An Accidental Virtual Archive of Colonialism

by Grazia Ingravalle

This short essay is a first-person account of an accidental and rare archival find, surrounded by evidentiary paucity and lack of interpretative coordinates. It sparked several collaborations and a journey—a virtual one by necessity, due to travel restrictions during the pandemic—from the physical archive to what, in the following pages, I define as an accidental virtual archive of colonialism.

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) lists twelve different definitions of the overlapping terms archives (pl. n.) and archive (sing. n.), emphasizing the systematic and continuing character of record keeping. Definitions of the archive as “the official repository of a nation, state, territory, or institution’s records of continuing value” implicitly assume the self-enclosed nature of the entity originating the archive(s) (SAA’s Dictionary of Archives Terminology). Against this normative framework, the term archive—and archivism by extension—appears at odds next to the qualifier accidental. Yet, by introducing connotations of irregularity, incident, contingency, and chance, the term accidental archive foregrounds situations in which upheavals, loss of sovereignty, (cultural) genocide, displacement, and diasporic migration have complicated the work of record preservation and interpretation. While limited space here does not allow for an exhaustive account, in what follows I shed light on the revisionist historiographic potential of investigating accidental archives.

During a 2019 research trip to the National Film Archive—Audiovisual Institute (Filmoteka Narodowa—Instytute Audiowizalny, FINA) in Warsaw, I accidentally stumbled on a 1933 silent film about Polish settlements in the Brazilian state of Paraná. Polish Settlements in Brazilian Wilderness (Osadnictwo polskie w puszczach Brazylii) opens with a drawn map of South America and four animated arrows crossing the South Atlantic Ocean from right to left, reaching the Brazilian states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, Paraná, and Espirito Santo. Was this a travel film about a geographical expedition in the “Brazilian wilderness,” I wondered, or a chronicle of Polish migration to South America, or, yet differently, a film recording a largely unknown chapter in colonial history?

As the map fades, a tilt shot moves from the highest foliage of a giant tree vertiginously down to the base of its broad trunk. Then, specular images of farmers axing and sawing the huge tree alternate, flipping 180 degrees around their vertical axis in a frenetic rhythmic montage that culminates with the tree’s capitulation (see figure 1). More depictions of deforestation, shrub mowing, forest fires, and araucaria trees follow. Next, a wooden crucifix appears amidst the trees, and three minutes into the film, the first title card announces, “New life has been created on the jungle cemeteries felled by the axe of the Polish settlers.”[1]

As this title card suggests, during its brief independence, lasting only from 1919 to 1939, Poland bought into Europe’s colonial dream, attempting to establish and consolidate its presence on the African continent and South America (Puchalski 2017; Balogun 2018; Ureña Valerio 2019). Evidence of Poland’s short-lived colonial ambitions during the interwar period, this footage baffled me as nothing short of a historical and “political anachronism” (Hunczak 1967, 648). Two major historical events had until then guided my reading of Poland’s interwar cinema. The first was the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which reinstated Poland on the map of Europe after over 120 years of partition and colonial rule by the Habsburg Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia, and czarist Russia. The second was the Nazi invasion just twenty years later—which led to the extermination of what at the time was the largest Jewish community in Europe, the annihilation of the Polish resistance, and the systematic destruction of Poland’s cultural heritage—inaugurating a long period of foreign rule lasting until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (Lewak, Lipska, and Sokol 1962).

Demarcated by such tragic circumstances, my reading had accidentally replicated the dominant historical narrative of a “national martyrology,” proceeding “from battlefield to battlefield, from oppression to oppression, from massacre to massacre, with Poland standing as an inevitable collective victim” (Porter-Szücs 2014, 4). Before chancing upon this film, like many, I had been unaware of the existence of any Polish settlement overseas nor of the Second Republic’s colonial agenda. These archival images revealed what anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler calls a “minor history” (Stoler 2009, 7). They exposed not just my ignorance, but foundational negligence of histories relegated to the periphery of major historical events revolving around west-centered epistemologies.

[Fig. 1] Polish Settlements in Brazilian Wilderness. Courtesy of FINA.

[Fig. 1] Polish Settlements in Brazilian Wilderness. Courtesy of FINA.

Polish Settlements in Brazilian Wilderness is an orphan film. Close to nothing is known about the circumstances and people involved in its making, the locales in which it was screened, or its audience and reception. Until recently, the film had been misidentified and circulated under a wrong title in some of FINA’s internal records. Of the three films about Brazil known to have been produced in Poland between 1930 and 1939, it was the only one to have survived (Hendrykowska 2014, 222).[2] By cross-referencing press accounts, yearly statistical data, and the film print’s length (230 meters), archivist Grzegorz Rogowski established that the film in question was the 1933 Polish Settlement in Brazilian Wilderness (2020, personal communication). As Michał Pienkowski explained to me, the film’s negative, which combined both silent and sound film stock (academy format), confirmed its reidentification, placing it in the early years of the transition to sound (2020, personal communication).

Evidentiary scarcity is a condition unfortunately common to many Polish films and production records dating to the period before WWII, the majority of which were destroyed during the war, particularly in the 1944 Warsaw uprising (Haltof 2002, ix). In the absence of primary sources, I wondered what the historical value of Polish Settlements in Brazilian Wilderness was as a film orphaned of not just authorship but archival context too. Which historical events did it accidentally testify to? In 1930s Poland, cinema did not function as a staple within a consolidated colonial state apparatus, the feeble existence of which the Nazis wiped out at the end of the decade along with its propaganda and archives (Grzechnik 2019). Surrounded by absences and gaps in documentation, investigating this colonial record forced me to interrogate the epistemological weight of archival evidence.

In Reconfiguring the Archive, Patricia Hayes, Jeremy Silvester, and Wolfram Hartmann criticize theorizations of the archive that, in their view, assume the paradigm of the sovereign European nation-state. They examine a collection of thousands of colonial photographs in the National Archives of Namibia, ranging from postcards to family albums, which document the country’s history as it shifted from British to German and then South African rule. These photographs’ contorted, informal, and undocumented routes into the archive resulted in the destruction of information regarding these pictures’ provenance. What happens, Hayes, Silvester, and Hartmann ask, when an archive “has not been organised on longstanding bureaucratic principles … but has been assembled unevenly, haphazardly, anonymously?” (Hayes, Silvester, and Hartmann 2002, 115). What happens, we may add, when a whole archive is accidental as a result of various processes of colonization? To counter such an archival vacuum, since 1997, The Namibian Weekender has published these pictures, asking readers to identify the subjects captured. Doubly or trebly removed from their original context, reproduced, and recaptioned, these colonial archival photographs have since become, in the authors’ words, “cross-cultural spaces,” open to different identification communities and academic audiences who bring different reference systems in their reading (Hayes, Silvester, and Hartmann 2002, 111 and 113).

Similarly, in The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault advances an image of the archive as a distributed, cross-disciplinary “system of references.” As he argues, a book and, by extension, a film text and visual record are “caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network” (Foucault 2002, 25–26). According to Foucault, throughout history, texts and records have become intelligible within a broadly conceived archive he identifies as a “system of statements” (2002, 120 and 145). In his words, such a system comprises

Relations between statements (even if the author is unaware of them; even if the statements do not have the same author; even if the authors were unaware of each other’s existence); relations between groups of statements thus established (even if these groups do not concern the same, or even adjacent, fields; even if they do not possess the same formal level … ); relations between statements and groups of statements and events of a quite different kind (technical, economic, social, political). (Foucault 2002, 32)

In the absence of empirical archival evidence, I placed Polish Settlements in Brazilian Wilderness within a similarly conceived reticular, distributed archive, mobilizing different fields of discourse, branches of knowledge, and cultural and media repositories.

Thanks to a virtual network of film historians, archivists, curators, translators, and filmmakers that generously shared their knowledge and work with me, I began reimagining the archival accident within a dispersed system of references, situating Polish Settlements in Brazilian Wilderness within multiple spheres of signification beyond the evidentiary archive. I cross-referenced several digitized records and texts, including 1930s issues of Poland’s colonial propaganda journal Sea (Morze) and Polish film theorist Karol Irzykowski’s 1924 book The Tenth Muse (Dziesiąta muza), now in the public domain. In this way, I started deciphering the film’s avant-gardist aestheticization of agricultural labor and visual tropes such as the settler’s house and the Sower monument in Paraná’s capital Curitiba.

In 2020, my colleagues at FINA and I presented our research around Polish Settlements in Brazilian Wilderness at the online edition of the Orphan Film Symposium. From Vimeo, where the conference organizers initially uploaded the film and the video recording of our presentation, the film accidentally began circulating on several Facebook pages, including one called Curitiba in the Past (Antigamente em Curitiba). Dozens of descendants of the Polish diaspora in Brazil watched the clip in awe, celebrating it as a unique record of the Polish-Brazilian community in Paraná. Appropriated by new communities of identification, Polish Settlements in Brazilian Wilderness entered a wider, informal, culturally hybrid audiovisual archive that stretched from Poland to Brazil. As filmmakers, enthusiasts, and scholars kept discussing the film clip on Twitter, YouTube, and via email, other titles related to the Polish Brazilian diaspora began populating this accidental archival network, including Hermes Gonçalves’s 1953 documentary Costumes and Traditions of Poles in Paraná (Usos e Costumes dos Poloneses de Paraná) and Sylvio Back’s 1982 Life and Blood of a Polak (Vida e Sangue de Polaco). Polish Settlements in Brazilian Wilderness’s virtual circulation unearthed stories that were now about Poland as much as about European immigration to Brazil, the latter’s policy of whitening (branqueamento), its environmental impact, and the subjugation of indigenous tribes (Ureña Valerio 2019).

As an archival accident, testimony of Polish migration to Brazil, unfulfilled colonial fantasies, and Polish-Brazilian histories, Polish Settlements in Brazilian Wilderness forced the boundaries of the physical archive, demanding revisionist readings. With its layered historicity, it tested the binarism of much postcolonial discourse, leading me to radically interrogate rigid oppositions such as white colonizer/non-white colonized and first-world metropole/third-world periphery, as well as the mutual exclusivity of the positions of victim and perpetrator (see Rothberg, 2019). As an epistemically dense visual record of colonial experiences, Polish Settlements in Brazilian Wilderness pushed me to situate it within an archive of colonialism that is at the same time virtual, dispersed, participatory, interdisciplinary, culturally hybrid, and accidental.

I wish to thank the Leverhulme Trust for funding this research. I thank all the staff at FINA who enthusiastically assisted me during and after my archival visit, in particular Michał Pienkowski and Grzegorz Rogowski. A special thanks goes to archivist Iga Harasimowicz for making it all possible. Many people were involved at various stages in the virtual network of this research. I am grateful to scholar Natalia Christofoletti Barrenha, filmmaker Sylvio Back, photographer João Urban, historian Małgorzata Hendrykowska, producer Kamil Skałkowski, filmmaker Piotr Jaworski, and filmmaker and anthropologist Vincent Carelli.


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[1] Translation of title cards courtesy of FINA.

[2] The other two titles are Paraná’s Pioneers (Pionerzy Parańscy, 1935) and Young Brazilian Polish Community (Młoda Polonia Brazylijska, 1935).