Cross-Fading Archives, Resurfacing Infrastructures: The Cinema Historian as Accidental Archivist and Activist
A recent Italian research project—“MMC49’76: Modes, Memories and Cultures of Film Production in Italy” (1949–1976)—allocated its whole first phase to taking a census of, collecting, and organizing archival sources (Comand and Venturini 2021a). Looking back at this first research stage, the aim of this article is to reflect on the relationships between historical archival incidents or “accidents,” research infrastructures, and the role of the different archival, scientific, and corporate communities at stake.
Among the primary sources investigated, three archival records (fonds) in particular stimulated our academic work and placed the scholars involved in an unexpected activist framework: the Italian film production archival series (1949–1994) housed at the Central State Archive (Archivio Centrale dello Stato, ACS); the Italian Film and Audiovisual Industry Association (Associazione Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche Audiovisive Digitali, ANICA) historical archive; and the online Italian Cinema (Archivio del cinema italiano) database, first put together at ANICA in 1987.
Over time, these collections have become cross-fading archives: documents and data in transition, fading because they are not catalogued (the ministerial fonds); they have been moved and taken apart (the corporate archive); or they now have different or limited ends to their original purpose (the database).
These turning points could be defined as archival “accidents,” which the research group dealt with by seeking to distinguish between what can be grasped on a surface level and what goes deeper down, in other words the “archival grain” (Stoler 2009). They are the upshot of circumstances or unexpected complications resulting from epistemic, socio-economic, industrial, and technological transformations and therefore pragmatic decisions: to separate Italian and co-produced films in the day-to-day management of ministerial files, thus creating a second marginalized and for a long time invisible series at the ACS; to safeguard a corporate archive that may have been at risk of disappearing by moving it to another location; to reset the primary function of a database from historic and scholarly ends to economic and accounting purposes.
Traditional archives such as those discussed in this essay (a state archive, a corporate archive, a pioneering database) would not seem to call for critical or activist frameworks, or radical rethinkings of canonical archival forms. And yet, we immediately thought of these archives as “communal resources” requiring the engagement of several stakeholders (Paalman, Fossati, and Masson 2021). Therefore, our solution was to come up with a stewardship responding to a range of needs rather than the requirements of single projects or scholars. It was an approach based on concrete archival cross-connections and the role of communities in reactivating the archives (historians, archivists, industry professionals, state officials, data managers, and visual designers).
The research group therefore found itself working together in a communal space in the role of activists and accidental archivists shaping the future of historical research and the collective imagery and storytelling of some of Italy’s most important twentieth-century industrial heritage. In particular, the team realized that these archives were not necessarily a static system of knowledge from the past. Instead, it framed them as a relational, multilayered network of documents and data, discourses and practices that came right up to the present day and could be reactivated thanks to the participation of all the communities involved. Rethinking these archives and illuminating their hidden potential as to their public and communal role made the research a means and a social responsibility and not an end. As a result, the stakeholders and research team took a cooperative and inter-institutional approach based on the development of cataloguing and research infrastructures, in view of creating a connection between the fonds–and a shared knowledge network.
Following on from these premises, I will describe how we approached these fonds, mixing cinema history, accidental archivism, and new ways of thinking to reshape the future of historical research through its infrastructures.
Accidental Archivism I: The Rediscovered Italian Co-Productions
The Central State Archive (ACS) in Rome houses the papers that film producers had to send to the Directorate General for Cinema (Direzione Generale Cinema, DGC) so they could label their film as Italian and obtain the permit for public projection, processes that had to be followed to claim Italian nationality, facilitations, and therefore public funding.
In particular, a “Co” archival series—conserved at length but formerly inaccessible—was discovered alongside the well-known “Cf” fonds, covering 1949-1994 and the subject of research for at least twenty years. The “Co” “parallel” archival series contained international co-produced films and was generated on the occasion of the approval of the 1965 film law: “it was their large number, in Italian cinema’s most intense period of internationalization, that made the Directorate General change their practices and separate them” (Di Chiara 2021, 36).
Here we became accidental archivists, working side by side with the ACS archivists. Together we decided to sample the files from the fonds and put together a new cataloguing model to trace and make a detailed snapshot of Italian cinema at the height of its internationalization. We queried and identified many specific historical aspects of the sources and documents and highlighted sensitive micro and macro-historical and quantitative analysis data. Metadata from more than 1,800 files were put into a new digital catalogue, enabling specific searches and at the same time encouraging quantitative questions to be asked about production companies, costs, and funding, as well as the European countries and third parties involved. Italian cinema could now be read from a new distant and transnational slant.
The research group cooperated and invested economic and scholarly resources to create an innovative database that would include the other abovementioned ACS archival series from the period 1949 to 1994 and become an entry portal for future research projects and initiatives. In addition, it would become one of the cross-connected archives forming a web atlas based on storytelling and data visualization. In such a way, researchers acted as activists enabling what was still hidden to emerge and what was accidental to become infrastructural.
Accidental Archivism II: The ANICA Historical Archive and the Lead-Up to a New Brighton for Italian Production Studies
ANICA was founded in 1944. After the war, it gained a central role in the Italian and international production system and cultural scene. The association’s historical archive is therefore a source of extraordinary importance for Italian film industry studies. Its history is marked by “accidents,” and in particular, between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, by a reckless safeguarding initiative involving ministerial, industrial, and private institutions. It is an all-Italian story that would be worth telling.
In short, the archive needed to fade out awhile so that its enormous potential for production studies could be grasped (Brunetta 1994; Comand and Venturini 2021b). At the start of the 2000s, “when the archive was at a low ebb, no one had any idea or desire to deal with the overproduction and unsuitable spaces were filled with documents made illegible and irretrievable owing to their very number” (Saggioro 2015, 3). Thus the central core of the ANICA historical archive moved from the historical center of the Italian filmmaking industry (Rome) and its natural location (the ANICA headquarters in Rome) to the hills of Basilicata and more precisely to a warehouse at the newly established Cineteca Lucana film library in Oppido Lucano. The move was clearly driven by a fear for the archive’s disappearance, but the reasons for this move to an institution still in the setting-up phase and fundamentally lacking any archival competences are still not fully explicable. Nevertheless, neither this incredible archival accident nor the tricky conditions have managed to prevent several researchers and scholars, including our research team, from dipping into the fonds housed in Oppido in recent years. The reports of those who had the chance to view the material on site, in this extraordinary, hard-to-reach place owing to the uncertain infrastructure and organization, paint a picture of historians-cum-adventurers, explorers and archaeologists, and ultimately, accidental archivists.
Only more recently has there been a change of perspective, forged in part by the MMC49-’76 project, fostering the protection of the documentary heritage over individual research needs. The research group decided to go back upstream and seek out ANICA as its interlocutor. A healthy partnership blossomed, which soon led not only to the reordering of the internal fonds but also the discovery of sources and documents still present in Rome and, as we will see, the scientific “reactivation” of the ANICA Italian cinema database.
The 2020–21 reordering and cataloguing activities gave a more precise picture and measure of an archive that is actually the sum of several different archives. These activities uncovered a treasure trove of essential research documents which, thanks to new access regulations, could be consulted in a transparent and safe way. Hence, the current database reveals the ANICA archives’ sensational potential for the historiography of Italian film production modes and cultures, while also underlining the basic need for archives, industry, and academia to work together in their shared mission to protect the heritage and to produce and exchange knowledge.
Accidental Archivism III: The ANICA Italian Cinema Database and the Archaeology of Italian Digital Film Studies
The ANICA Italian cinema database is one of the most reliable and widely used filmography sources in Italy. What is less well known is that the archive came about as a “research project” funded by the Ministry for Tourism and Spectacle and the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. It was devised in 1987 by film historian Aldo Bernardini who until the early 2000s coordinated an interdisciplinary workgroup at ANICA that set up the valuable database whose “goal is to collect all the information on Italian films in a single archive … designed and set out to meet a whole series of research needs and to make selective searches of the input data” (Bernardini 1995, I–II).
The initiative can be seen as the upshot of New Film History, the rediscovery of Italian silent cinema and the consequent need to build a filmography infrastructure to reach out to film archives, scholars, and universities as well as ANICA itself, which had published Italian-made films every year since the 1950s. As the project drew to an end, the database became a central tool for the redistribution to producers of the monies recorded by the Italian copyright collecting agency (SIAE) for “private copying” of motion pictures.
The “reactivation” of the Italian cinema’s historical scientific database should not be seen as a one-off, standalone project on new (Italian) cinema history but as part of a wider rethinking of (digital) research infrastructures (Noordegraaf, Lotze, and Boter 2018). In recent years, Italian film scholars and historians have started to take a closer and more conscious look at the sense, potentials, and practices of the digital humanities, beyond their merely “tactical” function (Kirschenbaum 2012, 415–28).
As such, Bernardini, already a pioneer of new historiography, can now be framed as an innovator and precursor in the field of digital film studies (Grant 2012; Burghardt et al. 2020) as applied to Italian film history: “I try to best use IT resources to make and take the new conception of filmography work to its extreme consequences … IT greatly benefits filmography thanks to the possibility that it offers to store, order and compare large quantities of data” (Bernardini 2001, 258).
The current online version of that IT archive, set out following the methodological criteria adopted by its deviser to achieve his ambitious goals (Bernardini 1995, I-XXXIII; Bernardini 2001, 258–61), is just one part of a vaster set of sub-archives, fields, and relations. Therefore, we wanted to reactivate a somehow silent research infrastructure and draw out its worth through specific queries and visualizations and analyzing otherwise lost data. The first quantitative and historical-analytical questions about aspects such as below-the-line production roles and figures, transnational filming locations, and technical industries are still being investigated, and are coming up with some very interesting results for the field of production studies. By reloading the hidden archive, we have partially fulfilled what has always been the goal at the heart of the project, that is, to one day expand the data system created by the encounter between filmography and IT to make it a “global archive” of Italian film history (Bernardini 2001, 260–61).
Ultimately, the accidental archivism triggered by the archival accidents in the three case studies and the role of accidental archivist assumed by scholars has had several positive effects on research. First of all, they have made it clear to the academic community how and how far research infrastructures can mold and fashion the research itself in terms of an epistemic ally and heuristic vehicle and not an ancillary tool. Second, they have caused historians to adopt a stance in the public interest, pushing them to act for the preservation and long-term sustainability of the heritage and the knowledge produced. Third, the renewed attention towards these archival fonds has not only aided their protection and accessibility, cross-connections, and new ways of engagement, but it has also enabled film production cultures, modes, and memories that had been pushed to one side, hidden, unresearched, to re-emerge and be shared.
In conclusion, through these archival accidents, the fonds were activated in different ways: in the first case, communities and stakeholders benefitted from the cataloguing, quantitative data analysis, and sharing through digital humanities tools and environments of the newly rediscovered archival series; in the second case, heritage of fundamental importance for Italian production studies was ordered, safeguarded, and put back together, paving the way to new paths of research and storytelling on the film industry, which forms an important part of the so-called Made in Italy label; lastly, in the third case, a pioneering database, a digital infrastructure of the historiography of Italian cinema whose roots go back to the 1980s, was reframed and brought back to its initial scholarly aims, mainly through queries and visualizing the archived data, highlighting the need for a mature field of digital film studies in the Italian context.
Bernardini, Aldo. 1995. Archivio del cinema italiano. IV. Il cinema sonoro 1990-1995. Rome: Anica.
———. 2001. “La filmografia.” In Storia del cinema mondiale, Vol. 5, edited by Gian Piero Brunetta. Turin: Einaudi.
Burghardt, Manuel, Adelheid Heftberger, Johannes Pause, Niels-Oliver Walkowski, and Matthias Zeppelzauer. 2020. “Film and Video Analysis in the Digital Humanities—An Interdisciplinary Dialog.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 14 (4). Accessed June 2, 2023. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/14/4/000532/000532.html.
Comand, Mariapia, and Simone Venturini. 2021a. “MMC 49’76. Modi, memorie e culture della produzione cinematografica: strumenti, metodi e primi esiti.” L’avventura. International Journal of Italian Film and Media Landscapes (Numero Speciale): 3–12.
———. 2021b. “ANICA Cinematic Universe: New Sources for the Study of Italian Cinema’s Production Modes and Cultures.” L’avventura. International Journal of Italian Film and Media Landscapes (Numero Speciale): 13–33.
Di Chiara, Francesco. 2021. “Il fondo ‘Co’ dell’Archivio Centrale dello Stato. Alcune ipotesi per un’analisi del processo di implementazione della Legge Corona in materia di coproduzioni.” L’avventura. International Journal of Italian Film and Media Landscapes (Numero Speciale): 35-49.
Farassino, Alberto. 1988. “Il costo dei panni sporchi. Note sul ‘modo di produzione neorealista.’” In Cinecittà 3 / Dietro lo schermo. Ragionamenti sui modi di produzione cinematografici in Italia, edited by Vito Zagarrio, 135–36. Venice: Marsilio.
Grant, Catherine. 2012. “Film and Moving Image Studies: Re-born Digital? Some Participant Observations.” Frames Cinema Journal 1 (1).
Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. 2012. “Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by Matthew K. Gold, 415–28. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Noordegraaf, Julia, Kathleen Lotze, and Jaap Bote. 2018. “Writing Cinema Histories with Digital Databases: The Case of Cinema Context.” Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis 21 (2): 106–26.
Paalman, Floris, Giovanna Fossati, and Eef Masson. 2021. “Activating the Archive.” The Moving Image 21 (1–2): 1–25.
Saggioro, Cristina. 2015. Anica Archivi. Ricognizione e fatica di base in quel di Oppido Lucano. Rome: Anica/Memoria.
Stoler, Ann Laura. 2009. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Venturini, Simone. 2002. Galatea spa (1952-1965). Storia di una casa di produzione cinematografica. Rome: AIRSC.
 See https://cineproduzione.uniud.it. This article stems from the collective work of the universities of Udine, IULM Milano, Parma, and Roma 3 research team and in particular the project PI Mariapia Comand, with whom its contents were conceived, discussed, and shared.
 Thanks to Ph. D. Mirco Modolo, the head achivist at the ACS cinema fonds.
 See, among others, the seminal research on the Cf fonds by Farassino (1988) and Venturini (2002).
 Here the reference is to infrastructural studies but also to the fact that secondary, marginal, and accidental elements can become the engines of the research itself, as framed by the by now inextricable relationship between archival and digital infrastructures and historical and humanistic research, which are linked to and influence each other in many ways.