On Diaspora and Informal Archives
On 26 June 2022, we hosted a panel titled Transnational Film Heritage: Diaspora and Informal Archives as part of the Cinema of Commoning Symposium. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Film as cultural heritage is not only preserved through restoration and preservation measures, but also requires screening continuity, the possibility of shared aesthetic experiences, and discursive contextualization. In transnational societies, such screenings are important for negotiating forms of community, exclusion, dissidence, and participation, and for enabling discussions around the following questions: whose cultural memory is being preserved? How do different cultures of memory relate to each other and which forms of film archiving enable a dialogical remembering that does justice to the diversity of different, sometimes contradictory, cultures of memory and tradition? What strategies and approaches might be useful in archiving films and rendering those that have not received sufficient attention more accessible? How can transnational, non-institutionalized alliances be created that operate beyond the notion of “national film heritage”?
Daniella Shreir (Another Gaze / Another Screen)
Ivan Velisavljević (Akademski Kino Klub, Belgrade)
Mohanad Yaqubi (Subversive Film, Brussels / Ramallah)Moderation:
Tobias Hering (Independent Curator, Berlin)
Tobias Hering (Independent Curator): Let us use the term “framing” as a starting point for our conversation – a core term which Daniella previously used to describe her practice On the one hand, a frame is something that you can choose to create, and that you are conscious of in your practice. On the other hand,when we enter a space, we also have to deal with frames that have already been there, that are pre-existing.I was wondering how each of you deal with the notion of the frame in your individual projects. How does the notion of the frame change meaning in a project and how do you deal with this ambivalence of creating your own frame while also dealing with the pre-existent frames while entering a space?
Mohanad Yaqubi (Subversive Film): My take on this is that we create a frame in order to be able to look at what is outside of it. For instance, each transnational relationship comes with a certain framework. If you decide to question that framing, things become challenging. The reason why this kind of work is difficult has to do more with the audience, who may need some specific information and knowledge before leaving this framework. In fact, this is the challenging part of our work, which we were not aware of earlier because we were working most of the time within the collection “Tokyo Reels”, a collection of 16 mm films gathered and safeguarded by members of the Japanese Solidarity movement with Palestine. Then, it was interesting to see how the films from the collection would interact with a wider audience who were not familiar with the framework of the collection.
Palestine is a special case in that context, because we are talking about a non-state identity, about people without a state and without a structure of archiving. We cannot have a conversation about a film archive in the context of Palestine without considering the struggles of the Palestinian people. In 1982, when the Israeli army invaded Lebanon, and suddenly the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the revolution was expelled from there, someone described this moment as an explosion; the Palestinian memory landed as fragments of images and sound frames all around the world. The question still remains nowadays: how can we build a certain identity without a state?
This has also been the main topic of the discussion we had with members of the Palestine Solidarity movement in Japan. They wanted to give me several film materials to take back to Palestine. But I told them, there is no film institute or archive in Palestine that can keep this safe. At the same time, this material belongs to you, this is part of the Japanese archives. We, in solidarity, have the right to take a digital copy of it and distribute it, but it has to stay in Japan because it reflects a certain history of the Japanese grassroots left movement. If you take that element away, they will lose a fragment of their memory.
Archives, especially institutional ones, are always created within nationalist perspectives. However, what happens when you aspire to create a transnational archive that expresses different struggles? How can we create archives that allow for different elements to coexist, assembling them not through the lenses of history but through archiving as an active practice of shaping narratives and identities? This is perhaps the way I would say we need to approach the notion of a frame.
In order to go beyond the current debates in politics we need to go across to the other side of this discussion and create new connections between different political contexts. We need to find the elements that connect Yugoslavia with Palestine, or India with Yugoslavia. For example, when you go to Dhaka, the building of the Palais de Justice clearly has some elements from Yugoslavian architecture, but then you are sitting there and no one is calling it Yugoslavian architecture. Then you go to Libya and you see the same kind of architecture there. Architecture becomes an archive, a living organism that preserves memories; in that sense, architecture itself becomes the archive of a certain practice. How can we find these commonalities and build on them in order to reach a socialist friendship that has been dismantled?
Tobias: It is interesting that you mention that the archive can be a trace of a communal idea that has been lost. Daniella, I would be very interested in hearing more about the films you feature on your online platforms, and who is creating their “framing”. I also wanted to raise the question to you: who is the community, who is the “we” we like to imagine in our practice? Who is involved and who should be involved?
Daniella Shreir (Another Gaze / Another Screen): To respond to your question, I think that it is an incredible amount of responsibility to run a platform such as Another Screen. Throughout the process, there have been many flaws and blind spots. One thing I wanted to bring up is subtitling. For example, we had Japanese subtitles for our Palestinian film series. In fact, we had Portuguese, Spanish, French, Japanese, and Korean subtitles for all of them. I realised that we have a big audience in Japan and Korea, and that there are some feminist communities in Japan who feel very underserved in terms of what they can access and see in local cinemas. However, the issue of subtitling is way more complicated as it seems. First of all, in many cases, the subtitles are done by translating English subtitles to other languages. However, as most of these films are not originally in English, the quality of these subtitles are questionable. As a translator, I have to acknowledge that I cannot control all the translations of the subtitles that are out there. What I can do is to initiate conversations with other translators about the topic of translation and subtitling so that we better understand the challenges of translation in the context of cinema; perhaps such discussions can lead to some sort of solution.
There is also a different type of work I have been doing through the feminist film journal Another Gaze, which is mainly polemical and used as a tool to provoke criticism. The bridge between Another Gaze and Another Screen is the essays that we commission, which are often very heavily sourced, contextualised and well-researched. The purpose of the essays is not to land on either side. There is an argument in many of these pieces of writing, but they are not at all litmus tests of “is this film feminist or not?” or “is this a good film or not?” This is not what interests me. For example, we commissioned a quite long essay on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a Korean-American filmmaker and writer; this essay was the first long form text focusing on this filmmaker. That means that you have an incredible amount of responsibility in such cases when, by virtue of the algorithm, this is the first piece of writing which comes up about this filmmaker. Another Screen was a way of showcasing some of the films mentioned in the essays commissioned by Another Gaze. In that way, Another Gaze and Another Screen compliment each other in their role of highlighting radical filmmaking practices that have not been showcased before.
The framing on Another Screen is not so much argument-driven. It mainly features translations of interviews that have not been online before. The research of each essay is quite different from each other. I often contact a film archive to see if they have any existing material on the filmmakers, and they often do not have anything. But then programmers often end up overemphasising the idea of rarity in order to put the onus on their own power, and I am really against that sort of logic. I am just thinking about one of the films we showed, a French feature film which screened at the New York Film Festival and was recently restored, but this film was not at all not seen at the time. However, Cahiers du Cinéma had dedicated half an issue to that film back then. I think it is really important to acknowledge that these things have often been discussed since the ‘70s, and that these films were seen across cinema clubs, although they were not documented across festivals at the time.
Tobias This is an interesting point, especially if we think about such case studies through the notions of “relabelling” or “belated labelling.” Furthermore, this idea of creating rarity and scarcity is linked to your practice, Daniella, but it is also connected to how you started historicising the collection. Historicising is an ambivalent term, but in this other context it is about re-acknowledging the history of a collection and the fact that it has already been in the social sphere, like you said, that it has been discussed and seen. This idea goes a bit against the drive of many commercial archive projects that a film is suddenly being discovered, although in reality it has been rediscovered after a long period of not being seen.
This reminds me of what Ariella Aïsha Azoulay writes in Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism. Azoulay connects the archive with the basic imperial gesture that consists in first making objects and their pasts disappear and then re-representing them as archive objects in a completely “alien” setting. I see your practice as an attempt at countering this, through research that is focusing on continuities and in reconstructing the lines of transmission.
I wanted to shift the conversation now and think about archives in relation to memory work through a transnational perspective. Ivan, you have been working with a film collection that later on became a transnational archive. Would you like to elaborate on the complexity of your work when working with the archive?
Ivan Velisavljević (Akademski Kino Klub): Regarding the film reel collection, the Yugoslav collection has been the most important case. It became transnational, as the way film practitioners were making films at the time and crossing borders was different. In socialist Yugoslavia, filmmakers were crossing borders, going from city to city to collaborate. That was considered normal at the time, it was nothing exceptional.
We also have a new collection, an ongoing collection. We have a residency programme, because the Alternative Film Archive has this collection of films from the Alternative Film and Video Festival. From this list of significant achievements, each artist can send a proposal for his or her project in Belgrade for 15 days. We have 11 or 12 films by international filmmakers from 2009 up to the present day. People come all over the world to Belgrade,and then there is a programme of 12 films. Sometimes they are focused on Yugoslav themes. For example, Salise Hughes from the United States made a film from Yugoslav home movies which was screened here at Berlinale. Then Nadine Poulain from Austria made a pure experimental film, just like a line of thunder, that has no connection with Belgrade or Yugoslavia. Andrés Denegri from Argentina, made a film with birds. When you come to the student city in new Belgrade, you will see many birds, crows, ravens – it gets really noisy. He made a film with these birds and he used the noise of aeroplanes for its soundtrack, an obvious reference to the NATO bombing of Serbia and Montenegro in 1999.
Taking into account such examples, we could argue that these contemporary transnational contexts continue to exist. It may look like a more international environment at the moment, but it was already like that in the 1980s. When you go through these catalogues, festivals and collections, you realise that a large programme of German experimental cinema was presented in the ‘80s, for example, and all these filmmakers were already there.
An interesting story is that Miodrag Milošević , Director of Photography, who was the director of the festival for a long period, said to us in 2017: “I think I am going to ask Hito Steyerl to be part of the jury”. We said, “Misha, we only have 300 euros for a fee, she is a famous artist, she is not going to come to Belgrade for 300 euros. And he says “no, no, she is going to join, because we showed her films in the 1990s.” And he picks up a VHS with her films; it says “Hito Steyerl: Five Short Films”. He then says “She knows me, I am going to call her.” Hito indeed responded and said“I am going to come to Belgrade for 300 euros and stay in a student dorm, who cares? Because you were the first ones to show my films when I was a nobody.” And she was that year listed in this British Journal as the most important person in the art world, and yet she came to Belgrade to be with us.
That said, Yugoslavia was a transnational, internationalist case. This is something that we are rediscovering now. It is important to use the term “we”, the veterans of the Cine Club, the filmmakers that created this history, versus the “I” of the archivist. We need to think more as a “we”, as a collective.
Audience comment (Borjana Gaković): For me, there is a clear link that connects curatorial practice to archive. Let us remember, for example, the programme The Invitees that Can and Malve curated about the guest workers from Yugoslavia, which was a case of counter-history writing. You do not usually find these stories elsewhere. In order to find such copies, it was important to open up another archive; it was not in Yugoslavia’s Kinoteka, the national film archive. There is a monopoly on Yugoslav film at the moment, as there is a big fight with the cinematheque in Sarajevo, which is in Bosnia. They claim parts of this film heritage, but Yugoslav’s Kinoteka says “No, we have been taking care of this and preserving copies for years so we are not going to give this to you.” It is a very complicated issue, and this is precisely the reason why it was so important to me to invite Ivan to present this alternative film archive here, which is completely different from that which is to be found in Yugoslav’s Kinoteka.
I also really admire Daniella’s project. I came across her work when I was trying to do research for a feminist film programme in Frankfurt am Main last year, Frankfurter Frauen Film Tage: Remake, a festival on women’s film history. I was doing the editing for the film catalogue and the idea was also to refer to older texts, and to make visible who was writing about these films. I have to mention that it is hard to find such texts, and it is even harder to find texts that you like and that you want them to get reprinted. Especially in the case of earlier films, most texts were written by male critics from the beginning of the 20th century, and in the end we decided on a newer text from a German journalist.
I wanted to raise the following questions: What could be considered as an archive? How is it presented? Is it an artistic strategy, or a guerilla historicizing method?
Tobias: On that note, I would like to add a question to Borjana’s comment: A possible reading of your curatorial and editorial practice, Daniella, is an acute sense of being antagonistic to something else that is powerful enough to legitimate militant practices. I would like to ask you and the other panellists, how much of your practice is influenced by antagonism?
Daniella: I think Another Gaze is extremely negative. It is a reaction to the popular enthusiasm that we see for feminism, which can be encouraging but also limiting. For example, we still talk about the notion of the female gaze, an extremely empty term to me. Of course the perception of such a term changes. When there was a discussion about the female gaze and what that could be, post-Laura Mulvey, there was a rejection of the term at that time. I think this has to do with the critical landscape as well, and the fact that criticism is no longer a viable career in any way. There have been other changes too, such as the disappearance of the editor, for example, through substack and letterbox –things which could potentially be very democratising, but then this can lead to laziness and ambivalence, and a lack of challenging approaches. It used to be the case that critics who were extremely prolific were engaging with other critics in more challenging ways – not in the way they do now on Twitter! The current turn of events also speaks to a sort of laziness in terms of language. For example, our Cecilia Mangini project was really about finding a piece of Italian writing from the period, which meant going to a library and looking for that. I think because of the Anglocentric nature of the internet resources, we often get into a loop when we talk about certain filmmakers and we end up quoting the same bad translations.
Disappointment can be invigorating and positive. In my opinion, it is all about remaining on guard. The Roe vs Wade case just speaks to our ambivalence, our resting on our laurels. Suddenly you wake up and you realise that we need to stay angry and militant.
Mohanad: In my opinion, all this has to do with this one-dimensional world we have been living in since the 1990s. One could argue that there is no antagonism in the way that we consume; we consume without considering that our consumerist actions are actually destroying another thing. We react to things without thinking about the side effects. In the case of film archives and transnational cinemas, where there is always a clear ideological statement at place, there is always an enemy, which can take shapes from Fascism, Nazism, Capitalism, Zionism. There is no narrative without a protagonist and an antagonist. If you have any type of story, from the Roman times or from the Greek times, these two elements coexist. It does not mean that one is bad or good, but it is the contrast and interactions that create narratives and trigger progress.
Ivan: In reality, the question here is: did the antagonist influence our archival practice? I think it did! In our case, we are the small transnational alternative film archive, so we are the total opposite from the big national film archive. They did influence our practice in that we did not want to be like them. If you are a researcher and you go to the big national film archive, they say, “You can watch this film, it costs 50 euros. If we are going to scan this film for you then that costs two euros per minute.” However, when a researcher comes to us, we say, “You can have this film. Do you want to copy it? Here is a hard drive. Do you want this free book? You can stay as long as you want, here’s a key.” In other words, we do exactly the opposite. Our archival practice was really influenced by not having all those obstacles that you normally have to face in the national film archive.
The second antagonists that we did not choose were the film schools. Students do not learn about such things, they do not know anything about experimental cinema. I came from a particular film school and I know the situation there, so my mission was to save the souls of these poor students who are learning that films are either bullshit or excellent. What they are mostly learning there is from the narrative film spectrum, and they have to take a stance about whether they like genre filmmaking or Bergman, Polanski, Kurosawa or whatever. This is how film schools usually work. They do not give you the opportunity to choose yourself as a filmmaker, to maybe try different things and fail; this is what you can get at a cine club. You can fail and nobody cares. It is not expensive, it is for your little community, and you can say “oh man, this is bullshit” and go and shoot another film and try different stuff. You can shoot a documentary, you can have an animated film, a found footage film, whatever. There are no exams, you do not have to please your professor. It is freedom of expression. These are two antagonists that we didn’t pick but who we fight strongly against, and we will win because it’s all about love.
Mohanad: Exactly. The question always remains,whose narrative is going to be the one moving forwards, the “perfect archive” which is locked away and where you cannot interfere with its narratives, versus the “imperfect archives” which are still in progress, a process of struggle, and of representing normal people; there are still new elements that can be added to, and which can therefore contain extra narratives and extra layers. This quality creates a tension between such an ever-changing archive versus other archives that claim to have a “complete collection” of Palestinian cinema, for example.
Ivan: Our archive is imperfect and I thought it was my fault. But now I have a concept, thank you!
Mohanad: My research is also about that, it is called “towards imperfect archives”. We have to “imperfect” all our archives somehow!
Daniella: I am now thinking of cases when a film has “bad politics.” For example, the film Mulheres da Boca (Inês Castilho and Cida Aida, 1982), which was part of Mulheres: uma outra história, Another Screen’s season of female filmmakers from Brazil. The film is about a brothel on the outskirts of Rio. The filmmakers were extremely second wave, and one can argue that it stands for a fetishistic view of sex work. However,I think that it is still important to include that film and make it accessible. We actually published it alongside an article written by a second wave feminist at the time, which also uses language that would now be considered problematic. But I think these are important lines for feminist inquiry. What do you do with films or filmmakers who have opinions that are against the current of “good” leftist thinking or against your own personal thinking?
Ivan: This is an excellent question. When we say alternative cinema, we somehow assume that all these filmmakers were leftists or progressives, but it is not like that. Many of these filmmakers were right-wing neoconservatives, or nationalists. At the moment, I have an example with one of them, who has written a horrible nationalist book on the Croatian genocide against Serbs. There was a massive extermination of Serbs in the Second World War by the Nazi government of Croatia, which is a historical fact, but the purpose of the book is to make Croats enemies, and we all know that. At the same time, he called me because he wanted to present another book on experimental cinema. I was puzzled about what to do with this request —am I legitimising his public personality? At the same time, he is an important filmmaker from the 80s. In the end, I came up with a convenient excuse and I did not go.
However, in other cases, there is a conflict between us. In the alternative movement of the 80s, a big part of the movement was against socialism. The idea of alternative cinema went against the progressive enlightenment socialist project of education and science. Nationalism was also an alternative to socialist internationalism. A lot of these alternative practices were dismantling the Yugoslav socialist project, and I have a problem with that. And this is why we always have debates and roundtables at the festival.
Mohanad: There is nothing to hate or love at the end of the day, everything is under analysis. For example, in the Tokyo reels, there was a film called Welcome to Jordan: The Holy Land. It is a film about how the Jordanian Kingdom presented the West Bank as part of their touristic sites. It is a film that I totally disagree with, but which I found fascinating, because it speaks to a certain time and way of thinking. It does not deal with notions of the occupiers, or the colonial project, but actually with the post-colonial regimes that have been active around the Palestinians. It suddenly made me realise that the 48 is not only an Israeli occupation, it is an Israeli, Egyptian and Jordanian occupation, which has been imposed at the same moment on a state that had been called Palestine for a long time. Suddenly, you had Gaza under Egyptian control, the West Bank under the Jordanians and Israel took the rest.
Looking at that film, which was made in 1964, offers an answer as to how we got where we are now. We are not talking about a static history, we are talking about a fight for narrative. And this narrative is always shifting and moving. I might end with quoting a famous Marxist slogan. If I recall correctly, Lenin said that the future is certain but the past is unpredictable.
Daniella Shreir is the founder-editor of Another Gaze – a journal of film and feminisms, in print and online – and the programmer of Another Screen, a free irregular online streaming platform highlighting films of feminist interest. She is also a literary translator from the French and in 2019 she translated Chantal Akerman’s My Mother Laughs (Silver Press).
Ivan Velisavljević studied Comparative Literature and Literary Theory and Dramaturgy. He is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts Belgrade and works as a chief media archive curator of the Alternative Film Archive at the Student City Cultural Center in Belgrade. His essays on film were published in a number of books, journals and magazines.
Mohanad Yaqubi is a filmmaker, producer, and one of the founders of the Ramallah-based production outfit Idioms Film, as well as of the research and curatorial collective Subversive Films which focuses on militant film practices. He is a resident researcher at KASK- School of the Arts in Gent, Belgium. Yaqubi’s first feature film Off Frame AKA Revolution Until Victory (2016) made its premiere at TIFF, Berlinale, Cinéma du réel, Dubai IFF, and Yamagata among fifty other premiers and screenings around the world. His second feature R21 AKA Restoring Solidarity (2022)has made its premier at IDFA and Marrakech film festival, and was awarded the Olive d’Or of the Jerusalem International Film Festival for best documentary.
Tobias Hering is a freelance curator and writer. His work focuses on thematic film programmes that deal with questions of image politics and the role of archives. Recent projects include the programme Freundschaft auf Zeit (2019) on contract work and internationalism in the GDR; The gatekeepers exist to be overthrown, a three-part homage to New York film curator Amos Vogel at the Arsenal cinema in Berlin (2021-2022); several programme series on migrant film work in East and West Germany curated for the Zeughauskino in Berlin, the Film Museum in Frankfurt and the Short Film Festival in Hamburg, as well as the lumbung film program GDR International for documenta fifteen in Kassel. Since 2018, Tobias is directing the archive-based section re-selected at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen.