they are interesting, obviously, but … you can look back and say it's not just that. That is a really good point. In terms of programming for festivals and things: do you program around directors? How do you program? Obviously you have just said that the attention that is paid to the male director can cloud women's contributions to film history, but …
Well, increasingly I think we don't program just around auteurs. We still do that, festivals still do that—they all have big central strands based on film directors and producers—but increasingly I think the interest in programs is thematic. It is a little looser, there's a little more of it, there is more material to use with the massive digitization programs that are going on. There is definitely more early stuff, so you can put together programs of shorter films a lot. It used to be very difficult and awkward to do in practical terms.
Now the shorter films—that is what your colleagues at the EYE Institute were also talking about, how much being able to use the shorter films has changed.
Absolutely, even though the work that goes into it initially is the same and is hard to do. It is just as difficult to do one film—it does not matter whether it is thirty seconds or three hours long; it still takes as much time. But the delivery mechanisms are much easier. You can do stuff on DCP [digital cinema package, the format on which most cinema films are shown]. You can synchronize music, maybe. It is so much easier. You don't have to deal with difficult projection, you don't have to deal with speed and all those kinds of things. So the world of programming has opened up for the shorter subject.
And there are things that you can bring to it that would have been almost impossible to do when I first started. Color, for example. We are now digitizing from original material so we can bring back the color. People conceive that all films before a certain time are in black and white: we can now show that they weren't. We can do early sound. We can synchronize things very easily.
In that way, it is about reaching a bigger public. It is about engaging. Not just looking differently, but engaging.
Yes, but the most exciting things for most people, the general audience, is place. This is what they really, really want to see. They want to see their high street, where they came from, their relatives or their forebears. This is a very simple thing, but people find it hugely engaging.
Elif [Rongen-Kaynakçi] was saying that about the programming she was doing in Turkey. I thought it really interesting, people coming to see where their grandparents might have lived or something. And that is what you get from those fragmented films, isn't it?
There is, in fact, a film that we have of Turkey. [It] is from a hundred years ago, of a deserted, medieval Armenian city, and of course it has a meaning to the Armenians and a different meaning to the Turks. There was a kind of supposition that it had been neglected rather than excavated, because of the problems between Turkey and Armenia, [which is] very interesting politically. We can now look at the film from a hundred years ago, we can look at pictures of the sites today, and we can make a judgment about what we think. [This is] very interesting and unusual.
And again, it allows us—in a way also forces us—to look historically, in terms of nonfiction, and at fiction too within the nonfiction. Who we are, and where we come from.
And then people absorb information from film in a very easy way, almost subliminally, which is where film is very strong. History books will tell you, “In the 1940s, women stayed at home and looked after this and this and this,” and then you see film, and you go, “There are women working everywhere! They are all working, so what's going on there?” They're not at home looking after children; [some] of them were, but nearly all of them worked before they got to that point.
And that's about working with history visually, isn't it? Like visual evidence, in the end.
You don't even need to explain it. People just absorb it, which is what I love about film.
That is a really good point. What about projects you are working on now, that are coming out?
Things that I am working on now? The whole of Victorian cinema. We have decided, in our wisdom, to digitize the whole of British Victorian cinema. It's been incredibly difficult to research because these are films that have no titles, no words of any kind; there are just simple views, [and it is] very difficult to tell who made them and when, and what [they even show]. Luckily, in Britain, a lot of work has been done on that early period by people like the Barnes brothers and Rachael Low and other people, so a lot of the films are quite well documented. For those things that you do not know anything about, it is a very difficult thing to do. But very worthwhile.
There are some joys to come because we have a number of things that were made on large formats, so that we can digitally bring back that detail. So if you blow those up big, they look spectacular. Very, very beautiful. The Lumières did this, and the Lumière Institute did some restoration of early Lumière films, and they look stunning, absolutely stunning. Because there is all that tradition in Victorian photography.
And that comes through digitally?
Yes, as opposed to the digital work that we were doing in the 1990s, where [we saw] a reduction in quality. But now you can go right back to the original piece of nitrate film and get out of it this astonishing detail. We just did a beautiful test on a film called Pelicans at the Zoo [figure 3]. It is a very simple view of some pelicans that were in the London Zoo in 1898. And it is just stunning. You can see every feather, every tiny detail, the water, and the way light refracts, and this is part of what those films were. They were intended to be beautiful, and it was all about the movement. It was an aesthetic object; it was not telling you what pelicans looked like in the zoo.
It sounds like almost an Impressionist painting, like …
It is an artistic endeavor. You know, film was a commercial product, which is why you get all those films of waves and seas, because that is what looked good on film. The movement of leaves rustling is much more interesting than a story of a man falling over or whatever.
So that is what you are doing now.
That is one of the things. And then I am restoring some big feature films: we're restoring a film called Shooting Stars [figures 4–5], made by Anthony Asquith in 1928, which is a drama—a melodrama, love triangle—set in a film studio. Which gives you all of those lovely things about how films were made in the 1920s. It is set in a real film studio, of course, so it is rather lovely.
And that brings you right up to the cusp of sound, so that is really interesting—it is really broad, what you are covering. It is a lot of years and a lot of changes. Maybe you could say something about the suffragette program.
Yes, we are also working on a big program of suffragette material. This is going to be not only the very serious nonfiction footage, newsreel footage and so on, about the campaigning, the demonstrations, the reportage about suffragette outrages—we are also looking at the fictional portrayal of the suffragette [figure 6]. Particularly in comedy, where she is a sort of stock character, almost like a pantomime character, usually middle-aged, an old battle-axe, ugly, heavyset, and open to all kinds of the usual ridicule by men that you would expect. There is a lot of role reversal, there is cross-dressing, so it is a very useful comedic character, actually, the suffragette [figure 7].
That would be fun.
It is good fun.
So will that form part of programming for a festival or an online platform?
Everything we do now, we do for an online platform called BFI Player, which is available—for rights reasons—only in the United Kingdom. You can get the information and see things like still images abroad, but you can't see the streamed footage. That is our next thing to do for the future: to try to work out how these things can be made available on an international platform, because it is absurd that you can't do that yet. It will become obvious as more stuff comes online, I think.
Will that program also be taken to festivals?
We will then produce a package for cinemas, which will be edited together with titles with music if it is wanted. That kind of thing. And then we'll do bespoke programming for festivals, which might be differently configured films for specific reasons, and custom-built for festivals that do particular programming of their own.
I like the idea of the suffragette, of having the documentation but then also the performance of it. [I like it] just in terms of what it opens up, seeing the materials or new materials that probably I have not and would not have seen, and in terms of how it changes your approaches to the subject.
Yes, because you have to entertain as well as educate and inform. Otherwise everyone will die of boredom. We mix things up so it is a pleasant viewing experience, a good dynamic, just broken up a bit.
Which it would have been at the opening of the twentieth century. You know, the idea that people were living these really boring lives, and that they really wanted to just sit and be serious, is kind of absurd, too.
No, nobody would ever program film like that, but it has been done, believe me. [It's] to be avoided if at all possible.
Thank you for that.