Kinothek Asta Nielsen: Fugitive Archives

by Gaby Babić, Karola Gramann, Heide Schlüpmann

…to reintegrate the imaginary in the reality of man.
Edgar Morin, The Cinema, or the Imaginary Man

Long before the Kinothek Asta Nielsen was finally founded in December 1999, Karola Gramann and others were discussing the need for a feminist film archive. Already by the end of the 1980s films by directors from the context of feminist, independent film work were no longer readily available—for example the early films of Elfi Mikesch. But there was obviously no public interest in such a facility. Around this time (1990s) this was also not a focus of any of the existing archives. This has clearly changed since then, as women have been able to exert more influence at the appropriate places in these archives. The archive and the policies of the Arsenal (now Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art) were an exception to this.

The Kinothek Asta Nielsen was founded in a culturally and politically favorable situation in Frankfurt am Main by a group of engaged protagonists from the film and cinema scene. The archive resulted from this. Conceived as a living archive, the Kinothek took on the task of retrieving the often neglected works of women from the archives, putting them in the cinema next to contemporary films, and thus creating a new audience for them. In the end the audience is the “archive,” by rescuing the films from petrifying in the discarded past and keeping them alive. We are working on this archive and are motivated to do so not least by a change that has been driven by the FIAF archives since the 1990s.

It is well known that the big film archives changed over the course of the 1990s. As a rule they still have a cinema. The interest in bringing film together with an audience, however, is now met by the trend toward “access,” that is, toward facilitating access to the holdings through databases and digitization. But this “access,” which has been developing since the 1990s, has meant the gradual disappearance of the opportunity to lend film prints for exhibition. On the contrary, the prints are becoming archival assets, which are preserved, but which are increasingly rarely let out of the storage rooms to head to the screen.

Up until the 90s archives were somewhat hesitant to open up to researchers. Working with the often heavy reels of film and loading them onto the viewing table was a job that demanded care and attention. This respect for the materials is no longer conveyed to today’s access users. This is a loss that also affects the joy of discovery that resurged, especially in the 1980s, when the films from an entire epoch, that of cinema’s early years, were gradually brought out of the catacombs. Holdings that had largely not been recorded, nor identified. At the time it was not only films that were being discovered, but also a cinema, which had equally fallen into oblivion: a different kind of cinema could be seen in the films.

This other cinema became the object of historical research. Outside of scholarship, however, this can potentially be recognized in every screening of early films. The experience of Early Cinema made it emphatically clear that there was more than just the one cinema, but many different ones over the decades. These have been preserved in the films. It is not only a matter of showing films, but also of allowing the cinema in them to become visible, open to our experience. When Hollywood films from the 1930s to 1950s began to be screened in independent movie theaters during the 70s, they were recognized as a “male cinema” and became the object of feminist criticism. This not only concerned the films, but also the shaping of mass cinema, which confronted the women in the audience with their absence in society, despite their seemingly growing participation there. At this time, this vision provoked an avant-garde to pull out of the cinema in protest and to set out into their political or academic spaces of filmmaking. Today the opposite is political: it is a matter of abiding with and in the cinema, a place that provides space for the perceptions and imaginations of both the films and the audience, thereby also bringing history into the present, as well as creating moments of commonality. Without such a present of history shared with others, the future, the direction of progress, remains empty.

Once again on the subject of the editors: We might say that in this sense of maintaining cinema, the cinemas in their diversity (and this concerns more than just history), we have become archivists. The circumstances of the disappearance of cinema—in its multiplicity and variety—from the cinema have made us so. Alongside the “movie theaters” there is now a variety of media in which films can be seen. But there is yet another horizon, which is not publically present. The cinemas of the present are related to the forms in which they existed in history. Opening our eyes in this direction is a task that falls to the cinemas. At the same time they provide an opportunity for those who make films today and in the future to understand the cinema anew as a site of their audience, to develop new forms to oppose the dematerialization of their perception, the loss of reality and dream.

As a rule the institutional archives are following the trend of isolating history from the present and separating it from everyday life. With the “culture of remembrance” (“Erinnerungskultur”) society is provisionally positioned in its depraved state. This shortcoming, however, obviously provokes a counter-movement of amateur archivists to oppose the emptying out of the present and to add back the history that has been removed.