An Incomplete Series of Archive Incidents, Or: Trust the Archive

by Stefanie Schulte Strathaus

Was Suddenly There

I hadn’t been in Berlin very long, maybe two years, since right after the Wall came down. It was a time when anything was possible, so together with a couple of friends I opened a small cinema in Kreuzberg. We managed to get a portable 16mm projector, which for some reason or another was temporarily kept in my shared apartment.

Alongside my studies, I earned some money in the Arsenal film archive. I sent films prints to other cinemas. The first thing I learned was how to weigh films for shipment. Films had weight.

That’s why I chose the short ones, in the lighter 16mm format, to take back home with me occasionally and watch them there. My film education began with experimental and underground films. Most of them had come to the Arsenal because of Alf Bold, a passionate collector. One day I took home a film canister with nothing written on it. I had noticed it long before, because it lay hidden between the others and no one seemed interested in it. I put the film in the projector and saw Tilda Swinton riding a bike. I watched her travel along the Berlin Wall, discovering a city that I had never seen before.

I began to research it and someone mentioned to me that Cynthia Beatt had once shot such a film with her film Tilda. I didn’t know her at the time, although she had also once worked at the Arsenal, so I called her up. She was overjoyed, she thought her film Cycling the Frame was lost. This was my first encounter with an important category in the then quite rudimentary database: WPD: War plötzlich da (eng. was suddenly there).

Curating as an Archival Practice (1)

Shortly after the creation of the Arsenal Cinema in 1970, Alf Bold began programming along with Erika und Ulrich Gregor. He can be considered one of the first to have developed a clear, curatorial signature. “Alf’s art was his programming,” wrote the film critic Amy Taubin on his AIDS-related death in August 1993. In order to get his hands on the experimental films that he wanted to show—sometimes very spontaneously—he used his networks and collected prints, including the films by the queer New York underground icon Jack Smith. In 2009, 20 years after Smith’s death, one of the administrators of the estate, Jerry Tartaglia, decided to bequest Smith’s entire film work to the Arsenal due to this history of friendship. But Smith had used most of his films in live performances, cutting and recutting them while playing music from his record collection. How should one show and archive such material, when he himself was no longer there? The question was expanded in the form of a two-part festival called LIVE FILM! JACK SMITH! Five Flaming Days in a Rented World.[1] In the first part 50 people (including friends and colleagues of Smith’s such as Mario Montez, Tony Conrad, and Penny Arcade) were invited to look at the material together, sharing their comments with each other as preparation for the second part, in which they produced their own works to create a new presence and thus a new framework for remembering the work of Jack Smith.

Curating as an Archival Practice (2)

The association Friends of the German Cinematheque (today: Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art) was founded in 1963 and began as a purely voluntary operation. In an attempt to continue the Berlin International Film Festival, which had fallen into difficulties, they were given the opportunity to establish and run the International Forum of New Cinema within the Berlin Film Festival.[2] The first Forum took place in July 1971. The focus was on films that countered hegemonic discourses, that contributed to developing a new aesthetic, and/or that provided testimony of social and political developments. Many of the films came from countries with cinematographies that were still unfamiliar internationally. From our perspective today, the most enduring idea was to keep the films in Berlin after the Forum and make them available for distribution. To this end, prints with German subtitles were made in most cases, of which many are today the only existing copies of the films. Considerable informational material was produced, not only on the films themselves, but also on the geopolitical context. The extensive audience discussions after the screenings were recorded. Over the decades this led to an archive of independent, resistant film that is unique in the world.

When Film Prints Grow Old, the Category of Heritage Comes to Light

The films were shown in many places in Germany and worldwide. This has left traces on the prints, to which came aging processes such as vinegar syndrome. It became important to ensure their continued existence. A key function in the distribution of resources for archiving, digitizing, and restoring film material is the category of heritage. As a rule, this privileges a strict definition of the concept, one that sees cultural heritage as national heritage, thus drawing the politics of film culture into the framework of the nation state. Film, however, has entered history as a reproducible medium. To whose cultural legacy does a film print belong? Is it necessarily the production background of the film that governs the heritage, or couldn’t it also be its history of reception? What role do different language versions play, that is, subtitled prints? Couldn’t the term cultural heritage also be based on the concept of responsibility through use?

What Has Happened to This Film?

Film scholar Nicole Wolf had often heard about the film Kya hua is shahar ko? (eng. What Has Happened to This City?; Forum 1988) by Deepa Dhanraj, but only after many years did she find a print of it—with German subtitles—at the Arsenal when doing research for an exhibition. Through her we found out that the Arsenal print was the only print in existence and was therefore very valuable. The collaboration led to the possibility of the film being restored, returned to India, and released as a DVD. This all led to a new public engagement with the film. In this context Deepa started talking about other films that had been created in collaboration with the film collective Yugantar, which had been founded in 1980. In her description of how they came to be—the political climate, the collaborative film work, the development of the political in the film, the understanding of feminist politics, the particular kind of public discussion that the films generated—they seemed to materialize again, even if the film material itself was at that time just on the verge of permanent decomposition. The Arsenal began to digitize these films as well. Kya hua is shahar ko? has since been a different film.

Films Can Become Friends

In September 2013 Harun Farocki came to the Arsenal office at Potsdamer Platz. Along with him was a friend of his who was carrying an old, obviously heavy leather suitcase. Harun presented him as Ruchir Joshi, a writer from India, who had shot a handful of films in the 1980s and 90s, about music, about cinema, about Kolkata. For years they had been lying in an attic in London, which was now being cleared out. Harun had suggested the Arsenal as a fitting new home for his films. Ruchir was delighted to hear that they would now be held, not only alongside those of Harun, but also in the same place as the films by an old friend, Deepa Dhanraj.

It Takes a Village to Raise an Archive

Among the things we have learned from Jerry Tartaglia, Nicole Wolf, Deepa Dhanraj, Harun Farocki, Rushir Joshi, and many others is this: Everyone that enters the space of the archive is an archivist, for they don’t take anything away, they only add something that gives life to what was already there. Over a period of two years 38 curators, filmmakers, artists, film scholars, and other researchers were invited to develop new work from the archival holdings at the Arsenal. The concept of the project Living Archive—Archive Work as a Contemporary Artistic and Curatorial Practice (2011–2013) was based on the idea that projects that uncover a need for action in their archival research can be deliberately initiated in order to discursively connect research, preservation, and publication in the context of contemporary practice. “Let a hundred Living Archives bloom!” is the title that participant Madeleine Bernstorff later gave her sub-project.

The Question Is Not What We Do With the Archive, but What the Archive Does With Us

The 38+ participants (those who were teachers brought along their students) were initially faced with a big problem when they entered the archive: where to start? Sometimes at random they took up loose threads and started working with films that they had previously known little or nothing about. The film scholar became a performer, the silent film pianist became an installation artist, the filmmaker became a host at the archive. After two years the Arsenal Archive was not what it once had been. It was alive. It quickly grew out of its old, remote location in Spandau and it became necessary to move. In 2015 the Archive moved into the silent green Kulturquartier in Wedding, a former crematorium under a preservation order. In 2025 the offices will follow, then in 2026 the cinema.

Archive is Cinema in the Spectators’ Heads

At the close of his Living Archive Residency the artist Mohammed A. Gawad from Cairo used a blue thread to tie together all the film rolls he had viewed during his stay in the summer of 2015. For several days no one could enter the archive. There was a piece of paper in front of the door, reading: “The thread allows the dweller to dive in / free fall / fast forward / go forth / forge a way through the narratives past, towards the eye of the temporal storm. A place where new time could be formulated / new relations could be forged.”

The Arsenal Archive is Nothing More and Nothing Less Than a Speck in an Archival Landscape

In 2011 Living Archive participant Filipa César found a 16mm print of the film Acto dos feitos da Guiné by the Portuguese filmmaker Fernando Matos Silva, which had been premiered at the Berlinale Forum in 1981. The story of the liberation struggle in Guinea-Bissau contains archival material that she already knew: images of statues that can also be seen in Flora Gomes’s Mortu Nega (Portugal 1988) and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (France 1983). Together with Flora and the filmmaker Sana N’Hada she had previously visited an abandoned archive with unedited film and sound material from the period of militant cinema in Guinea-Bissau. It belonged to the National Film institute INCA, which had been founded after independence in the mid-1970s. The material was to be brought to the Arsenal to be digitized there. A military coup in 2012 increased the time pressure. Later on, Filipa looked back at a change in perspective that this had created: “We had one week to organise the archive material in Bissau for the digitisation in Berlin. We would often stick several film fragments together on one reel, and because of the rush sometimes these reels ended up wrong-sided or upside-down. So they got digitised that way, and it was how we watched some of them for the first time, upside-down or backwards or both” (César and Younis 2017). Over many years Filipa invested production funds that she got as an artist in further digitization work, and the results found their way into her films and performances, thus contributing to the rescue of the archive. Flora und Sana commented on the silent material live in numerous screenings. In the end they all traveled together through Guinea-Bissau to present the material there. The mobile cinema project ended in May 2015 in Berlin and became part of Filipa’s documentary Spell Reel, which premiered at the Berlinale Forum in 2017.

Like Kya hua is shahar ko? before it, Acto dos feitos da Guiné was now also no longer just a film from the Arsenal Archive. Henceforth it existed in the presence of another archive in Guinea-Bissau. In an interview on Spell Reel Filipa later said “At some point I realised that cinema here was a channel to access a common past, not in the formatted sense of ‘opposite perspectives,’ but that actually cinema provides us with a common ground” (César and Younis 2017).

Transnational Narratives

Sana N’Hada and Flora Gomes were part of a group of young Guineans who had been sent to Cuba by Amílcar Cabral, the leader of the liberation movement in Guinea-Bissau, to study filmmaking at the ICAIC (Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos). Films connected to the ICAIC had turned up in the Arsenal Archive early on, including Por primera vez by Octavio Cortázar (1967), which won the Golden Dove Prize in Leipzig in 1968. It is a film about a mobile cinema that screens Chaplin’s Modern Times as part of a literacy drive in a remote mountain village. Santiago Álvarez came to Berlin in 1965, after his agitprop film Now! had been shown in Leipzig. Legend has it that he took his own and four other Cuban short films out from under Rudi Dutschke’s bed and gave them to the Arsenal. ICAIC also produced De cierta manera by Sara Gómez (1974), which was shown in the Forum in 1977. A German-subtitled 35mm print remained at the Arsenal. The first feature-length Cuban film by a woman director portrays life in a poor neighborhood in post-revolutionary Cuba. It remained her last film, since she died even before it was edited. There are various statements in the archives about who ultimately completed the film.

Then Let’s Reconstruct the Archive Believed to Be Lost on the Basis of Oral History

In 2014 Didi Cheeka, filmmaker, writer, curator, and inventor of the character of the “Accidental Archivist,” visited the former spaces of the Colonial Film Unit (later National Film Corporation/NFC) in Lagos as a possible cinema space for the Lagos Film Society, which he had founded. While there he discovered old film rolls. Someone had told him about us, so he got in touch. On his next trip to Berlin he brought along two small film cans. We opened them together. What we founded there was something clumped up, hardly even recognizable as film. Assuming that the other reels were probably in this same state, he suggested we could reconstruct the entire archive on the basis of oral history. An archive beyond its status as object. We went to Lagos and examined the material with the portable equipment that had been built for Filipa’s research in Guinea-Bissau. When the security staff at the NFC who was watching over our work saw that the material contained real images from Nigeria’s history, they told us what they recognized there. They became archivists. We learned that a majority of the holdings had been brought to Jos in the northern part of the country a few years before. The NFC invited us to visit the National Film, Video, and Sound Archive there. It contains negatives and positives in significantly better condition. Among the film reels Didi discovered the title Shaihu Umar by Adamu Halili from 1976, which had been considered lost. At first without any reference material, but then finally on the basis of stories about the story that was supposed to be the basis for a film that everyone only knew from stories,[3] the Arsenal decided to digitally restore it. More film reels were meant to be digitized on site, for which a scanner was installed in Jos. I traveled to Jos again with Vinzenz Hediger to take part in a conference on the topic of “cultural heritage.” An event with consequences: on October 23, 2019, the University of Jos and the Nigerian Film Institute (NFI) opened the first master’s program in film archiving and film culture in Africa with the support of the DAAD. From then on there has been a close partnership between those institutions, the Master’s program “Film Culture: Archiving, Programming, Presentation” at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, the NFC, the National Film, Video and Sound Archive in Jos, the Lagos Film Society, the Arsenal, and the DFF—Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum in Frankfurt. Alongside this the abandoned cinema of the former Colonial Film Unit has been renovated. Shaihu Umar had its Nigerian premiere there as part of the Decasia Film Festival, curated by Didi Cheeka, nearly 45 years after it was made.

Elective Affinities

Family Affairs is the title of a series of video conversations made by the writer and filmmaker Dorothee Wenner as part of the project Living Archive. She met with people who could tell about how individual films had found their way into the Arsenal Archive. Family Affairs is also the title of a film series and publication on Georgian cinema. Focusing on film countries is something temporary, it makes no claim to any attributions to the nation state, but shifts the focus to a place where something is in motion at a particular point in time or in a certain phase. Erika and Ulrich Gregor showed a continual interest in Georgian cinema, and the complex relationship between Georgian and Soviet cinema certainly contributed to this as well.

There’s a Strong Wind

Beihing de feng hen da / There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing is the title of the debut film by Ju Anqi, made in 1999, shortly before the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. Equipped with a 16mm camera, he takes to the street, asking the inhabitants of Beijing about the wind conditions in the city. The 50-minute film shows everything that was filmed, leaving nothing out. For the screening as part of the 30th Forum in 2000 a 16mm print was smuggled out of the country in candy tins. This print was provided with German subtitles and can be found today in the collection at the Arsenal. Shortly thereafter the director gave another copy with English subtitles to the Arsenal for safekeeping. It became possible to give this print back to Ju Anqi in 2013, who by that time was living in the USA. There’s a Strong Wind is also the title of an archival project that works with clips from the many films that found exile in the archive of the Arsenal as a safeguard from bans and censorship in many parts of the world.


In 1989, just a few months before the opening of the Berlin Wall, Erika and Ulrich Gregor were interviewed for a focus in the 19th Forum with documentary films on the crimes of the Nazi period. They spoke about the burden of proof, which by that time had become so overwhelming that no one could look away from it anymore. The process of the collective past had finally, albeit slowly and hesitantly, gone through certain necessary stages. At the time Ulrich Gregor emphasized that presenting these films was also based on a quite personal engagement, which stemmed from his own history, namely the decisive experience of the postwar period, which consisted in being confronted with the true degree of the crimes of the Nazi period. Asynchron was a restoration project and film program which took place in 2015 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The title was an expression of an ever-growing time gap. Digital restorations were intended to keep films alive, which, in view of the fact that there are fewer and fewer contemporary witnesses, increasingly have to take on the role of witness.

An Archive is Never Complete, nor Is a Restoration

Some of the prints that have stayed with us from the Forum are longer than the versions that were later released in cinemas and that have entered into film history. Does this make an archive more complete or less so? As part of the project Living Archive, the group Entuziazm[4] attended to the, in their terms, non-film Org (1967–1978), by Fernando Birri. For many years it only turned up, if at all, in a 104-minute version. After a retrospective of his films at the Kino Arsenal in 1991 Birri left behind a print of the almost three-hour, excessive work in the archive, which served as the starting material for a digital restoration in 2017. Shortly thereafter a negative turned up at the Instituto Nacional de Cine y Artes Audiovisuales (INCAA).

In 2000 the Sudanese filmmaker, painter, and poet Hussein Shariffe (1934–2005) began working on his last film Of Dust and Rubies. Shariffe filmed at locations in Egypt, where he had lived in exile for 10 years due to his stance toward the Sudanese regime. His sudden death brought the film to an abrupt end. In 2018 a group of five people—including Shariffe’s daughter Eiman Hussein as well as the lead actor Tala Afifi—came together to discuss whether the work of this exceptional filmmaker could be digitized, restored, or even completed.[5] This resulted in a lecture-performance as part of Forum Expanded, from which in turn emerged the film Of Dust and Rubies, a Film on Suspension (2020) by Tamer El Said.

You Want to Be a Cinema? Then You Have to Build up an Archive

Even before the Egyptian revolution a group of young filmmakers in Cairo conceived a plan to open an independent cinema. The need for film education, exchange, and debate became all the more clear when a better future seemed to be looming on the horizon. In 2015 I traveled to Cairo for the opening, carrying two new 16mm prints in my luggage as a gift. Both films came from the group that Alf Bold had collected: Sailboat by Joyce Wieland (1967), which I remembered during a felucca trip on the Nile and which says in the title what can be seen in the image, and (nostalgia) by Hollis Frampton (1971), in which the spoken text describes images that can only be seen in the following shot, until they lie burning on a hot plate while the next image is already being described. Both experimental films were confiscated at the airport on my entry to Cairo.

One day the famous documentary filmmaker Atteyat Al Abnoudy stood at the door, offering her personal inheritance, consisting of her own films, which she had shot in Egypt in the 1970s and 80s, films that she had collected, and a paper archive, to the Cimatheque—Alternative Film Centre, which by then had opened. When Cimatheque co-founder Tamer El Said informed her that they were running a cinema and not an archive, she responded: “But you should be!” History has proven her right: Trust the Archive.


César, Filipa, and Ala Younis. 2017. “Spell Reel. Interview” Berlinale Forum 2017. Accessed June 1, 2023.


[1] LIVE FILM! JACK SMITH! Five Flaming Days in a Rented World was a cooperation with HAU—Hebbel am Ufer (September 2009), curated by Susanne Sachsse, Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, and Marc Siegel.

[2] The International Forum of New Film is often shortened to Forum. Today it is called the Berlinale Forum.

[3] The future Prime Minister of Nigeria, Tafawa Balewa, wrote the novel Shaihu Umar in 1955. It was used as school reading for many years. The fact that there had been a film version since 1976 was known, but the film was never available to be seen, it disappeared immediately after its first and only screening.

[4] The group ENTUZIAZM. Freunde der Vermittlung von Film und Text e.V. was founded in Berlin in 2007. It was dedicated to preserving and disseminating film educational text and film format from the past and present. The founding members included Michael Baute, Volker Pantenburg, Stefan Pethke, and Stefanie Schlüter.

[5] The group was made up of Talal Afifi, Eiman Hussein, Haytham El-Wardany, Tamer El Said, and Stefanie Schulte Strathaus.