Saving Cinema: The Politics of Preservation
New York, Oxford University Press, 2011
(Review copy supplied by Oxford University Press)
Compared to the vast quantum of cinema literature, books on film archives and the preservation process are relatively few, and those that concentrate on the history and politics of archiving – as opposed to its practicalities and technicalities – are fewer still. This makes Caroline Frick’s book a valuable resource for those who want to do more than take the existence of archives for granted, and to understand how and why film archives developed, how they interact, and how their policies and worldviews have evolved and are still evolving. Though we usually do not think of it in these terms, archiving is an inherently political process: in choosing what to keep or reject, a statement is made. As the blurb says: “archivists do more than preserve movie history; they actively produce and codify cinematic heritage”.
Today, the professional field of audiovisual archiving embraces moving images and recorded sounds in all their forms, including film, broadcasting, audio and new media. Some institutions, like Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), embrace the whole spectrum, while others major on specific parts of it. Frick’s conceptual focus is limited to the traditional film archive, as first defined at the national level by FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives) in the 1930s, and as much later modified to fit more localised endeavours, as particularly represented by the regional archives within Britain’s Film Archive Forum, and the largely North American-based Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), which is built around individual rather than institutional membership. Frick considers how the politics have arisen and still arise in the relationships between archives, and in turn their relationships with film industries; in competing professional philosophies; in securing public support and funding; in the relative prioritisation of preservation versus access; in discerning and managing the differences between “distribution” and “preservation” collections; in selecting what does and does not get saved; in revisiting standards in the digital age; and in debates about the relative political advantages of characterising film as ‘heritage’ – as opposed to art, entertainment or instruction.
Two examples will illustrate. Frick analyses the well known and well documented clash between two of FIAF’s founding fathers, Ernest Lindgren and Henri Langlois. The studious Lindgren was the curator of Britain’s National Film Archive, and the mercurial Langlois the head of the Cinémathèque Française. In simple terms, their worldviews are perceived as representing the dichotomy between preservation and access. However, Frick goes on to demonstrate how Lindgren’s organised and scientific preservation-oriented approach became the pervasive global influence in the field. Moving to the United States, she then traces the delayed beginnings of what is now the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress (arguably, today, the largest public audiovisual archive in the world) and documents how its evolution was mired in the competing worldviews of film enthusiasts and book-oriented professional librarians. The enthusiasts eventually won.
Those familiar with the pattern of audiovisual archiving in Australia will find many resonances in the book. Even at such a geographical distance, Lindgren’s historical influence on the philosophy and character of the NFSA is still palpable, and the tensions which led to its separation from the National Library of Australia in 1984 were not a world away from those in Washington, even if the circumstances and outcomes were different. Yet although Australia has long since gained a significant place in the global field, it is oddly characteristic of this and other histories of the movement (such as Penelope Houston’s classic history of FIAF, Keepers of the frame) that it barely rates a mention. For example, Frick makes passing reference to the NFSA’s Last Film Search of the 1980s as an influential global model, without actually identifying the project by name, nor the institution which devised it.
This obliqueness is a curious quirk of the book. While many people and institutions are named, just as many are only indirectly referred to. The reasons for this diffidence are unclear, since in many cases a diligent reader could identify these people and bodies with little difficulty. More seriously, there are inaccuracies and omissions which suggest inadequate research. FIAF’s rules are admittedly complicated, but the book gets the chronology of important rule changes wrong. Again, Frick talks about UNESCO “signing up to” the World Heritage Convention, and its importance to the film archive movement, apparently unaware that UNESCO created the World Heritage Convention, and that it has nothing to do with film – it protects natural sites and historic buildings. It is other UNESCO instruments, its “Memory of the World” program, and its World Day for Audiovisual Heritage that are the points at which UNESCO aids archiving, but these are not mentioned.
Nevertheless, the virtue of the book is that Frick’s approach offers a fresh perspective on film archiving history and, at least to this reader, provided some important new historical data. It is a worthwhile addition to a still meagre array of works which provide historical context to the growth of the archiving movement and I would commend it to all who use and value audiovisual archives.