Unknown knowns, and known unknowns


Is there any other art form where the unidentified and the lost have as much cultural cachet as they do in film? Perhaps in some quarters there are those who fret over lost operas or unattributed paintings, but there doesn’t seem anything that quite matches the fascination film buffs (especailly silent film buffs) and film archivists have for films that no longer exist (but might be found somewhere), and films that do exist but whose identity is no longer known. It must have something to the photography and the nearness in time. We’re just a few generations away from when these films were made, and yet we have forgotten already. There is tragedy, and there is guilt.

Perhaps the nearest discipline, if not art form, is archaeology, which likewise looks for that which is lost, and puzzles over that which has been found but whose purpose is unclear. So it is appropriate that a workshop on identifying unidentified films, to be organised at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus, should be entitled Silent Film Archaeology. The workshop takes place 14-16 June at the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, Virginia, and here are the details:

A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop

The staff of the Moving Image Section of the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation will host SILENT FILM ARCHAEOLOGY: A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop, during June 14-16, 2012. The workshop will include unidentified films from other film preservation archives in addition to those from the Library’s collection.

NOTE: Due to resource limitations, participation in this workshop in 2012 will be limited to film archivists and historians actively engaged in film preservation activities and research efforts devoted to American produced films of the silent era. No support will be provided by the Library of Congress for travel, lodging, meals, local transportation or other expenses incurred by participants.

SILENT FILM ARCHAEOLOGY: A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop will be a three day event and take place at the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, Virginia, during June 14-16, 2012. The majority of the films presented will be “silents” but will not be shown in silence. Phil Carli, Ben Model and Andrew Simpson will provide musical accompaniment. In addition to full days of workshop screenings, there will be evening public screenings of recent restorations the titles of which will be announced at a later date.

A recently completed study by David Pierce, now being prepared for publication by the Library of Congress, confirms what film archivists have long suspected—that 76% of all U.S. feature films produced between 1912 and 1930 no longer survive, or exist only in fragments in non-US film archives. In spite of this sobering statistic, it is known that most US film archives hold considerable amounts of both “unidentified” and “inadequately identified” films and film fragments from the silent era. The SILENT FILM ARCHAEOLOGY: A Packard Campus Film Identification Workshop will bring together practicing film archivists and researchers in an informal atmosphere for the purpose of screening 35mm prints and sharing comments and opinions, with the expectation that a significant number of the puzzles among the Library’s collection of unidentified and poorly identified films will be solved. Some film elements with sound tracks may also be screened.

It is hoped that this important film research and discovery effort will become a regularly scheduled Packard Campus activity, in service to the community of film preservationists, and that it can be expanded in the future to include all under-investigated areas of creative and technological achievement in the history of US motion pictures.

Prior registration is required and no reservations will be accepted after May 18, 2012. For more information, or to request a registration form contact: Rob Stone, Moving Image Curator at rsto [at] loc.gov. All registrants will receive additional information on schedule, housing and directions.

One of the organisers of the workshop, Rachel Parker, is also the person behind the Nitrate Film Interest Group, a Flickr site established by the Association of Moving Image Archivists which posts images from unidentified films from archives around the world, and invites anyone to have a go at ientifying them. Many have since we first drew your attention to the site, and there is now a triumphant section presenting those images which have now been identified thanks to the wisdom of individuals, if not the crowd.

It’s a good an example as there is of film archives reinventing themselves and their relationship with their users through the opportunities the web now presents to us. Do take a look, and if you can’t identify any film or person therein, you can still delight in the images and maybe contemplate the passing of time and the transcience of fame.

The time machine

Demonstration video for the Manchester Time Machine

Now here’s a really enterprising initiative, and a sign of where things will be going for archive film. The North West Film Archive in Manchester has just issued what is probably the first iPhone app using archive film. The Manchester Time Machine marries archive film of the city with GPS data, so that wherever you are in Manchester you can check your phone and see film of that place from decades past.

It doesn’t quite operate at street level – there are eighty video clips ranging from the 1910s to the 1970s, so you have to be in the right place, but it’s a natural way of connecting people today with a place’s moving image heritage. There isn’t a list of all the films used (unless you download the app of course), but the silent films include a Whit Walk in Market Street in 1911, and policemen marching in front of the Town Hall in 1914. The films are grouped by decade from the 1910s, or you can select a location from an interactive Manchester map, or just use your GPS to locate whichever archive film is near you. the clips come with background information and a ‘virtual compass’ so you can orient yourself to be facing in the same direction as the film was shot.

The app, which is free, can be downloaded from the iTunes app store, and versions for Android and iPad are to follow soon. Obviously it can only be used effectively by people in Manchester, but I’m pretty sure it’s an idea that is going to be emulated, in the UK and elsewhere. Just imagine how it might be used for silent film locations…

While we’re on the subject of the North West Film Archive, they also have a DVD out March 13th, Preston and its Guild 1902 to 1992. This is a history of the Lancashire town of Preston through its rich legacy of archive film. That there were so many local newsreel made of Preston in the early years was down to the superabundant energy of local filmmaker and impresario Will Onda, who is the subject of a research project by Emma Heslewood, who keeps up an engaging blog on her discoveries.

The North West Film Archive is one a of number of regional film archives in the UK whose great enterprise and whose important collections we have highlighted on these pages before now. Such archives have always had to think quickly on their feet, and the various ways in which they are grasping the opportunities of new media platforms is truly heartening to see.

Australian journey no. 3 – The Corricks

We have written about the remarkable Corrick Collection before now. The Corrick Family Entertainer were performing troupe comprising Albert and Sarah Corrick and their eight children which toured Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia between 1901 and 1914. Their act incorporated films, some shot by themselves, but mostly selected from the best offerings from French, American and British producers. Around 135 films survive in the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, notable for their high quality and often exquisite colouring.

This video serves as an introduction to the family and the collection, with copious clips showing how the films serve as a primer for any keen to discovery the variety, inventiveness and delightfulness of early cinema. It’s a little odd in that it is entirely silent – not even music – but it is beautifully put together, and gives you all of the essential information, from the family history through to the film’s restoration.

For more information on the Corricks, see the australianscreen overview of the collection, the NFSA’s account of the films’ restoration, with film clips and interviews, or investigate newspapers, photographs, aticles and more on the Corricks via Australia’s peerless Trove database.

(Memo to the NFSA – you do know that the Corrick film in your collection which you continue to promote as Living London, made by Charles Urban in 1904, is in fact The Streets of London, made by Urban in 1906?)

National Film Registry 2011

The Cry of the Children

It’s that time of the year once again at the end of the year when we have the announcement of twenty-five further films added to the National Film Registry. Each year the Librarian of Congress (James H. Billington), with advice from the National Film Preservation Board (and with recommendations made by the public), names twenty-five American films deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant that are to be added to the National Film Registry, “to be preserved for all time”. The idea is that such films are not selected as the “best” American films of all time, but rather as “works of enduring significance to American culture”.

Four silent films are among the titles chosen for 2011: the Thanhouser Film Company’s heartfelt social problem drama The Cry of the Children (1912), the world’s most popular film comedian before Chaplin, John Bunny, in A Cure for Pokeritis (1912), with his regular foil Flora Finch; John Ford’s classic railroad western The Iron Horse (1924); and Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film, The Kid (1921). Here’s how the National Film Registry describes its silent choices:

The Cry of the Children (1912)
Recognized as a key work that both reflected and contributed to the pre-World War I child labor reform movement, the two-reel silent melodrama “The Cry of the Children” takes its title and fatalistic, uncompromising tone of hopelessness from the 1842 poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “The Cry of the Children” was part of a wave of “social problem” films released during the 1910s on such subjects as drugs and alcohol, white slavery, immigrants and women’s suffrage. Some were sensationalist attempts to exploit lurid topics, while others, like “The Cry of the Children,” were realistic exposés that championed social reform and demanded change. Shot partially in a working textile factory, “The Cry of the Children” was recognized by an influential critic of the time as “The boldest, most timely and most effective appeal for the stamping out of the cruelest of all social abuses.”

A Cure for Pokeritis (1912)
Largely forgotten today, actor John Bunny merits significant historical importance as the American film industry’s earliest comic superstar. A stage actor prior to the start of his film career, Bunny starred in over 150 Vitagraph Company productions from 1910 until his death in 1915. Many of his films (affectionately known as “Bunnygraphs”) were gentle “domestic” comedies, in which he portrayed a henpecked husband alongside co-star Flora Finch. “A Cure for Pokeritis” exemplifies the genre, as Finch conspires with similarly displeased wives to break up their husbands’ weekly poker game. When Bunny died in 1915, a New York Times editorial noted that “Thousands who had never heard him speak…recognized him as the living symbol of wholesome merriment.” The paper presciently commented on the importance of preserving motion pictures and sound recordings for future generations: “His loss will be felt all over the country, and the films, which preserve his humorous personality in action, may in time have a new value. It is a subject worthy of reflection, the value of a perfect record of a departed singer’s voice, of the photographic films perpetuating the drolleries of a comedian who developed such extraordinary capacity for acting before the camera.”

The Iron Horse (1924)
John Ford’s epic Western “The Iron Horse” established his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most accomplished directors. Intended by Fox studios to rival Paramount’s 1923 epic “The Covered Wagon,” Ford’s film employed more than 5,000 extras, advertised authenticity in its attention to realistic detail, and provided him with the opportunity to create iconic visual images of the Old West, inspired by such master painters as Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. A tale of national unity achieved after the Civil War through the construction of the transcontinental railroad, “The Iron Horse” celebrated the contributions of Irish, Italian and Chinese immigrants although the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country legally was severely restricted at the time of its production. A classic silent film, “The Iron Horse” introduced to American and world audiences a reverential, elegiac mythology that has influenced many subsequent Westerns.

The Kid (1921)
Charles Chaplin’s first full-length feature, the silent classic “The Kid,” is an artful melding of touching drama, social commentary and inventive comedy. The tale of a foundling (Jackie Coogan, soon to be a major child star) taken in by the Little Tramp, “The Kid” represents a high point in Chaplin’s evolving cinematic style, proving he could sustain his artistry beyond the length of his usual short subjects and could deftly elicit a variety of emotions from his audiences by skillfully blending slapstick and pathos.

The other films on the 2011 list are Allures (1961), Bambi (1942), The Big Heat (1953), A Computer Animated Hand (1972), Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment (1963), El Mariachi (1992), Faces (1968), Fake Fruit Factory (1986), Forrest Gump (1994), Growing Up Female (1971), Hester Street (1975), I, an Actress (1977), The Lost Weekend (1945), The Negro Soldier (1944), Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-40s) [technically silent, of course], Norma Rae (1979), Porgy and Bess (1959), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Stand and Deliver (1988), Twentieth Century (1934), War of the Worlds (1953).

The full list of films entered on the National Film Registry since 1989 can be found here, while this is the list of all silents (or films with some silent content) on the Registry 1989-2010:

The Bargain (1914)
Ben-Hur (1926)
Big Business (1929)
The Big Parade (1925)
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The Black Pirate (1926)
Blacksmith Scene (1893)
The Blue Bird (1918)
Broken Blossoms (1919)
The Cameraman (1928)
The Cheat (1915)
The Chechahcos (1924)
Civilization (1916)
Clash of the Wolves (1925)
Cops (1922)
A Corner in Wheat (1909)
The Crowd (1928)
The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916-17)
Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894-95)
The Docks of New York (1928)
Evidence of the Film (1913)
The Exploits of Elaine (1914)
Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
Fatty’s Tintype Tangle (1915)
Flesh and the Devil (1927)
Foolish Wives (1920)
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)
The Freshman (1925)
From the Manger to the Cross (1912)
The General (1927)
Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)
The Gold Rush (1925)
Grass (1925)
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Greed (1924)
H20 (1929)
Hands Up (1926)
Hell’s Hinges (1926)
Heroes All (1920)
The Immigrant (1917)
In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)
Intolerance (1916)
It (1927)
The Italian (1915)
Jeffries-Johnson World’s Championship Boxing Contest (1910)
The Kiss (1896)
Lady Helen’s Escapade (1909)
Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)
Land Beyond the Sunset (1912)
The Last Command (1928)
The Last of the Mohicans (1920)
The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1927)
Little Nemo (1911)
Lonesome (1928)
The Lost World (1925)
Mabel’s Blunder (1914)
Making of an American (1920)
Manhatta (1921)
Matrimony’s Speed Limit (1913)
Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
Miss Lulu Bett (1922)
Nanook of the North (1922)
Newark Athlete (1891)
One Week (1920)
Pass the Gravy (1928)
Peter Pan (1924)
The Perils of Pauline (1914)
Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
Power of the Press (1928)
Precious Images (1986)
Preservation of the Sign Language (1913)
President McKinley Inauguration Footage (1901)
Princess Nicotine; or The Smoke Fairy (1909)
Regeneration (1915)
The Revenge of Pancho Villa (1930-36)
Rip Van Winkle (1896)
Safety Last (1923)
Salome (1922)
San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, April 18, 1906 (1906)
Seventh Heaven (1927)
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
Show People (1928)
Sky High (1922)
The Son of the Sheik (1926)
Stark Love (1927)
Star Theatre (1901)
The Strong Man (1926)
Sunrise (1927)
Tess of the Storm Country (1914)
There it is (1928)
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
Tol’able David (1921)
Traffic in Souls (1913)
A Trip Down Market Street (1906)
The Wedding March (1928)
Westinghouse Works, 1904 (1904)
Where Are My Children? (1916)
Wild and Wooly (1917)
The Wind (1928)
Wings (1927)
Within our Gates (1920)

The Library of Congress welcome suggestions from the public, and even provides a helpful list of titles not on the Registry yet but which are under consideration, to help prod your memories. It contains well over 200 silent films alone, which suggests that they are not about to run out of ideas just yet.

At the risk of repeating ourselves, last year we said that a list of American films worthy of preservation is all very well (and none of these films automatically gets preserved just because it is nominated – it’s an honour, not a financial award), but what about a world film registry? One which drew attention to world cinema (silents and beyond) and its need for preservation on account of its cultural, historical or aesthetic relevance. We have some films now listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World register, but that’s not really enough. Isn’t it the sort of thing that FIAF ought to promote?

Looking back on 2011

News in 2011, clockwise from top left: The White Shadow, The Artist, A Trip to the Moon in colour, Brides of Sulu

And so we come to the end of another year, and for the Bioscope it is time to look back on another year reporting on the world of early and silent film. Over the twelve months we have written some 180 posts posts, or well nigh 100,000 words, documenting a year that has been as eventful a one for silent films as we can remember, chiefly due to the timeless 150-year-old Georges Méliès and to the popular discovery of the modern silent film thanks to The Artist. So let’s look back on 2011.

Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès in Hugo

Georges Méliès has been the man of the year. Things kicked off in May with the premiere at Cannes of the coloured version of Le voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), marvellously, indeed miraculously restored by Lobster Films. The film has been given five star publicity treatment, with an excellent promotional book, a new score by French band Air which has upset some but pleased us when we saw it at Pordenone, a documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, and the use of clips from the film in Hugo, released in November. For, yes, the other big event in Méliès’ 150th year was Martin Scorsese’s 3D version of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, in which Méliès is a leading character. Ben Kingsley bring the man convincingly to life, and the film thrillingly recreates the Méliès studio as it pleads for us all to understand our film history. The Bioscope thought the rest of the film was pretty dire, to be honest, though in this it seems to be in a minority. But just because a film pleads the cause of film doesn’t make it a good film …

And there was more from Georges, with his great-great-grandaughter Pauline Duclaud-Lacoste Méliès producing an official website, Matthew Solomon’s edited volume Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (with DVD extra), a conference that took place in July, and a three-disc DVD set from Studio Canal.

For the Bioscope itself things have been eventful. In January we thought a bit about changing the site radically, then thought better of this. There was our move to New Bioscope Towers in May, the addition of a Bioscope Vimeo channel for videos we embed from that excellent site, and the recent introduction of our daily news service courtesy of Scoop It! We kicked off the year with a post on the centenary of the ever-topical Siege of Sidney Street, an important event in newsreel history, and ended it with another major news event now largely forgotten, the Delhi Durbar. Anarchists win out over imperialists is the verdict of history.

Asta Nielsen in Hamlet

We were blessed with a number of great DVD and Blu-Ray releases, with multi-DVD and boxed sets being very much in favour. Among those that caught the eye and emptied the wallet were Edition Filmmuseum’s Max Davidson Comedies, the same company’s collection of early film and magic lantern slide sets Screening the Poor and the National Film Preservation Foundation’s five disc set Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938. Individual release of the year was Edition Filmmuseum’s Hamlet (Germany 1920), with Asta Nielsen and a fine new music score (Flicker Alley’s Norwegian surprise Laila just loses out because theatre organ scores cause us deep pain).

We recently produced a round-up of the best silent film publications of 2011, including such titles as Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films, Andrew Shail’s Reading the Cinematograph: The Cinema in British Short Fiction 1896-1912 and John Bengston’s Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd. But we should note also Susan Orlean’s cultural history Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, which has made quite an impact in the USA, though we’ve not read it ourselves as yet.

There were all the usual festivals, with Bologna championing Conrad Veidt, Boris Barnet and Alice Guy, and Pordenone giving us Soviets, Soviet Georgians, polar explorers and Michael Curtiz. We produced our traditional detailed diaries for each of the eight days of the festival. But it was particularly pleasing to see new ventures turning up, including the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Scotland, which launched in February and is due back in 2012. Babylon Kino in Berlin continued to make programming waves with its complete Chaplin retropective in July. Sadly, the hardy annual Slapsticon was cancelled this year – we hope it returns in a healthy state next year.

The Artist (yet again)

2011 was the year when the modern silent film hit the headlines, the The Artist enchanting all-comers at Cannes and now being touted for the Academy Award best picture. We have lost count of the number of articles written recently about a revival of interest in silent films, and their superiority in so many respects to the films of today. Jaded eyes are looking back to a (supposedly) gentler age, it seems. We’ve not seen it yet, so judgement is reserved for the time being. Here, we’ve long championed the modern silent, though our March post on Mr Bean was one of the least-read that we’ve penned in some while.

Among the year’s conferences on silent film themes there was the First International Berkeley Conference on Silent Cinema held in February; the Construction of News in Early Cinema in Girona in March, which we attended and from which we first experimented with live blogging; the opportunistically themed The Second Birth of Cinema: A Centenary Conference held in Newcastle, UK in July; and Importing Asta Nielsen: Cinema-Going and the Making of the Star System in the Early 1910s, held in Frankfurt in September.

In the blogging world, sadly we said goodbye to Christopher Snowden’s The Silent Movie Blog in February – a reminder that we bloggers are mostly doing this for love, but time and its many demands do sometimes call us away to do other things. However, we said hello to John Bengston’s very welcome Silent Locations, on the real locations behind the great silent comedies. Interesting new websites inclued Roland-François Lack’s visually stunning and intellectually intriguing The Cine-Tourist, and the Turconi Project, a collection of digitised frames for early silents collected by the Swiss priest Joseph Joye.

The Bioscope always has a keen eye for new online research resources, and this was a year when portals that bring together several databases started to dominate the landscape. The single institution is no longer in a position to pronounce itself to be the repository of all knowledge; in the digital age we are seeing supra-institutional models emerging. Those we commented on included the Canadiana Discovery Portal, the UK research services Connected Histories and JISC Media Hub, UK film’s archives’ Search Your Film Archives, and the directory of world archives ArchiveGrid. We made a special feature of the European Film Gateway, from whose launch event we blogged live and (hopefully) in lively fashion.

Images of Tacita Dean’s artwork ‘Film’ at Tate Modern

We also speculated here and there on the future of film archives in this digital age, particularly when we attended the Screening the Future event in Hilversum in March, and then the UK Screen Heritage Strategy, whose various outputs were announced in September. We mused upon media and history when we attended the Iamhist conference in Copenhagen (it’s been a jet-setting year), philosophizing on the role of historians in making history in another bout of live blogging (something we hope to pursue further in 2012). 2011 was the year when everyone wrote their obituaries for celluloid. The Bioscope sat on the fence when considering the issue in November, on the occasion of Tacita Dean’s installation ‘Film’ at Tate Modern – but its face was looking out towards digital.

Significant web video sources launched this year included the idiosyncractic YouTube channel of Huntley Film Archives, the Swedish Filmarkivet.se, the Thanhouser film company’s Vimeo channel, and George Eastman House’s online cinematheque; while we delighted in some of the ingenious one-second videos produced for a Montblanc watches competition in November.

It was a year when digitised film journals made a huge leap forward, from occasional sighting to major player in the online film research world, with the official launch of the Media History Digital Library. Its outputs led to Bioscope reports on film industry year books, seven years of Film Daily (1922-1929) and the MHDL itself. “This is the new research library” we said, and we think we’re right. Another important new online resource was the Swiss journal Kinema, for the period 1913-1919.

It has also been a year in which 3D encroached itself upon the silent film world. The aforementioned Hugo somewhat alarmingly gives us not only Méliès films in 3D, but those of the Lumière brothers, and film of First World War soldiers (colourised to boot). The clock-face sequence from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (also featured in Hugo) was converted to 3D and colourised, much to some people’s disgust; while news in November that Chaplin’s films were to be converted into 3D for a documentary alarmed and intrigued in equal measure.

The Soldier’s Courtship

Film discovery of the year? The one that grabbed all the headlines – though many of them were misleading ones – was The White Shadow (1923), three reels of which turned up in New Zealand. Normally an incomplete British silent directed by Graham Cutts wouldn’t set too many pulses running, but it was assistant director Alfred Hitchcock who attracted all the attention. Too many journalists and bloggers put the story ahead of the history, though one does understand why. But for us the year’s top discovery was Robert Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship (1896), the first British fiction film made for projection, which was uncovered in Rome and unveiled in Pordenone. It may be just a minute long, but it is a perky delight, with a great history behind its production and restoration.

Another discovery was not of a lost film but rather a buried one. Philippine archivists found that an obscure mid-1930s American B-feature, Brides of Sulu, was in all probability made out of one, if not two, otherwise lost Philippines silents, Princess Tarhata and The Moro Pirate. No Philippine silent fiction film was known have survived before now, which makes this a particularly happy discovery, shown at Manila’s International Silent film Festival in August. The Bioscope post and its comments unravel the mystery.

Among the year’s film restorations, those that caught the eye were those that were most keenly promoted using online media. They included The First Born (UK 1928), Ernst Lubistch’s Das Weib des Pharao (Germany 1922) and the Pola Negri star vehicle Mania (Germany 1918).

Some interesting news items throughout the year included the discovery of unique (?) film of the Ballet Russes in the British Pathé archive in February; in April Google added a ‘1911’ button to YouTube to let users ‘age’ their videos by 100 years (a joke that backfired somewhat) then in the same month gave us a faux Chaplin film as its logo for the day; in May the much-hyped film discovery Zepped (a 1916 animation with some Chaplin outtakes) was put up for auction in hope of a six-figure sum, which to few people’s surprise it signally failed to achieve; and in July there was the discovery of a large collection of generic silent film scores in Birmingham Library.

Barbara Kent

And we said goodbye to some people. The main person we lost from the silent era itself was Barbara Kent, star of Flesh and the Devil and Lonesome, who made it to 103. Others whose parting we noted were the scholar Miriam Hansen; social critic and author of the novel Flicker Theodore Roszak; the founder of Project Gutenberg, Michael Hart; and the essayist and cinéaste Gilbert Adair.

Finally, there were those ruminative or informational Bioscope posts which we found it interesting to compile over the year. They include a survey of cricket and silent film; thoughts on colour and early cinema; a survey of digitised newspaper collections, an investigation into the little-known history of the cinema-novel, the simple but so inventive Phonotrope animations of Jim Le Fevre and others, thoughts on the not-so-new notion of 48 frames per second, the amateur productions of Dorothea Mitchell, the first aviation films, on silent films shown silently, and on videos of the brain activity of those who have been watching films.

As always, we continue to range widely in our themes and interests, seeing silent cinema not just for its own sake but as a means to look out upon the world in general. “A view of life or survey of life” is how the dictionary defines the word ‘bioscope’ in its original use. We aim to continue doing so in 2012.

Films from the fens

Stencil colour film of Blickling Hall, Norfolk, from Eve and Everybody’s Film Review (1929)

A significant release of archive films online, many of them silent, was announced recently. The East Anglian Film Archive, founded by David Cleveland in 1976, funded by the University of East Anglia, and now located in the Archive Centre, Norfolk, has published online 200 hours from its film collection, the outcome of a major cataloguing and digitisation project undertaken as part of the UK’s Screen Heritage programme which has been doing much to support public sector film archiving in the UK.

The search, browse and highlight options can all be accessed via the front page of the site. The site design is unusual, in a plain sort of way, but not ineffective and undoubtedly user friendly. It is certainly easy to find silent era films – you simply go to the browse option, where there is a timeline with sliders which you can drag for dates anywhere between 1895 and 2010, something I’ve not seen on many other sites and which is such a simple, sensible way of guiding people to a time period. Select 1895-1930, and you get around 150 items, all of them instantly playable, and with some some real treasures, surprises and at least one major discovery.

The films all come from those English counties covered by the East Anglian region, including Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. So there are many films of primarily regional interest only (which is of courses the raison d’être of a regional film archive), though equally they are encouragement to anyone interested in film history and history through film to consider the importance of place and regional (not just national) identity in film culture. For example, John Grierson’s celebrated documentary Drifters (1929) is generally lionised for its early position in the history of the art of documentary film, but it turns up here (in its entirety) because it was partly shot in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Drifters is, fundamentally, and importantly, a regional film.

There are many other records of the East Anglian region, from interest, travel, amateur and newsreel films of the period. The latter include probably unique examples of the rare Warwick Bioscope Chronicle and British Screen News newsreels, and local newsreel the Bostock Gazette (a number of UK towns and cities in the silent era had local news services, often maintained by an indiviual cinema where the projectionist doubled as camera operator, though other such ‘newsreels’ were produced by local enthusiasts on an amateur basis). There is 1929 stencil colour film of Blicking Hall in Norfolk, from Pathé’s cinemagazine Eve and Everybody’s Film Review; film pioneer Birt Acres’ 1896 film of Yarmouth fishing trawlers, the first film made in the region; an experimental work by George Sewell, one of the founder members of the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers, whose The Gaiety of Nations (1929) is a visually inventive comment on world politics; and several delightful examples of silent advertising films, including a number advertising Colman’s Mustard, which were based in Norwich (see for example the spoof 1926 newsreel The Mustard Club Topical Budget, featuring a popular set of characters from an advertising campaign of the period).

Jackeydawra Melford (wearing witch’s hat) as Jackeydawra in The Herncrake Witch (1913)

The major discovery is The Herncrake Witch (1913), which I had believed to be a lost film. It is a drama starring Jackeydawra Melford, one of the first women to direct a film in Britain. We have written about Jackeydawra Melford before now, in one of the earliest Bioscope posts, noting that she produced and starred in The Herncrake Witch (1912), The Land of Nursery Rhymes (1912) and The Inn on the Heath (1914), directing the last of those (her actor father directed The Herncrake Witch). None was known to survive. The EAFA catalogue record doesn’t give that much information about the film, which is intriguing in theme if quaintly produced, noting that it was made by Heron Films, a company founded by Andrew Heron who worked with Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, of whom more in a moment. The film is described as an ‘excerpt’, though there can’t be too much missing (it runs for 8 minutes, and the original length was 710 feet). Anyway, it is a major discovery for those interested in British silent women filmmakers, of whom there are a number.

Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle (c.1901), possibly filmed by Laura Bayley using the 17.5mm Biokam system (note the distinctive central perforations). The cat is playing its fiddle and the cow is jumping over the moon

Another welcome surprise is from another woman filmmaker. Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle (c.1901) is an example of the 17.5mm Biokam films issued by Brighton filmmaker George Albert Smith, for which there reasons to believe that the director was his actress wife Laura Bayley. What its East Anglian connection might be I’m not sure, but it’s a precious example of a pantomime act filmed on stage (the practice seems to have been that Smith made a 35mm film of a subject, then his wife shot the 17.5mm version, possibly simultaneously, but sometimes at a different time, as there are noticeable differences between the few examples where both 35mm and 17.5mm subjects survive).

A third example of a woman filmmaker is the amateur comedy Sally Sallies Forth (1928), directed by Frances Lascot, working with producer/editor Ivy Low, which is a well-produced example of the considerable number of amateur film dramas made at this time by hobbyist individuals and film clubs. It would have been nice to have a bit more information about the film’s production on the catalogue (not least where it was shot).

From pleasant surprises to not so pleasant surprises. There are several films in the collection attributed to the aforementioned Hertfordshire filmmaker Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, indeed there is a special section of the site devoted to him. Cooper is an interesting figure, involved in British films as assistant to Birt Acres from the earliest years, and later an important pioneer of the animation film. Unfortunately, his daughter and later some film historians took up his cause as a neglected master of early film, and claimed for him a number of films that he never made, or misdated other films to make them seem earlier examples of film innovation than is in fact the case. In some cases it seems Cooper told his family that films in his collection were ‘his’, when they were only so insofar as he may have exhibited them once and now owned them. I won’t go down the tedious route of pointing out which titles are wrongly identified and which aren’t (and there a quite a number that are genuinely his). It’s just really surprising that a responsible archive such as the EAFA put up these films with their dubious attributions to the fore, especially when their catalogue notes usually give pointers to the correct identification.

This abberation aside, the East Anglian Film Archive‘s new website is a very welcome new resource. It not only documents the East Anglian region so well, but for the silent film specialist it present the great variety of films of filmmaking from our period: dramas (professional and amateur), newsreels, travelogues, trick films, advertising films, industrials, magazines. It celebrates the medium in all its inventive richness, while reminding us of the particular meanings films have for particular people.

If you ae interested to find out more about the UK regional archives, visit the Film Archives UK website, or else read the 2009 Bioscope post on some of the UK regional film collections to be found online, including the Yorkshire Film Archive, Screen Archive South East and the Media Archive for Central England, all of whom have signficant silent films collection available to view online. And if you want to find them all (or at least a lot of what they hold) in one place, they you must try the new Search Your Film Archives portal hosted by the BFI (another UK Screen Heritage output). There is so much out there now to be found – do please reward the archives and those who have funded these initiatives by browsing, viewing, and taking film journeys down routes that you may not have expected.

Archive fever


Time for another research resource, and this looks like a major one. ArchiveGrid, still in beta form, aims to be a gateway to the world’s archives. It has been created by OCLC, the library organisation behind WorldCat (“the world’s largest library catalog”). Much as WorldCat turns the catalogues of the world’s libraries into one giant catalogue, so ArchiveGrid wants to become the single place from which the researcher may discover anything held in an archive, anywhere.

OK, so it’s some way off such an ambition just yet, being largely composed of American archives, and they are collection descriptions rather than individual items (I think we’re going to have a long wait for that to happen). Each record gives you the name of the contributing institution, the title of the particular collection (each institution may have several collections, of course), the collection description, contact details (a link to the institution’s website), and catalogue record (including unique OCLC identifier) or finding aid. Searches can be narrowed by institution or location, there is a selection of topics to guide you through the collections. And by typing in your postal code you can see on a Google map which participating archives are in your area.

So, what can we find on silent films? The answer is plenty. Our standard test term, ‘kinetoscope’, brings up the Raff and Gammon papers at Harvard University – Baker Library, a typescript study of Thomas Edison by Rose Lombard in Harvard University – Theodore Roosevelt Collection, and the Library of Congress’ Inventing Entertainment website, which Pennsylvania State University Libraries has cited as a resource. ‘Cinematograph’ produces 38 hits, from the Paul Rotha papers at UCLA to the United Artists Corporation Records at Wisconsin Historical Society Library and Archives. ‘Silent film’ brings up 260 records: examples include the silent film music collection at the University of Colorado, Boulder; Lillian Gish papers at Bowling Green State University – Center for Archival Collections; and the Cecil B. DeMille Archives at Brigham Young University – L. Tom Perry Special Collections.

Much of this sort of information has been available in printed directories, but not, I think, in so extensive and freely available an online resource as this (ArchiveGrid has had an earlier existence as a subscription service, which didn’t get enough subscribers). Clearly it is a huge boon for research of every kind. It is mostly written archives, but not exclusively so; while some of the archival objects might be more naturally classified as books, so that you wonder how WorldCat and ArchiveGrid might be brought together in some way, at some glorious future point.

There are other directories of archives out there. UK researchers should be familiar with the National Archives’ National Register of Archives and the Access 2 Archives search resource, but perhaps not all know the university archives service Archives Hub, or AIM25 for archives in the London area. We have previously higlighted the Canadian Discovery Portal, and sung the praises of Australia’s Trove portal. Regrettably the UNESCO Archives Portal for archives worldwide is no longer accessible online.

New to me is Archives Portal Europe, a pilot service for opening up European archives, which doesn’t appear to have a great deal on film, and what can be found seems eccentric or marginal, though its multilingual nature is likely to hiding more than I realise (try the search terms ‘cinema’ or ‘kino’ for an idea of the range of content).

Directories of film archives are another matter, and should be the subject of another post. Meanwhile ArchiveGrid is a particularly exciting development, and likely to spark off plenty of new research projects. Go explore.

Heritage matters


If someone offered you £25M to save the nation’s moving image heritage, what would you say, and how would you spend it?

Both questions are worth considering, because the first answer is that you couldn’t save the nation’s moving image heritage with ten times that amount, so you need more. In fact, when the UK’s public sector moving archives (excluding Scotland and Wales) were offered round about this sum four years ago from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, it was less than they had originally asked for. The pitch had been for twice that amount, but funders love to give you just that little bit less than you asked for and see how well you do with that.

So you’ve got less than you hoped, and now you have to spend it. Of course you have to spend it against an argument presented to your funder, the argument here being a strategy in support of the UK’s screen heritage, which would help stabilise an unsteady and certainly underfunded sector. There were four ‘investment’ aims” to the strategy:

  • Securing the National Collection
    Capital works to extend and improve BFI storage facilities with appropriate conditions to safeguard the collection.
  • Revitalising the Regions
    Nomination of key collections in the English Regions, leading to improved plans for their preservation and access.
  • Delivering Digital Access
    Extending online access to the Nation’s screen heritage, through collection cross-searching and digitisation.
  • Demonstrating Educational Value
    Identifying, developing and evaluating effective use of screen heritage material within learning environments.

Four years on, and ‘demonstrating educational value’ rather got lost in the mix, but significant achievements have been made under the main three categories, and yesterday at the BFI Southbank they were announced to an invited audience. The Bioscope (naturally) was there.

It was a curious evening, which began with a clip shown from David Lean’s own 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia, inelegantly cut off just as it was getting interesting, then effusive words in praise of film as a medium to inspire, move, inform, entertain, engage and so on. The main business, however, said little about the feature film and focussed chiefly on amateur and documentary film, stressing their special capacity for capturing human experience and strongly suggesting that the film history we have is a greatly inadequate one. We know a lot about a few films, said speaker Frank Gray of Screen Archive South East, and know next to nothing about a huge number of other films that lie in archives, demanding discovery, interpretation and sharing.

We heard from the people at the BFI who have steered the strategy, with head of collection and information Ruth Kelly doing a fine turn explaining the necessities of film preservation and even managing to make database management sound interesting. A panel session stressed the great value of archive film for an understanding of history and society, and the notable achievement of the strategy in getting so many film archives to work together for a common aim (how many other sectors could boast such co-operation?). The convenor, Francine Stock, suggested that what was being argued for archive film went a good way beyond nostalgia, but unfortunately we were then shown clips from the shamelessly nostalgic BBC series Reel History of Britain, first broadcast yesterday, which shows archive films being taken around the UK and projected to weeping audiences. Though it is always moving to see someone old see themselves when young, or a parent or grandparent when young, there is so much more to the medium than this. The series bombards you with the same emotional manipulation again and again. A wasted opportunity.

The BFI Master Film Store

But how did they spend the £25M (or £22.8M as it has boiled down to)? The greater proportion of it (£12M) went on building a new master film store for the BFI, though its facilities will be available for other archives as well. This is going to take the nation’s moving image heritage and keep it cold and dry (minus 5 degrees and 35% relative humidity, to be precise). As Ruth Kelly explained, a few years ago the BFI discovered that the traditional preservation model of copying from one film onto new stock was no longer sustainable, because the amount of films on the verge of deterioration was outstripping the resources available to manage it. The solution was to keep the films at a cold enough temperature to ensure that the process of decay was halted. You don’t copy, you freeze. It seems an obvious, economical solution now, but when first proposed it caused huge controversy, with the BFI attacked on all sides, and a secret online group formed to try and save the BFI from itself. How foolish that all seems now.

The master film store is being built at Gaydon in Warwickshire, and there’s a video guide to it on the BBC news site, with Ruth Kelly telling us the difference between nitrate, acetate and polyester, and showing us round.

Officially launched yesterday was another key output of the Screen Heritage Strategy, a union search facility enabling you to search across the databases of eleven film archives in one go. Entitled Search Your Film Archives, it has already been reported on by the Bioscope, and favourably. The idea is that the search mechanism will appear on the websites of each of the participating archives, so their users can find what’s held locally and nationally in the same place. It also links you to some 3,000 online videos on their websites of the respective archives. Search Your Film Archives is a good first step, and will get better in time. It is actually of huge significance as the potential platform for a new kind of national archive, one that is shared by partner institutions, who will eventually enjoy common preservation, digitisation, discovery and distribution services. This is what is interesting about Screen Heritage UK – it has seen that the answer to stablising film archives is to change the way they work, to change what an archive means. We are not there yet, certainly, but the desirable model is becoming clearer.

The Search Your Film Archives search facility on the London Screen Archives website, showing how users can either search across the LSA database or all databases

There will be more from the BFI on the database front soon. Their filmographic database is available online, but there is a separate technical database (known to its friends as TecRec) which tells you what materials they hold on each title. After years of trying, they have finally managed to marry up the two databases, which will be published as one under the name CID (Collections Information Database) very soon. It boasts an “innovative hierarchical data structure” based on the new European metadata standard for cinematographic works, CEN EN 15907. More on that when it appears.

And there there the regions. The UK has a number of film archives operating in the public sector. As well as the nationals (BFI, Scotland, Wales, Imperial War Museum) then are a number of archives representing the English regions, and having them work alongside the BFI through something like Search Your Film Archives or the Reel History of Britain TV series is wonderful to see. The regionals have each been pursuing their own Screen Heritage-funded projects, the outcomes of which will be announced in due course. As an example on the innovative approach to archive film being taken by such institutions, consider the Yorkshire Film Archive’s Memory Bank project, which is developing therapeutic uses for archive film footage in dementia, residential and domiciliary care settings. We’ll report on what has been achieved by these other archives with the Screen Heritage funds in another post.

Reel History of Britain is itself an outcome of the Screen Heritage project, though whether it is ‘revitalising the regions’ or ‘delivering digital access’ is not very clear. It’s putting films from the 1900s onwards onto the screen (that’s your token mention of silents in this post), under themes such as Evacuation, Teenagers, Slums, and Package Holidays. It features presenter Melvyn Bragg going about the UK in a mobile cinema and showing people films of themselves or their locality from the past. It revels in the coup of uncovering the descendants of people in archive films, delighting in the thrill of recognition, that tingle up the spine we get when we see that what the film depicts really happened and has its living connection with us today. It runs daily for 20 episodes, and some of the films featured just as clips will be shown in their entirety on the BFI’s Reel History site, which is a welcome innovation. If only a little more imagination and innovation had gone into the programmes themselves…

And, finally, there’s the BFI’s new digital delivery platform still in test mode, so it’s called BFI Beta, which is serving as the online to a lot of this activity. My, they have been busy.

So there’s an exciting future for film archives, but it’s really only a part of the picture for archives overall. Roly Keating, Director of Archive Content at the BBC, was on the panel last night. He pointed out that there had been a lot of talk about ‘film’, but that a screen heritage meant TV content too, and TV archives need to consider how they can likewise work together to enable greater care, discovery and sharing. But then he pointed out that moving images are just one digital object among many, and the real prize will be establishing shared systems in which films, books, images, manuscripts, sounds, websites, and anything else that contains knowledge can be found together. Some are already thinking along these lines (see Europeana or Trove, both covered by the Bioscope). The BBC is too, in most interesting ways. That’s where film belongs. The new film history is just history, with film in it.

European Film Gateway

Carl Dreyer’s Der Var Engang (1922), available in extract form via the European Film Gateway

And so, after reporting for the past two days on a symposium on film archives in the digital age held to mark the launch of the European Film Gateway, it’s time to introduce the Gateway itself.

The European Film Gateway, or EFG, is a European Union-funded intiative which aims to provide a gateway to European film heritage in digital form. The EFG doesn’t hold any such digital content itself, nor has it paid for for any films or other artefacts to be digitised to serve the EFG. It simply points to content that is already out there, on the websites of individual archives, bringing scattered information into one place for the benefit of you and me.

There are sixteen contributing archives (along with other partners), though fourteen are currently listed on the site: Cinecittà Luce (Rome), Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museu do Cinema (Lisbon), Det Danske Filminstitut (Copenhagen), Deutsches Filminstitut – DIF e.V. (Frankfurt), EYE Film Instituut Nederland (Amsterdam), Filmarchiv Austria (Vienna), Kansallinen audiovisuaalinen arkisto (Helsinki), La Cinémathèque française (Paris), Lichtspiel – Kinemathek Bern (Berne), Lietuvos Centrinis Valstybės Archyvas (Vilnius), Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum (Budapest), Národní filmový archiv (Prague), Nasjonalbiblioteket (Oslo), Tainiothiki tis Ellados (Athens). Not quite every member state of the European Union is represented, and the UK is conspicuous by its absence, though I understand that the Imperial War Museum will be contributing at a further stage in the EFG’s development. The leading contributors so far are Italy’s Archivio Luce, the Danish Film Archive, and the Deutsches Filminstitut.

What you get is, as of this moment, access to 391,229 digital objects, compising 23,390 videos, 357,452 images and 10,387 texts. Films are primarily non-fiction (newsreels, documentaries etc), but some fiction films can be found; the extensive range of images covers a extensive range of cinema history (most names that I typed in brought up something); and the documents include newspaper cuttings, scripts, censorship records, digitised books and so on.

Searching is a bit on the basic side. There is no advance search option, so there is no way that I’ve been able to discover that lets you search every film dating before 1930, for example, or all the documents from one particular archive. However, once you have searched for something, there are opportunities to refine your search by archive, medium, date period, or language, so it’s best to search for something, then explore the records thereafter. Frustratingly there is no option to refine searches by genre (say if you wanted to find fiction films only).

However, you can play a trick on the Gateway by searching for “a”, which brings up just about every record. Refining this by film as medium and dates 1900-1929 reveals that there are at least 687 films from the silent period available to view. These include 524 from Det Danske Filminstitut, 91 from Luce, 38 from Tainiothiki tis Ellados, 20 from Filmarchiv Austria, 12 from Národní filmový archiv, and 2 from Lichtspiel – Kinemathek Bern. All of these films can be found on their respective archives’ websites, some in extract form only. Do note that, though most of the site in English, you will be confronted with Greek, Czech or other foreign language only sections of the site.

Search results on the EFG for ‘Asta Nielsen’

Many of the films and other digital objects are gathered in to collections, which usefully you are allowed to browse. Here are the descriptions from the EFG of some of the collections that relate to our area of silent film:

Cinecittà Luce: Documentary and Short Film Collection 1920-1990
3,000 items from a unique collection of cinematographic non-fiction and fiction works, since the silent film era to our days, black and white and colored, short and long, featuring titles of different topics from history to culture, by a myriad of directors, including, among them the first works of great masters like Rossellini, Antonioni, Comencini, De Seta, and other famous names of Italian filmmaking.

Det Danske Filminstitut: Early Documentary and Fiction Films and Trailers
The collection of the Danish Film Institute available on EFG contains a number of early documentary films, which display the life and look of the Danish society in the period of 1906 to 1940. Among the 300 films are straight depictions of modern production equipment and trade, as well as more propagandistic titles and news items. The over 50 early fiction films available are a raw collection of short films that give an impression of what early audiences were entertained by. In addition, around 700 teaser previews of the films available in the Danish Film Institute’s educational distribution can be found on EFG. The latter collection contains current films that are chosen mainly for their value in education and general audience informative qualities.

Det Danske Filminstitut: The Films by Cinema Pioneer Peter Elfelt
The 77 films by Danish cinema pioneer Peter Elfelt (1866-1931) are not only interesting from a cinematic point of view but they are also unique contemporary documents. As royal court photographer, Elfelt had access to the most important people and events at his time, which is reflected by his films, focusing on Denmark’s high society.

Deutsches Filminstitut: Costume and Set Designers’ Collections
More than 200 set designs and 900 film costume designs, sketches and notes by distinguished German (film) architects Otto Hunte, Walter Reimann and Hans Poelzig and costume designers such as Ali Hubert, Helga Kischkat-Reuter and Irms Pauli can now be accessed via the EFG. Many of the design sketches represent milestones in their field, e.g. the set designs for “Metropolis” (1925/26) or “Der Golem wie er in die Welt kam” (1920).

La Cinémathèque française: Magic Lantern Slides Collection
The Cinémathèque française’s collection of magic lantern slides illustrates the pre-cinema era and contains some of the finest and most well-preserved slides still in existence. A selection of around 1,500 of these hand-painted and photographic unique artworks from France, Great Britain, Germany and the USA covering the 18th century until the 1920s is available on EFG.

La Cinémathèque française: Photos of the Triangle Film Corporation
The Triangle Film Corporation existed from 1915 to 1918. Employing directors such as D.W. Griffiths, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennet it was on of the largest American production companies at its time. By means of around 1,400 photos of the John E. Allen – Triangle Collection, the history of the company can be retraced.

La Cinémathèque française: The Digital Library Collection
La Cinémathèque française has a precious book collection which retraces the long adventure of the prehistory of the cinema and photographic and film techniques. The approximately 280 books of this collection date back to the 17th century and can be found on EFG.

La Cinémathèque française: The Étienne-Jules Marey Collection
The scientist Étienne-Jules Marey (1830 – 1904) used photographic methods to study the movement of human and animal throughout his life. La cinémathèque offers access to around 400 photos from the estate of Étienne-Jules Marey via EFG.

La Cinémathèque française: The Muybridge Collection
With the serialisation of photos Eadward Muybridge was one of the first who created the impression of moving images. EFG gives access to about 700 images that emanate from the estate of Muybridge.

Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum: Photo Collection
The selection of around 1,000 film stills covers the period from the beginnings of Hungarian cinema to 1947 and includes early films of world famous directors such as Alexander Korda and Michael Curtiz.

Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum: Poster Collection
Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum contributes aprox. 1,200 film posters, which provide an overview of the Hungarian poster art from the beginnings of Hungarian cinema in 1900 to the 1990s.

Národní filmový archiv: Documentary and Feature Films
The National Czech Film Archive makes eight feature films from the Czech silent film era from 1898 to 1920 available via EFG. An overview of the history of the Czech documentary film provides the collection “Czech Documentary Films”. Up to 200 films from 1898 to 1928 can be viewed on EFG.

Nasjonalbiblioteket: Selected Films
For EFG the Nasjonalbiblioteket gives access to a selection of approx. 350 film works, many of them representing Norwegian cinema from 1900 to 1935. The collection also includes historic advertising films from the 1920s to the 1950s as well as documentary films about Oslo.

Not every film included on the EFG falls into one of these collections (for example, the coy early sex films of Austrian production company Saturn), and as is so often the case with these sorts of resources it helps if you know what you are looking for is going to be there somewhere, because the searching tools don’t always help you completely. But it must be pointed out that the EFG is in a beta phase, with plenty of bugs let to be ironed out. Better functionality, and more content (including some arriving in August) are promised.

The EFG is essentially a feeder site for the European digital library concept, Europeana, previously written about on the Bioscope. There the films and film-related content will be searchable alongside many other kinds of digital objects (the EFG content does not appear to be on Europeana as yet). The EFG has a sister project, EU Screen, which is doing the same job for European television content (no UK content again – are we trying to tell them something?).

The European Film Gateway represents only a tiny fraction of European moving image content, digital or otherwise, and no one can say how it will develop. But it has established a structure for encompassing moving image data from very varied film archive catalogues, through which they hope to be able to point to more and more content, if more archives will take up its all to contribute. And Europeana will certainly continue, gradually biding its time, persuading more and more libraries and archives that it is their European duty to supply ever more content to the giant digital soup. Lucky us.

There is, by the way, a separate European Film Gateway project site, which has more background information on the project itself.

Union search


In 2007 the UK government’s Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) announced a £25M investment in screen heritage. The Strategy for UK Screen Heritage (later Screen Heritage UK) was a vote of confidence in the UK’s public sector moving image archives, predicated on the belief that strategic investment in those archives would pay off in terms of public value, short term and long term. The money was administered by the now defunct UK Film Council, and the beneficiaries were the BFI National Archive (which received the lion’s share of the money) and a number of English regional film archives. There were four elements to the original programme:

  • Securing the National Collection
    Capital works to extend and improve BFI storage facilities with appropriate conditions to safeguard the collection.
  • Revitalising the Regions
    Nomination of key collections in the English Regions, leading to improved plans for their preservation and access.
  • Delivering Digital Access
    Extending online access to the Nation’s screen heritage, through collection cross-searching and digitisation.
  • Demonstrating Educational Value
    Identifying, developing and evaluating effective use of screen heritage material within learning environments.

In practive the ‘demonstrating educational value’ element got absorbed by the others, but the remaining programmes strands have been pursued with vigour over the past four years, despite a reduction in the original award thanks to government spending cuts, and we are close to seeing the public results.

One of outcomes has gone live, though it hasn’t been announced as yet, and it remains in a test of beta phase. But it is out there, and it is of particular interest to us. It’s another example of the federated databases that we have been highlighting of late, and it is the Union Search.

Strictly speaking its proper name is Your Film Archives, but that’s such an awful name that you can’t see it outlasting the beta phase. Union Search has been its working title, Union Search is what is written into the URL, and Union Search is what we will call it.

Union Search brings together the catalogues of seven film archives, with more partner archives promised: the BFI National Archive, Yorkshire Film Archive, Northern Region Film and Television Archive, Screen Archive South East, the North West Film Archive, the Wessex Film and Sound Archive, and Amber Films. It is a concatenation of catalogue records, not the films themselves, though it is possible to restrict searches to content that is viewable online, for which you are taken to the relevant film on the relevant film archive’s own website or other video platform. But for the most part this is about finding out who holds what.

This is a major step forward. The BFI’s own database is a tremendous resource, probably richer in information on film and television (especially for the silent era) than any other database out there, with the possible exception of the IMDb. We have been holding off from writing a review of it because there are some significant changes to be made to its structure, which we await. But what has been frustrating is that it is a database of film and television programmes that the BFI knows about, not just those that it holds, but it doesn’t tell you which those films are. The version at the BFI physical Library does; the online version doesn’t. If you know a thing or two about how the BFI organises its information, you can sometimes work out from the database whether it holds a film or not, but most people are reduced to guesswork.

Union Search is an online database of the BFI’s holdings alone. It’s not every film yet – there are 62,000 films listed under BFI (of which 4,500 are silent) but the BFI has over 800,000 titles all told, including many more silents than those 4,500, so we’re still dealing with a sample (there 260,000 titles under something ‘Test’ archive option which represents a greater amount BFI content, but none of these links now lead you to an actual catalogue entry). But it is an easy guide to what exists, including an outline indication of what formats are held, searchable by keyword, name, title, date, colour or b/w, sound or silent.

And then we get all the other archive catalogues as well. Archives such as the Yorkshire Film Archive or the North West Archive hold largely amateur and non-fiction films of relevance to the regions they represent. For silent films, that means another 7,000 titles on top of the 4,500 held by the BFI, from newsreels to home movies. 193 silent films all told are available to view online (go to advanced search, click on “only records with video online” and check the “silent” tick box beneath). Each catalogue entry gives you title, a short description (there are some shotlists available), format held, date, basic credits, keywords (a very haphazard selection – there don’t seem to be many trained cataloguers producing film catalogues nowadays), genre, sound or silent (or mute), colour or b/w, length and ID number. There is useful faceted searching, so type in any term and down the right-hand column it will tell you how many of your results come from which archive, which are silent or sound, and so on. And you can narrow your search down to a single archive, or combination of archives.

It must be stressed that Union Search, or Your Film Archives, is still in test mode. There are plenty of rough edges, from the lack of anywhere to click back to the home page after conducting a search, to the large number of false ‘test’ records. It presents very much simplified content, because when matching up disparate databases you are necessarily constrained by common denominators. It may also be storing up huge problems for the archives as researchers learn of titles that archives hold and demand immediate access – but to make all of the one-and-half million or so films and programmes held in the UK’s public sector archives available to all would cost a whole lot more than £25M. We must take these things one step at a time.

So, treat Union Search as a test site, with the expectation of not everything being there, or necessarily exactly as you might want it to be described. But to have the archives working together like this, creating a networked catalogue greater than the sum of their individual parts – that is quite something. And what can be built on this platform in time will be something more.

We’ll review it again when it goes public properly. Go explore (with all the caveats as noted above).