from Robert Daudelin, Bernard Eisenschitz, Paul Byrnes, Samuel Macgeorge, and James Leahy

Responses to articles, and comments on any aspect of Senses of Cinema, should be sent to this address. Published letters may be edited. To view the old letters page archive (up to April 2004) go here.

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Film Archives Fighting Back

I first learnt of the fragility of film archives/cinematheques through my own work in Montréal, as Director General of the Cinematheque québécois. Our major grant was coming to us through the Québec Government Department of Cultural Affairs and the news that a new minister was moving into the job always sounded like a threat. Would he or she understand what our job was and why we needed extra money (or even the same money…)? Even if that new minister had a cultural background, it was not even necessarily good news: after all cinema (the “movies”) is not exactly art, certainly not on the same level as painting, ballet or the symphony orchestra…

I thought for a while that such a situation, that of an institution with a large program of activities and well established within the film community but being inherently fragile, was peculiar to Montréal. But my intensive involvement with the membership of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) changed altogether that naïve perception of our local situation: all archives were fragile!

At its annual congress in June 2003, FIAF invited David Francis, who had recently retired from the Library of Congress in Washington and who had a long experience with the Federation, to comment on the Federation’s recent history and the different issues raised over recent years. David’s enlightening remarks also carried a kind of sub-text: after so many years of passionate work (the first film archives appeared in the mid ’30s) and so many years of united front (FIAF was founded in 1938), we are still fighting to be admitted to the culture community. But of course some of us are big, well staffed and respected the world over – the National Film and Television Archive in London (founded in 1935) and the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (founded in 1984) for instance.

All of our institutions are now working in a context where culture has become “cultural industries” and art, “entertainment”. Business schools and university administration departments are offering special programmes through which one may acquire a diploma as a Culture Manager. “Marketing” is rapidly replacing “Communications” in our organisational structures. All of this is very concrete: it has superseded philosophical debates.

The London archive is an internationally respected institution, long admired and copied as a model in the field. The Canberra archive is much younger, and has rapidly and successfully developed as an exemplar of how a country should deal with its audiovisual inheritance. If two institutions of such magnitude may be threatened so fundamentally as to endanger their original mandate, I feel the time has come for all of us film archivists to react, re-establish the philosophical debates and tell the new apparatchiks (who are regularly reminding us that “cinema is the most important art of the 20th century…”) that we are ready to fight back.

Film is changing, for sure. New technologies are appearing every week. But film, as an original art form and a most precious record of man’s history, will be with us for a long time still and we should pursue our mission of preserving its artefacts, as well as the unique experience of being witness to a passionate kiss on a big screen.

Robert Daudelin
(Honorary Life Member, International Federation of Film Archives)

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Open letter: Save the Moscow Museum of Cinema (Musei Kino)

An open letter from critic Bernard Eisenschitz to the President of the Cinémathèque française, Claude Berri.

Dear Claude Berri,

Sorry in advance for such a long letter.

You probably know – by name at least – Naum Kleiman and the Musei Kino in Moscow.

For years, the Eisenstein Cabinet, under Kleiman’s guidance, was an extraordinary place, the first I went to on arriving in Moscow, there to meet with some Americans or a Japanese, a few Soviet filmmakers or philosophers – Tadjik or Jew, friend or stranger. Towards the end of the “Brezhnev years”, Naum created the Film Museum, which is the only place where generations of Russians have been able to see all cinema, time- and space-wise, and not the official Soviet abridged version of it, or the so-called wide-audience, vulgar post-Soviet version of it. Coppola gave prints, Godard installed the Dolby sound in the large auditorium, Costa-Gavras came to show “The Confession”.

In a huge Soviet building, renamed “Kino-Tsentr”, it was no longer eight people sitting around a table in front of canned sardines, but screening rooms full to capacity to see Boris Barnet, Fassbiner, Akerman, Ozu, Tati or unknown Soviet directors of the ’20s. Several screenings were held every day in each of the four theatres. Genuinely a Henri Langlois-style of programming. Conferences, during which erased or banned films by Dziga Vertov or Dovzhenko would surface, exhibitions where one would discover the Russian countryside at the dawn of the (20th) century, chairs built by his own hands by Mikhail Romm at the time when he didn’t know whether he still wanted to make films, after the 20th Party Congress, drawings by Alexander Alexeieff. The Musei Kino is also very active in the publishing field: several large volumes of works by Eisenstein in the last few years, books or booklets about the filmmakers in program.

32% of the Kino-Tsentr building belongs to the Filmmakers’ Union of Russia. The remaining, belonging to the Filmmakers’ unions of the former Soviet Union’s other republics, was sold and thus “privatised” several years ago. Today, Nikita Mikhalkov, president of the Russian Union, has set about selling this remaining share to the Casino Arlekino, which already has in the building the casino proper, a strip-bar and a sauna. If the transaction is condoned by the Filmmakers’ Union, the Film Museum will very soon be expelled from its premises, and thus practically liquidated: no more public screenings, no more access to the collections (400,000 items).

The Museum’s audience (mostly students) have planned a demonstration (“Save the Cinema Museum”) on June 23 on Pushkin Square (during the International Moscow Film Festival). Press and television have informed the public to the danger the Museum faces, and the European Union’s ambassadors have sent the Russian government a letter supporting the Museum.

The only thing to do to prevent the Museum from dying is to react as strongly as possible, to state our attachment to the Museum, to demand that it is given premises of its own.

“I hope”, Kleiman writes me, “that this affair makes sense not only for us, but also for all other archives and film museums.”

Best regards,

Bernard Eisenschitz

June 8, 2004

To show support for the Musei Kino, please write to Anton Dolin, cinema editor of Gazeta, or to Naum Kleiman, Eisenstein expert, writer, curator and Director of the Museum. N.B. It is preferred that one refers to the Museum in general rather than Mr Kleiman personally.

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Apolitical? Moi?

Just caught up with Pauline Webber’s attack on the Sydney Film Festival’s Asian programming, from last year. While I am not concerned with the years since I was director, but with her statement:

In his 1998 Festival notes, departing director Paul Byrnes wrote “If there is one guiding idea behind what I have tried to do in selecting films for the festival, it’s that cinema does matter, that it’s more than just an entertainment medium; that immersing yourself in it is a sustaining act which can make us more human, more tolerant, somehow bigger.” These words, from a director who was careful always to eschew the political, do tend to startle me.

Eschew the political? Moi? I must show this to my friends who accuse me of incessant politicisation. I’ve been accused of many things, but this is a new one.

Just how many of my festivals did Ms Webber attend, and at what depth? I’d welcome an amplification of her argument, since to me, in the making of them, each seemed full of political films.

On Asia, any analysis worth the label would need to look at how many films were shown in the festival in the ’70’s and ’80s, how many guests were invited, how many got distribution, how many were invited but didn’t come…in short, it’s a complex area that I would have been happy to discuss if anyone had called me, which they didn’t. Opinion is easier than research, but not as useful.

Paul Byrnes
Sydney Film Festival director, 1989–1998

Pauline Webber replies: For Paul Byrnes to call my article an “attack” on the SFF seems an excessively defensive response and contrary to my intention. My purpose in writing the piece (which is a modified version of a paper delivered at the SFF Symposium in 2003) was to raise debate about the festival’s own version of its history and programming policy and how that differs from the reality.

There seemed to me to be an element of complacency from the festival about its current commitment to Asian cinema. Claims that films from the region had been and continued to be well represented in the program were simply not backed up by statistics. As Paul rightly says there is no substitute for research. I researched the country of origin for feature films which screened in the festival between 1996 and 2003. The results, as outlined in the table included in my article, show quite clearly that Asian films make up only a tiny percentage of the total number of films screened in every one of those years. Not a situation to encourage complacency.

I am well aware of the enormous difficulties faced by the festival in securing the films and the international guests it most wishes to have here each year and of the dedication and commitment festival staff bring to this task. But difficulty of access is not a convincing defence in this case. If a festival shows 57 films from the United States of America and ten films from the entire Asian region, as was the case in 1999, such discrepancies cannot be put down to failure to secure one or two desired titles. As my article bears out, these figures are fairly consistent for the whole period under analysis.

The festival has made a number of huge contributions to local film culture and industry over its 51 year history. Asian cinema has been a part of that history but not as prominent a part as the festival would like to believe. For many years, most of the Asian films shown were accessed through the conduit of major European festivals but attempts were made to forge more direct links, not an easy task in the 1950s and ’60s. Under Rod Webb’s directorship in the mid-1980s the festival began making some headway in Asia and these contacts were cemented and expanded by Paul Byrnes when he became Director in 1989. Paul is responsible for establishing independent links between the SFF and the film producing institutions of a number of Asian countries including China and for commissioning leading scholars and specialists of Asian cinema to curate programs for the festival.

After Byrnes’s departure in 1998, Sydney began to lag behind other Australian festivals, especially Melbourne, in its commitment to a diverse representation of Asian cinema. That in itself is not a problem. Given that we are part of the Asian region and have greatly increased our engagement there over the last 30 years politically, economically and culturally, it seems appropriate that our festivals adequately represent its cinema but such a policy is by no means an obligation. All of that is up for debate, but the debate will have more vitality if we start with a realistic assessment of the festival’s current programming policy. The fact is that, in the festivals of recent years, English-language cinema from Britain, America and Australia has far outweighed the contribution from all Asian countries combined.

One of the features of the SFF since its inception in 1954 has been an openness to constructive criticism. Both Ian Klava (dir. 1962–1965) and David Stratton (dir. 1966–1983) were invited onto the festival’s organising committee after making vigorous criticisms of its programming policy. Such openness and self-awareness has been one of the festival’s greatest assets. It is by far the best way to avoid the creative death knell signalled by complacency.

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Freedom of Expression

Jake, thank you so much for your accurate editorial.

I myself am a writer/director who has previously made shorts, the last being The Way Back (2003) which was co-written with Lawrence Johnston, and I am currently writing a number of feature films. Although able to attract a small amount of private investment for development of a feature, I am now looking for government funding. I am skeptical as to whether the funding bodies will stand behind me on this project, even though they have with some of my shorts. The script we are looking for funding on stems very much from my own artistic vision and I think because it crosses fairly dark and violent territory (but is not only this) and has a strong individual style and cinematic philosophy, it runs the risk of not being approved.

Australia needs wild, idiosyncratic, dangerous, shocking, breathtaking, individual, strange, entertaining and original films more than ever and sadly we are not getting them. I also see some previously “artistic” Australian film makers (who have once or twice made original feature films) now trying to make films (unproduced as yet) which cater to certain tastes and audiences and end up betraying their own auteur. I can understand their temptation, because there is enormous pressure on them to conform.

Although for years the film community has been talking about the need to lend more support to individual visions, I don’t sense that this has really come into practice. Like yourself I long to see many Australian filmmakers’ unique future visions nurtured to life, including those who have already been lucky enough to produce such distinctive or artistic films you mentioned – hell, even Fred Schepisi is having trouble getting is own original Australian projects off the ground. People should be throwing money at him.

I feel sometimes individuals within the film community subtly block and look to censor what they aren’t aligned with. I suspect self-censorship (sometimes unconscious) is sadly a strong factor for fear of subtle reprisals or disapproval. This is bound to happen when people are working to depict a “reality” in certain ways, everyone has such personal philosophical angles they desire to push. However I suggest that unless producers, funders and financiers) are going to personally write or direct a film, they should place aside their own biases a little more and support the visions of the key creatives – with less concern for what the ideas expressed are, and more concern that the ideas are expressed well.

When there is enough support for freedom of expression (not just political); when more of those who dole out the money for development and production are eager to step in another’s shoes and feel what it is like to experience seeing things differently through art/film and not just have their own beliefs confirmed; when more critics are brave enough to say what they really think of Australian films and hold them to an international standard; when there is enough of us creatives who have the courage and imagination to seize our own freedom of expression and run with it even if it doesn’t fit into some prescribed mould; then things will change for the better and a vigorous creativity will flow again within Australian filmmaking.

Samuel Macgeorge

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“Joseph” von Sternberg

With reference to Jeff Smith’s review of Soundscape: The School of Sound Lectures 1998-2001: I guess my spelling von Sternberg’s first name Joseph was stupidly polemical, but I did want to underline the Americanness of this director, who is often misidentified as being European. After all, Sternberg made his first films for the United States army, having been drafted during World War 1, a war fought against Austria-Hungary, the country of his birth. Moreover, when he went to Germany to make that country’s first sound film, he brought with him knowledge of Hollywood sound practice and technology.

I think I would normally have written “Josef”, but I chose the English spelling as I was 1) referring to his single German film, 2) had in the forefront of my mind that the sound technology he had worked with in Hollywood was more advanced than that available to him in Germany, 3) was quoting my friend Barry Salt, who uses “Joseph” (as does another friend, Noël Burch) and 4) was re-presenting a talk under pressures of time and word count.

Having made this decision, I’m happy to stand by it, but I reserve the right not to be consistent in the future. I also apologise for using a polemical shorthand which made sense to me on the spur of the moment, but was obviously blatantly obscure.

James Leahy

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