Action-based Archivism: A Conversation with Mareike Bernien, Madhusree Dutta and Merle Kroeger

by Mareike Bernien, Madhusree Dutta, Merle Kroeger, Alexandra Schneider

Archives are ambiguous things. As Sylvie Lindeperg and Ania Szczepanska remind us, “from the first appearance of moving images … cinematographic archives were envisaged as tools of knowledge and progress, and, at the same time, as instruments of control” (2021, 24). An audiovisual archive is both a promise and a predicament.

Documentary filmmaking is, among other things, an archival practice. Documentary filmmakers draw on archives, and they create archives in the course of their research and through their films. Mareike Bernien, Madhusree Dutta, and Merle Kroeger are three artists and documentary filmmakers who have collaborated in various constellations over the last two decades. Most recently, they have created works that can also be described as archives, more specifically as digital archives which, viewed individually and taken together, open up a virtual space between Germany and India, and raise important questions about the role of digital archives in shaping the possibilities of cinema.

The first of these projects is The Fifth Wall (Die fünfte Wand, 2021) by Merle Kröger and Mareike Bernien, a curated online repository that documents the work of journalist Navina Sundaram for German television. Navina Sundaram started working for German television in New Delhi in the early 1960s and came to Hamburg in 1964. For four decades she worked as reporter, presenter, filmmaker, and editor in Germany and abroad for North German Broadcasting (Norddeutscher Rundfunk/NDR), documenting current political events. In the 1990s she went back to Delhi as German TV’s India bureau chief. Sundaram was a familiar face for German TV audiences, and precisely as such an agent of “subliminal enlightenment,” as Sonia Hegasy (2023) put it. With a selection of her films from the NDR archives, photographs, letters, and other writings, The Fifth Wall puts Sundaram center stage as an author, journalist, and intellectual who situates and positions herself on key issues of decolonization, class, racism, and migration, with a view to both Indian and German politics. What stands out in Sundaram’s work, as Ankan Kazi (2022) writes, “is its radical and subversive potential for re-thinking a media history of the globalizing world, as it tried to infuse the politics of the newly decolonizing world—from South Asia to South America—with the insular frames of German television.”

In a similar vein Madhusree Dutta has recently co-curated two digital archives based on work that started within Majlis Culture Centre in Mumbai in 1990-2016. The first of these centers on the Majlis Culture Centre[1] and the second on the Project Cinema City[2]. Those two digital archives are now placed into public domain, and they arrive at a crucial moment not just in India’s political history. Together, they foreground the secular legacies of collective thinking and independent filmmaking beyond the customized and hegemonic media of India’s current nationalist and populist politics.

Alexandra Schneider: As artists and documentary filmmakers, to what extent do you understand yourself also as archivists, and what is your take on the changing role of archives and archiving?

Madhusree Dutta: Well, it’s a very general thing: Has our sense of archiving or our purpose of archiving changed in recent times? What was the earlier concept? Was it preserving, like in the basement of a church or a synagogue, where everything was deposited? That was a kind of vault. A collection of materials, with no knowledge of the kind of reaction it would create, or no desire to know, or to decide. Maybe that has changed, because archiving today is more about the present, it is action based.

Now, here comes a question. When we work with collections now, are we trying to control them, then? Are we already trying to decide who will use them, and what kind of usage is allowed? I am being the devil’s advocate. Somebody might criticize us and say, “Okay, you want like-minded people to visit your archive. You want to preconceive the way history is to be revisited.” Obviously, we have an idea of what kind of revisitation we are hoping for. We do not want to decide what will be written, but orient what kind of things will be written or made out of it.

So first of all, a collection is made with an agenda. It’s not open vault. It is an agenda. If we take The Fifth Wall: it is about Navina Sundaram, who in the 70s to 90s, in West Germany, was part of the public sphere of media. All these things are first given, and only then is the archive built. The archive is not built on TV, or on news, or even public media. It is about Navina Sundaram’s particular position. Once that is decided the action is predicted too. In that sense, the future users are decided.

Merle Kröger: I do not see myself as an archivist, but I see myself as a documentarist, as you also do, Madhu. We always have dealt with very delicate moments. I have become a documentarist because very early on I became interested in the complexity of a place or an event, and the multi-perspectivity of an event. I am always interested in really exploring it, in feeling it. It’s not about simply showing an event.

I do not see myself as a detective, someone who tries to solve the riddle of hidden or forgotten stories. But as I was making documentaries, I realized that I always tried to bring up different versions of an event, or of a place, or even of a biography. I am more interested in the plurality of versions than of one story, which always suggests completeness, which I don’t think exists. That’s one thing.

I’m not a historian either, but the older I get, the more I feel that I am also becoming an archeologist of my own lifetime. While I’m alive, already history is being formed by others. So, I want to have a voice in this. I want to be one of many who can add to this building of history.

The Fifth Wall is a project like this. My generation grew up with only three television channels. And in my family, there was only one newspaper. There was a certain hierarchy of truth, which expanded as time went on. Now I suddenly find myself in the position that I might be able to add a voice to this construction of history. That’s when I start archiving. But I would never say, I create an archive—a collection is probably indeed a better word.

Mareike Bernien: I would also not consider myself an archivist, but I work a lot with archival material in my films. I am an experimental and documentary filmmaker. Sometimes the archives are there at the beginning of a work as I use them for research purposes. Sometimes I also use archival footage to re-read images, and to re-read archives against their grain. Most recently, for example, I made a film on the Wismut Company (Sun Under Ground, together with Alex Gerbaulet, 2022), which was mining uranium in Saxony and Thuringia during GDR times. We worked with the company’s archive, but also against it.

I am coming more from a perspective that tries to deconstruct archives or intervene into archives. For me, the project of The Fifth Wall was something new because it was about building up a collection as a positive form, so to speak. It was not just about deconstructing history, but also about re-constructing history, and reconstructing history in a fragmented way through a specific gaze and situatedness that Navina is providing for us.

This brings me to the question of control, but also of the openness of an archive. For Merle and me, it was really important to contextualize the television works of Navina and not simply to put them online. We wanted to create a context and an attentiveness and thereby make them readable in a certain way. So we contextualized the work on the one hand through the material she was providing to us, as she was an archivist herself, archiving all the manuscripts, all the correspondences, letters she wrote to her parents. We created a structure in which the 66 films are at the center. And around these films, there are conversations, documents, interviews we conducted with Navina, and also commentaries by guests, who re-read these films in an actualized framework.

AS: Mareike and Merle, in the context of the Grimme prize nomination, you wrote: “We see this project as a model of a future archival practice. Such practice understands the archive as a space that depicts (media) history not as a narrative of domination, but as a mesh of diverse—also contradictory—historical narratives that generate resonances in the respective present.” Could you share some insights into the making of The Fifth Wall? Merle, how did you actually get to know Navina Sundaram?

MK: Actually, I got to know Navina Sundaram through Madhu. She wrote to me: “Do you know this woman who was so important in German TV, and she’s an Indian?” Madhu triggered a memory, and the memory was a person of color, a presenter of the Weltspiegel, which is a television program of the ARD about things happening outside Europe. There was a real memory of having seen her on television, but that memory had already faded. Navina and me, we then collaborated for the first time in 2004. I always thought about how to depict her story and make it visible without turning it into a single story—I wanted to keep its multi-perspectivity. For a while I thought about making a documentary, but then Navina was very sick, and the possibilities of shooting were getting more limited. As I became a writer and had access to publishers, I also thought about writing a biography. I wanted to link her story to other stories, like the stories of two women who influenced her life very much: one is Amrita Sher-Gil, the Hungarian-Indian painter, and then Hedwig Dayal, a reform teacher, who migrated from Germany to India because she was persecuted by the Nazi government.

Through the fact that none of the publishers even knew the name Navina Sundaram, I became aware that her story had been completely silenced by the public television ARD in Germany, by media history, and also by migrant history, not least because she was not part of a community of migrants. She called herself a first-class migrant. Navina went directly into a center of power, which was the TV newsroom. She was actually a very lonely person in the places she occupied in her life and not part of a movement, as you could say.

I realized that we had to create a space for the complexity of her work and life in which she was not alone anymore, in which we connected her as Mareike just described it. This was why we decided on this special form in the end. I didn’t want to show excerpts from her films, I wanted to show her complete films as a body of work, and I wanted to open the archive of the NDR and get my foot in it, and then use my torch to put light on a shelf where nobody had ever looked before. But I had no idea how to do this. Mareike came at exactly the right moment and brought a lot of fresh discourse the project.

At one point we tried to create criteria for our selections. We always tried to avoid being anecdotal. Whatever was anecdotal, we tried to keep out because we always wanted to look beyond Navina as a person, as a very important person of course, but we wanted to keep the way free for her way of looking into the world, for the structurally interesting parts of the correspondence, for example, with the TV audience, not so much to tell anecdotes.

MB: For me it was important to set the films at the center, and let the films guide me and see if there were resonances to documents or correspondences. The selection process was also based on our subjective gaze; it was really exciting when Merle read me some letters and I was showing her manuscripts, or the lectures Navina had given. We did not know until then that she was also an excellent writer; from the ‘60s, ‘70s she had been writing articles for newspapers, or she gave lectures. These lectures give an insight on her own thoughts on feminism, development policies, and other topics. As Merle said, on the one hand we were somehow fumbling in the dark, but at the same time, we shared and exchanged. We were drowning in data. I always called it a big data project, which was way too much for two persons. But at the very end, just when some of the digital architecture of the website was available, we started to puzzle bits and pieces together and things started to make sense.

AS: Madhu, the two digital archive projects you recently have been involved in might help us to better understand that the audiovisual archive indeed is both a promise and a predicament. In the case of India, be it under colonial or BJP-governance, the idea of the state taking care of documents, or archiving is nothing promising. There is no trust at all, to say the least, in state-funded archives. But then there is an urgent need to keep traces of what the BJP has destroyed and made invisible. Could you please say something about the challenges of your action-based digital archives?

MD: On there is a page called Kashmir, but there is nothing on that page. We worked for ten years to develop an image archive on Kashmir. It’s called “Public culture in 1990s in Kashmir.” Kashmir, as you know, is very contested today. But earlier it was perceived as very picturesque, a more beautiful place than Switzerland. So, Kashmir was overrepresented, but always by others, even if the person behind the camera was a Kashmiri, the perception was always of the others—of the beautiful and the innocent. Which it is not, it has a very complicated political history, even before the 1990s—known as the period of insurgency. Kashmir is poor, and earlier nobody had access to analogous means to make images. So the images of Kashmir, in media and news, were always made by others. In the 1990s insurgency, the political movement for autonomy started. And at the same time, digital media came into the valley, and suddenly there was a mushrooming of video editing studios. I remember coming from Bombay, which is supposed to be the media capital, and yet I have never seen so many video consoles. So suddenly there was an eruption of images made by the local people. Nobody noticed it because there was such a strong political movement going on. But as accidental archivists, we were interested in that. We started collecting these images from video magazines, photo studios, media schools, etc. Yet we were also embarrassed to go to Kashmir and make any loud interventions because we did not want to do disaster tourism. So we were sort of tentative and our collection was not really very proactive. It is a long story, but I am just mentioning it here to understand the problem of fragile archives. But the news spread that we were interested in images made by Kashmiris. So one day a man, a photographer with a daily newspaper in Srinagar, came with a huge sack, and said “Take it.” I asked, “What is it?” And he said that these were photographs from the last ten years, which had appeared on the front page of the newspaper, taken by him. “But why are you giving us the hard copies? We’ll digitize them,” I said. He responded: “Take it because I am unable to keep it. Tomorrow, the state may come to my house and find these photos. They will not listen to me that this is my job. This may get me in trouble. But I don’t want to destroy them. You take them.”

So we took the resources out of the land. Will we be able to make it accessible to all people? Should we do that? Or should we be careful about who can see these photos? What does Commons mean in this case? Once we take the material away from its source will they be still available to people who really should own or access them? Should we credit the photographer as the author of these images? Or should we erase his name in order to protect him? Will that be right?

We still have not resolved it. 7,000 photos are still lying in a locker. They are not in the digital archive. That page has only lots of blacks and blanks to indicate the erased material or the material too risky to show. But think about it—the aforementioned images once were published in a daily newspaper. But 20 years later, you are hesitant to release them. This is self-censorship. The state may come on me, on him, in this political situation it seems like a high possibility. But actually, the state may not even come. But we are doing it ourselves. Is it responsibility? Is it being overly cautious? Self-censorship? I do not know.

So, we might say that the archive-action in this case is to highlight the absences. Highlight the gaps, highlight what is erased. And maybe we are also erasing it in some way or other by insisting on highlighting the vacuum. Yet we are not a pocket-sized Wikipedia, the blanks are as important as the entries. And that is part of the curated archive-action, I would say.

MB: In our case, when we talk about gaps, we are not talking about The Fifth Wall, we talk about the gaps of the archives of public television in Germany, which are financed by tax money but are by no means public. So, the first big obstacle we were confronted with was the fact that the archives of German television are not accessible, unless you are a researcher, or you invest a lot of money for copying purposes. And then you also have to be lucky that the material you are looking for still exists because a lot got deleted. So to talk about gaps, we have to address the gaps, erasures, and inaccessibility of German television archives.

And this is also why we call our project a door opener: to actually open the archives of public television and extract a specific collection to highlight a view, which might otherwise disappear. In that sense, our archive or collection is actually an extraction of a much bigger and institutionalized archive. This is the first gap or the first lack we were confronted with. At the same time, you also find a lot of traces in our collection of things that are not there. For example, there’s a letter where Navina talks about a film she did on Bertolt Brecht, but the film is not in the archive because it might have been deleted. So she actually produced a lot, lot more than what is represented in our collection. And there are little traces, glimpses of other work.

AS: In the context of The Fifth Wall you Mareike once coined the term “archival care practice” for your work—could you please elaborate a bit on this intriguing concept. How would you describe it, what is specific about this approach?

MB: For us, taking care is not just providing care for documents. Although there was a lot of invisible labor involved while gathering the collection: digitization, clarification of rights, cutting out the paper documents in a very accurate manner because we also wanted to keep their materiality. Taking care, on the one hand, was about taking care of the documents: sorting and organizing content, but also caring about. We actually care about the history of Navina Sundaram and the place she took in German television as a very extraordinary figure. We wanted to highlight this position, which is shaped through a perspective of migration and through her gaze, re-read German television history.

Besides this, I was also wondering if one can consider the archive itself as a caretaker? As if the archive is involved in processes of reproductive labor by providing specific observations, views, and demands of the past and thereby enables us to set them in relation to the present. This might remind us to see things with more complexity, to see the supposedly known as something unknown and unfamiliar, and that many things from back then are still just as relevant today, such as structural racism in Germany. The archive thereby creates the basis for a critical work on history and the upcoming future as it allows us to research, to remember, to connect.

MK: Or just by being not invisible anymore. This is also an act of resistance, isn’t it? You tried everything to make us silent, but here we are. And that’s why it’s so important. Stefanie Schulte Strathaus once said: films can be friends, but archives can also be friends.

MD: Merle, an idea, and only a novelist can handle that idea. It’s not a documentary maker’s idea, so it’s up to you—say, a major collapse happens on the internet, and one page from one archive becomes the next page of some other archive in some other country and the third one from wherever. And so what happens to world history? It’s a novel time.

MK: It’s a nice scenario, and it’s much more interesting than just that “we have to protect” our archives.

MD: It’s like decolonial nation making. You make the nation, but at the same time you break it too.

The conversation took place online on August 11, 2022.


Hegasy, Sonja. 2023. “‘Out of Marginalisation, Into the Mainstream.’” Qantara, April 18. Accessed June 2, 2023.

Kazi, Ankan. 2022. “Decolonizing German Television: The Fifth Wall and the Media Legacy of Navina Sundaram.” ASAP | art, December 14. Accessed June 2, 2023.

Lindeperg, Sylvie, and Ania Szczepanska. 2021. Who Owns the Images: The Paradox of Archives, between Commercialization, Free Circulation and Respect. Lüneburg: meson press.


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