The Archive/Our Archive

I recently received the filmography for the MA program I will be starting in the fall. Now, this list is not what films we will be watching in the courses, but rather films with which we are expected to be familiar before beginning; the unofficial “canon,” as it were. (I listed it in its entirety here.)

The director of my program was remarkably forthright about the process of deliberation involved in developing the list. As she writes”

What you have in this list”¦ is a laying bare of the academic process: the discussion, the argument, and the compromise that go into reaching consensus on documents and policies. Some members of the faculty feel that this filmography should represent the very best works in the history of cinema, a roster that has been determined by the practices of archives, cinematheques, critics and scholars. Others feel that this roster, or canon, necessarily favors a conception of film history that, though well established, marginalizes or occludes significant voices and visions–of women, people of color, people of different class positions, colonial and post-colonial subjects, non-Western (or non-Northern) filmmakers, queer artists and publics, amateurs, etc. “¦ Still other faculty members feel that the very idea of a list of films makes a fetish of the textual object at the expense of understanding how the practices that surround the production, circulation, and consumption of cinema and other media serve different social, cultural, or discursive groups and subjects. These faculty members would prefer no filmography at all, or at least no simple list of film texts.

I appreciated the way in which the list was presented; that is, with an acknowledgement of the divisive nature of filmographies, canons, rosters, etc. But nonetheless, we were still presented with a list, and one that overwhelmingly favours the work of white, Western, male creative voices.

The list’s delivery has curious timing. I had just finished reading Radha Vatsal’s excellent essay “Reevaluating Footnotes: Women Directors of the Silent Era,” in A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema. Vatsal focuses on the historiography of the cinema, and showcases how contemporary ways of discussing and archiving filmic material cannot always account of the variances and discrepancies in cinema’s past. Names were often changed from film to film (and print to print) or abbreviated to the point of confusion ““ does “Edw.” stand for “Edwin” or “Edward”? Moreover, there is a profound discrepancy in current and past paramaters in filmmaking roles; to determine the differences between the “Writer” and the “Scenarioist” in early films would be nearly impossible. The role of director, or otherwise “author” of a film, was also flexible. As Vatsal points out, many of early director Alice Guy’s films did not carry her name, but rather that of her production company Solax. Furthermore, Mary Pickord was widely known to yield an enormous amount of creative decision-making power on her films, but is never credited as director.

I do not have a tacit problem with the list provided by the program. The fact remains that the films chosen are important, defining works in cinema’s history. We cannot alter the past to include more female filmmakers. They were few and far between, as were women in many professional settings; this is not a matter exclusive to the cinema. Nor can we, in retrospect, declare an Alice Guy film as important to the development of editing practices as Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1911). But we can take the time to acknowledge these female voices, take them seriously, include them in our discussions, and encourage the growth and nurturing of new voices in the future of cinema.

Control of the archive spans the scope of cinema’s history, and is a symbiotic relationship between what was included and preserved in the past, and what is studied and discussed now. As Vatsal herself notes, “Every filmography, whether or not it makes this explicit, summarizes both the history of a film, as material and textual object, and the preoccupations of those who researched it.” One of my new favourite blogs is the sublime Of Another Fashion. Author Minh-Ha T. Pham recently quoted Jacques Derrida, who stated, “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory.” As her blog showcases, this control of the archive need not exist within the boundaries of “officiality” and “the academy.” It can grow and flourish, and arguably reach a much more diverse audience, in unofficial channels. It is with this understanding that I hope to embark on my further studies. We cannot change the past, but we can rethink it, reevaluate it, and face the future with far more wisdom.

This post can be read in its original context here, on filmschooled’s tumblr.

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