FILM ARCHIVES: ECONOMICS OF MEMORY
Ukraine has no clearly formulated concept or function of film archives. Nor is there a relevant law regulating the activities of film archives. Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre does not have such status, either. There are only so-called departmental, industry-specific archives and the Central State CinePhotoPhono Archives of Ukraine named after H. S. Pshenychnyi. The State Archives were founded in the 1930s, destroyed during the Second World War, and began to replenish their funds only in 1953. These archives are regulated by the law of Ukraine On an Obligatory Copy of Documents. They do not see a movie or film as artistic media, for them they are simply documents of the era. Therefore they only store stock footage, documentary films and photos related to a certain historical period. Only the photos that survived censorship made it to the photo archives. There are no photos, for example, by Agatangel Krymskyi or Mykhail’ Semenko, there are mainly photos picturing hard-working collective farm girls, foundry workers and so on. In this sense, Pshenychnyi archives are a mirror of the Soviet ideological system.
In this case in particular, we see the lack of visualization of our memories in all their diversity. We have an artificially constructed visualization of ideology. The process of redacting whole eras from the memory is even worse for Ukraine in that it still has not been compensated. As an example, Pshenychnyi archives have not been renewed or extended with, say, emigre collections.
Pshenychnyi archives are governed by the Ministry of Justice, since film is seen as a document. They believe that if the “document” (film) is not complete with its negative, positive, soundtrack and photography along with the title, it can not be considered a unique document. So, the film Taras Tryasylo (1926), which was preserved neither in Ukraine nor in Russia and whose single positive copy on 16-millimeter film is kept in the Cinémathèque Française, is not unique for Pshenychnyi archives, since the archives are governed by legislation which does not formalize the status of a cinematic document or a cinematic piece of art. We bought it, and now it is being restored, since it (just like the movie Taras Shevchenko) is the most expensive film of the 1920s.
However, Dovzhenko Centre is not a film archive, either. The center stores feature, animation films, some documentaries and stock footage (some, as we store all films made after 1990). The Centre used to have powerful film copying facilities, but after the film distribution infrastructure collapsed, the question slowly formed: how to rethink the purpose of the institution. We could not change from a giant company commissioned by the government to a company serving private orders, as the object of service itself today is non-existing: the film copying industry is not working today. At the same time, there are few similar institutions abroad that have chemical copying laboratories. Even the Cinémathèque Française, the largest film archive, does not have such laboratories. They use services of private laboratories. In this sense, our Centre is a unique institution.
The fact that we can do film copying is a big advantage. The downside is that it prevents us from being recognized as a cultural institution, for the definition “state enterprise” is not a status but a form of management, which does not affect the operational profile. Therefore, our institution has to rethink its own paradigm. We must understand that we are no longer engaged in film copying. We are not a film studio. Our facilities must serve the needs of the film archive and the film archive unit must work on specialized tasks spelled out in our charter.
We have tried to reflect the change in strategy developed by our team in our projects. The cultural aspect must prevail over the technical, while the technological component, for its part, must service the archive. The mission of the archive is to serve as a reservoir of memories.
Paradoxically, with films the definition “national memory” is not a problem one. We do not doubt that Russian-language movies are Ukrainian: everything in the film industry that was produced in Ukraine is Ukrainian. This flexible mechanism allows us to follow a humanitarian paradigm which in Ukraine, unfortunately, has not yet been formulated. It would have to be universal and answer the question: what is the role of the Russian-language culture (and literature in particular) in Ukraine? So, for instance, we consider Baroque literature in the Polish and Latin languages Ukrainian literature and never even question this fact.
And this is a task for outlining a humanitarian strategy. For me as for someone who comes from a Russian-speaking region yet deliberately chose the Ukrainian culture, it was important to find a way it could be affiliated into the Ukrainian cultural body avoiding accusations of being foreign, avoiding rejection or repressive pressure. In this sense, silent films were an ideal product: no language is spoken, and the intertitles can be replaced. This brings us to a purely cinematic element.
The subject of national memory has been part of my work since the time when I was in charge of the Mute Nights festival of silent films in Odessa. In Dovzhenko National Centre, lack of a national humanitarian strategy was felt particularly strongly. The attempts to compensate for its absence at the lower level came to a choice of a culture model.
What we started with was bringing “questionable” Ukrainian material into the Ukrainian context. I am talking about films like Man with a Movie Camera and In Spring. Dziga Vertov worked in Ukraine for 5 years and it was then that he made his greatest films. Ukrainian film critics of the day alienated him, refusing to accept him as their own. The mission of a film archive is to restructure the cultural memory within a certain humanitarian concept, which, in part, it should formulate for itself.
The traditionalist paradigm existing in Ukraine demands determination on the conservative principles of belonging – blood, heredity, nation, history, etc.; it basically prohibits choosing your own identity. Yet such conscious choice of identity can often be more valuable than choice by heredity. Today we need to answer some basic questions related to our own identity. In this regard, the Ukrainian culture is truncated, it sometimes sacrifices aesthetics for politics.
The conservative strategy of Ukrainian cultural institutions is inherited from the policy of cultural assimilation, when the main concern was to try not to forget at least the basic cultural codes. However, even later, after Ukraine became independent, all efforts were aimed only at conservation and preservation of cultural values without re-thinking them.
In an effort to rethink the Ukrainian cultural canon, we emphasized the continuity of avant-garde experience: Ukrainian avant-garde is not just splashes of individual talent, but also a universal cultural phenomenon, organic for Ukraine of 1920s-1930s and hostile to traditionalism. We realized that the experience of Ukrainian cinematic avant-garde is the experience through which Western culture, thriving on innovation, can understand our culture in close categories. This is what it can be converted to.
The question arose: can such an interpretation of Ukrainian cinematic heritage be “sold”? Namely, can we interest people in it? Archival experience is rather exclusive – it is mainly open only to researchers and historians. Our task was to try to apply, figuratively speaking, marketing technologies to the material we deal with, in order to make it interesting to non-specialists.
The first step was scoring of Ukrainian silent films. However, as early as at the stage of making a list of those films, we came across a problem: the majority of Ukrainian films of that period were considered Russian, both in the West and in Russia itself. Our goal was to privatize that space, to return those films to Ukraine, yet not it traditionalist categories. We were able to avoid conflict at first, until we entered the territory of “masterpieces”.
I have to say that the West has a great sentiment towards Russia and its great culture. Once I had to make an introduction to the film Arsenal which would be different from the Soviet interpretation, give an accurate historical context of the anti-government uprising shown in the film, show redactions of historical memory and the censorial approach of the director, as well as the fact that in the film there are omissions that need to be verbalized. Italians accused me of unspeakable impudence, saying “how can you call Dovzhenko a Ukrainian director and Arsenal a Ukrainian film?” This resistance needs to be overcome.
Avant-garde language is part of our contemporary art speech. We learnt it through the era of industrialization and Soviet rhetoric, Western Europe – through postindustrial and postmodernistic interest to the avant-garde in the 60-s. In this sense, the language of avant-garde is universal. It is one code system, but the ways it is used for communication in different cultures vary.
We did not know whether there will be demand for our films. It turned out that they are in greater demand abroad than here, although we invest much more effort in promoting our products at home. However, the ability to hear and perceive in Ukraine is considerably lower. Our marketing strategy was to “piggy-back” on already existing attractive cultural product. The question was how to bring in movies so that they were not perceived just as background, so that our cinema gradually entered the consciousness of the Ukrainian viewer. It worked: while DakhaBrakha was performing their music to Earth, people were watching the movie. It was the first attempt to rethink the purpose of a film archive – not only to store, but also to propagate and popularize Ukrainian films, to use cultural experience to design our own identity.
It is not an easy thing to do, since we are not experts on music. To inspire a musician working on a soundtrack for a film, you have to explain to him the context, to show the “corridor of meanings”; you must infect him with this film. You must explain that a certain moment in the film was banned, and therefore carried a threat to the dominant ideology. So that the musician could emphasize this moment with musical means in order to pull the film from the clutches of propaganda.
Another issue was that 1920s-1930s have a comprehensive list of films of high artistic level. In addition, Dovzhenko Centre was faced with some problems with financing. We had to find other ways of “smooth” invasion into the identity field, and not only with movies. It should be said that “the Ukrainian Soviet culture” has always been considered more Soviet than Ukrainian, so for most people things are either Soviet or national. And such thing as “national Soviet” is absolutely impossible, even though it is a huge distinct piece of history. We can not be defined only in terms of the Soviet imperial discourse or only in the categories of the national one. We show that there was a separate period and a whole construct of Ukrainian Soviet culture and we have to work with it. Without trying to fit the culture into the narrow confines of one world view.
Then we thought about what additional symbolic meanings should be attached to the existing material. An archive is just a material, we should add to this material symbolic added value – cultural experience, new meanings. This is what is “sold” to the audience as a unique product.
All this made us realize that we need to protect our newly created product by copyright. And even though all the films we work with are out of copyright, our efforts to respect copyright demonstrate that we offer symbolic added value which many people helped to create.
All these things – formalization of additional meanings, finding new solutions in the experiment – became the main interest of our work. We realized that our mission is to bring Ukrainian classical films back into cultural circulation in the code that the modern audience would be able to read. Basically, what Dovzhenko National Centre does is alternative cultural engineering – we sometimes fill the gaps (or at least try to do so) that public, educational and information institutions fail to fill.
The well-known economic circumstances of today raise new challenges for us: how to make the post-industrial space of the Centre into cultural one? How to rethink our own industrial legacy? How to make it work for us, and not against us? How to turn this huge dead weight (thousands of meters of empty industrial space) to our benefit, how to make it replenish our resources instead of exhausting them? As a result, a concept of creating an art cluster on the premises of the Centre was born. We aim to create a space of an entirely new type, based on the principles of post-industrialism, ergonomics, synergy and transparency.
Ivan Kozlenko is a culture expert and art manager. Founder and director of Mute Nights Festival of Silent Films (Odessa), Director of Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre. Studies, promotes and promulgates classical and modern Ukrainian films.
HOW TO WRITE ABOUT CULTURE? is a result of the two-year seminar on cultural criticism and reporting Culture 3.0. It is 236 pages of theoretical texts and practical advice for anyone working with cultural topics and covering issues of cultural policy, dealing with the subject of entrepreneurship in culture and of creative industries, or writing about cinema, music, visual and performing arts. The authors include Andriy Bondar, Iryna Solovey, Yuriy Volodarskyi, Serhiy Vasyliev Maksym Butkevych, Ivan Kozlenko, Pavlo Gudimov, Yulia Vahanova, Mariana Savka and others. The book is compiled by Vira Baldynyuk, Anna Pohribna. Design by Lyudmyla Skrynnykova. Foreword by Vira Baldynyuk.
The book is available for purchase at: http://csmart.org.ua/one-news/kupiti-knizhku-yak-pisati-pro-kulturu/
The lecture took place at Dovzhenko Centre as part of the KULTURFILM: Femme Mute series of lectures on cinema.The lecture took place at the Closer Art Centre as part of the KULTURFILM: Femme Mute series of lectures on cinema.The lecture took place at Dovzhenko Centre as part of the KULTURFILM: Femme Mute series of lectures on cinema.
A video recording of an interview with Ukrainian film director Natalia Andrieichenko.Lecture's video of History Professor from Indiana University, researcher of cinema and the Donbas Hiroaki Kuromiya.Lecture's video of prominent Ukrainian animator Yevhen Syvokin.