Silent cinema from the vaults to the world: an interview with film archival scholar Grazia Ingravalle

Film programme, Dryden Theatre at George Eastman Museum: Tribute to Gloria Swanson (May 1966)

Film programme, Dryden Theatre at George Eastman Museum: Tribute to Gloria Swanson (May 1966)

Silent cinema is gaining more prominence and availability than ever before—but how does the work of archives and cinémathèques drive the way we perceive it? Grazia Ingravalle is a doctoral student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland whose work focuses on the exhibition and curatorial practices of film heritage institutions in regard to early and silent cinema. I talked to her about her highly interesting research.

Hi, Grazia! Studying the work of film archives and other heritage institutions in regard to silent film is a fascinating topic. How did you get started in this area?

Grazia: My interest into silent cinema and film archives started in 2010, not so long ago, when I first watched a silent film in a cinémathèque with live music accompaniment. I had just moved to Stockholm and was for the first time living in a capital. I think the way this first encounter took place is rather telling as, before that, silent films had no appeal on me and, like many others, I scornfully saw them as antiquated and boring. When, during my MA, I discovered that films actually need be preserved if they are not to disappear, and that only circa twenty percent of the silent films originally produced survive today, I got completely hooked. All of a sudden that “temporal distance” between me, a contemporary viewer in the digital age, and those strange images from the past, became a source of fascination.

I think film archives, film museums, and cinémathèques have precisely this fascinating and important mission: to bridge that “temporal distance” between cinema’s past and present. Since their foundation in the 1930s, archives and museums have influenced the historical perception of silent cinema, which already then appeared outmoded vis-à-vis the trendy talking pictures. My research looks at three different archives: the EYE Film Institute Netherlands in Amsterdam, the George Eastman Museum in Rochester (NY), and the UK Fairground Archive in Sheffield. In particular, I am interested in the various ways in which they have presented silent cinema throughout their history, with shifting narratives, technologies, and aesthetics. To sum it up, my PhD thesis focuses on early and silent film curatorship.

EYE Filmmuseum on the north bank of the IJ, Amsterdam.

EYE Filmmuseum on the north bank of the IJ, Amsterdam.

Can you give some details about what your research involves? 

I have done a lot of research into archives’ internal documents, correspondence, public talks, etc. I have looked at current policies and preservation strategies, and at recent projects, such as restorations, online platforms, outreach programs, etc. I interviewed present and past curators to both fill the gaps of my chronologies and discover saucy details. I have now a good collection of interviews, also from archives that are not part of my research. Basically I interview curators wherever I travel to…

I had read a lot about archival work when I started my fieldwork at EYE, however it was the first time I really engaged with archival research. It has also been the first time I have done historical research at all, as I consider my background to be more theoretical – although, can they ever be separate? As a consequence, in the beginning I had a strong “inferiority complex” and my fieldwork did not follow any coherent methodology… With time I have learned to explain to archivists what kind of documents I would like to look at, and to keep track of my findings. Serendipity can be overwhelming, and it is certainly not a methodology, but can also open up unexpected avenues… Last year Tom Rice (University of St. Andrews) and I organized a training workshop at the University of St. Andrews on archival research methodologies and invited among others David Pierce, founder and director of the Media History Digital Library (MHDL) and James Layton, film collection manager at MoMA. I think the ‘How to’ guide we came up with might actually be very useful.

Those are some great tips! And I have to say here that I am a big fan of the MHDL, as well as Pierce & Layton’s book on Technicolor. :)
You’ve carried out research in several institutions in different countries, how were those experiences? 

My experience with staff at the Swedish Film Institute, EYE, and GEM has been extremely positive and I am really thankful, as they have shared their time, knowledge, and passion with me. However, there is a general problem that can some times slow down archive personnel’s response, that is, the situation of perpetual underfunding and overwork in which they, like other cultural professionals, have to work. This is a real shame and I cannot stress enough how important I believe film archives and cultural institutions are for that fundamental work of questioning the past and nurturing memory, which contributes to modern societies’ cultural emancipation.

I’m interested in your research strategy: are you taking a diachronic approach where you look at shifts in institutional framing over time for a given organization, or are you more interested in specific historical events (for example, the Nitrate Won’t Wait campaign); or thirdly, are you mainly looking at the context of today?

I think both diachronic and synchronic approaches are indispensable elements of historical research, and complement each other. I have so far studied the history of EYE and GEM, beginning with their foundation and the acquisition of their film collections, which tells a lot about their first curators’ views on silent cinema. Their institutional history is often punctuated by achievements and conflicts – internal discussions, but also major conflicts with their funders (ministries or trustees), and heated exchanges with film critics and historians, as in the case of the so-called “Desmet affair.” Indeed these institutions’ work and decisions must be read also within the broader context of the international film preservation movement, of heritage institutions like UNESCO, and the film industry at large. One can see the influence of past events on present curatorial practices and the changing value of the Desmet collection over the years exemplifies this process. This unique repository of film and film-related materials from 1907 to 1916 is the first film collection to have been inscribed in the UNESCO world heritage register in 2011. Despite being one of EYE’s main assets today, its value has been neglected until 1989, when Dutch film historians and critics brought up the “Desmet affair,” denouncing the museum’s trade of early Desmet films in exchange for dupe copies of more widely appreciated “masterpieces” from other film archives.

Vittoria o morte! (IT 1913). Poster from the Desmet collection. [via EFG]

Poster from the Desmet collection. (via EFG)

Oh, I love the Desmet collection – such a unique and rich corpus. As you know, I lived in Amsterdam, and visited EYE often in that time, especially as they were affiliated with my study programme. In your research, have you noticed recurring patterns with regard to the type of institution (archive, museum, cinémathèque), the nationality, or the time period?

I think that film archives are repositories of a particular kind, where audiovisual documents are not only collected and accessed, but also exhibited to an audience. From this point of view, one can understand the overlap of terms like cinémathèque, film archive, and museum in the common usage. Of course there are major differences between film archives in Europe and in the US, as I expect there are among archives in the other countries, and too little has been written about their history and policies. In general, I think there are different expectations from these institutions in Europe and in the United States. European countries have very different and controversial histories, however, at a general level, I understand film archives here within the history of national states’ bureaucracies. Here in Europe there is a collective demand for the state to take care of public cultural heritage and audiovisual policies are an important part of EU cultural politics. The concept of cultural heritage in the United States finds a much shorter historical referent – a dominant history contested by historically oppressed groups such as Native Americans and African Americans. In addition, until very recently, when the orphan film movement started gaining attention, American film heritage had broadly been identified with Hollywood Studios’ corporate product, the circulation of which outside commercial distribution channels, such as museums, was severely restricted. I found these two broad frameworks very helpful for my own research, especially during my internship and fieldwork at George Eastman Museum. I love exploring contemporary history through the history of audiovisual archives and the films they preserve.

Theory-wise, what ideas are guiding your research?

One of the ideas that I find most fascinating is that of “temporal distance” between us and the things past, which shapes the way we look at them. The reason why I use quotation marks here is that this distance between us interpreters and past artworks or texts is a central notion in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s philosophy. According to his philosophy of interpretation (hermeneutics), this distance cannot be overcome and, despite all our efforts to put ourselves in the mind of people from the past, we will unavoidably keep thinking with our own 2015 heads. In terms of silent films, for instance, I believe no photochemical nor digital restoration will ever erase or shorten the distance that separates us from the way they originally looked when first released, and in this respect I consider their “authenticity” as a projected unattainable ideal. The only thing we can do, according to Gadamer, is look at the ways in which we understand the past, not in its own terms but on our own. In some sense this is the way I look at contemporary silent film exhibition in the context of film museums. For instance, which viewing context frames our silent film experience? The museum’s YouTube channel, or its exclusive film festival? Through which technology and media are we watching it? Is it a digital installation or a vintage film print projection? Gadamer’s thought has been hugely inspiring for me and I look at film archives and museums as the institutions that have first of all made possible for us to watch early and silent cinema at all by preserving it. From a hermeneutical point of view, this has a lot to do also with when and why cinema itself became something “historical,” worth preserving for posterity. With which eyes do we look at silent cinema today? And what if it tells us something about our times too?


Ein seltsames Gemälde, DE 1914. (via Nitrate Film Interest Group)

Recently, you had an article published in AMIA’s journal The Moving Image on EYE Filmmuseum’s remix/revisionist approach to film history. I received my copy in the mail around Christmas, and really enjoyed reading it! For those who haven’t had the chance to read it, will you give us the trailer version? ;-)

Yes, my article titled “Remixing Early Cinema: Historical Explorations at the EYE Film Institute Netherlands” was published in the Fall 2015 issue of TMI (vol. 15.2). It focuses on EYE’s recent experiments with “crowd-curatorship,” a strategy that embraces the new modes of interacting with online databases and sharing information. Users access the museum’s early film collection through a number of platforms such as the Scene Machine, Film in the Netherlands (now in the collection section of EYE’s website), and Celluloid Remix, that allow them to appropriate (in some cases even download), remix, and share the clips. I look in particular at users’ remixes of early films and find a precedent of this practice in the museum’s earlier project Bits & Pieces that remixed unidentified and incomplete early films’ footage in order to preserve them on one reel at a time. However, by watching the Celluloid Remixes, I realized that these remixes somehow fail to evoke a historical context, or to create a new one for the early film sample. In this article I highlight the limits EYE’s new remix platforms present as tools of historical exploration, and I wonder how could “crowd-curatorship” encourage a more critical engagement with the past.

EYE's Scene Machine.

EYE’s Scene Machine.

At its heart, your research is about how meaning is created. In terms of how we experience early/silent films, heritage institutions have been crucial contributors of meaning, but of course there are other things at play: popular histories, academic studies, documentary, distribution companies, pop culture (e.g. the Morodertropolis). How do these factors interact with the subject of your research—for example, do you see the work of film archives as underpinning these other activities? Obviously, in terms of supplying the material, they play a key role (footage for documentaries, Flicker Alley working with the Cinémathèque Française to release Albatros films, etc) and undoubtedly that is complex in itself—but I’m thinking more to the conceptual/ideological aspects here.

Absolutely, you’re right. In my research I try to take into account the many popular representations that contribute to our present understanding of silent cinema and of some films in particular. As Giovanna Fossati, chief curator at EYE, noted during the interview, silent cinema is everywhere and has never been as visible and popular as it is nowadays. 1910s and 1920s have been refashioned in popular costume series such as Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge, while vintage photography and cinema from those years have largely inspired the imagery of films like The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) and The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013). There is widespread interest in recovering these century-old audiovisual documents, especially in connection to historical commemorations (such as the WWI centennial) or to studies conducted by local communities and oppressed minorities. There’s also stuff like DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation and countless other projects using early and silent footage, or engaging with it more obliquely. Precisely because silent cinema seems to be so ubiquitous in our present culture – and in a way epitomises cinema’s past by definition – I decided I needed a more defined object of study: the film archive. I interpret the film museum as dispositif, as a composite “mechanism” of display made up of different “components” that so to speak include the viewer. I imagine this as an exhibition space where meaning is created by the interplay of curators, with artists, with the film and media industry, and policy makers, a space crossed by spectators from different cultural, economic, gender, and ethnical backgrounds.

That’s a wonderfully nuanced view of how all of these factors influence our experience of early and silent cinema! Now, the technological aspect: can you talk about how the shift to digital technology in film production, distribution, and restoration has led to differences in the perception/interpretation of silent film?

I don’t think audiovisual technologies alone can produce certain aesthetic perceptions and experiences. Technologies are embedded into individual and collective media practices and surrounded by cultural and historical values, which provide a background for our interpretations. The ways we make, consume, and circulate moving images have changed dramatically since the late 1980s, when Industrial Light & Magic started experimenting with computer graphics and Sony implemented the first high-definition video equipment. While recognising the radical changes in media practices spurred by the digital turn and the difference between digital and analogue film experiences, I attribute such differences to a whole set of discursive practices and settings (the archive-dispositif) within which such experiences take shape, rather than to fixed technological features.

To put that another way, it’s the cultural life of technology rather than the pure technical aspects of film that interests you. Another result of this shift is the greater amounts of archival material available online—something I’m obviously quite interested in. Can you talk about this kind of distribution in the context of your research?

Digitization, compression, and online access are new and important phases of archival workflows. There are different practices out there: EYE’s remix platforms, the British Film Institute’s streaming service (BFI Player), British Pathé’s eighty-five thousand videos on YouTube, and online film databases. European Film Gateway is an interesting project of online access and exhibition, which brought together material from 16 European archives and encouraged inter-archival collaboration. Indeed some archives, such as GEM, have a more protective attitude, investing more on film events such as the Nitrate Picture Show, or the recent screening of Man with a Movie Camera at the Dryden Theatre with a new accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.

Dryden Theatre film programme: Garbo Encore (May and June 1965)

Garbo Encore 1 600px

Garbo Encore (1965)

In general I think the challenge online access poses is that of providing context. First of all a context of circulation, as it is not enough to upload archival material online. It has to circulate and be shared by people through Wikipedia, Facebook, Reddit and so on. Secondly, to put it simple digital data are codes. These do not carry meaning in and of themselves: the same information can be encoded in the form of image files, sound files, or graphics – think of Brian Foo’s remix for the New York Public Library. As media theorist Lev Manovich notes, digital data is indifferent to meaning (ethical, political, historical, etc…) and digital media are “modular,” made to be recombined. These data become intelligible and meaningful when played back through different interfaces. One can see how this can become problematic, as data that carries historical and political meaning can be accessed and de-contextualised very easily, without the need to engage with it. From this point of view, it is very interesting to see how different film archives manage not only to provide access to hundreds hours of historical footage, but also to engage users with its historical richness. Thirdly, archives provide access to parts of their collections, both online and onsite, also within present public contexts such as anniversaries, commemorations, world-days (such as the UNESCO World Day for Audiovisual Heritage), and re-releases. These add new meanings and interpretations – new historical layering.

There is so much to untangle—it’s fascinating. I’m interested in your background and the path that has taken you to your current research—can you talk a little about that?

I majored in Philosophy in Italy and did a master at the University of Bari in Ethical and Political Philosophy. At about the same time, I started attending the Venice Film Festival and working at the Bari International Film Festival as assistant stage manager. My role there gave me the chance to regularly attend both the Mostra del Cinema in Venice and the Berlinale, and cultivate my passion for cinema. I decided I wanted to study cinema from a theoretical perspective and ended up writing my MA thesis about Gilles Deleuze’s film philosophy. I started looking for international postgraduate courses that would combine cinema and theory, and that’s when I discovered film studies, a very different approach to cinema from the film criticism and semiotics more commonly practiced in Italy. When I learned that education is free in Sweden (can you imagine? What a great country!) I decided to apply for admission to the international MA in Cinema Studies at the Stockholm University. When I moved there in August 2010 I didn’t know anybody and it was raining a lot… so I ended up spending a lot of time at the Cinemateket. Coming from a smaller center in the south of Italy, I had never set foot in a cinémathèque before, and for me it was enthralling, like a temple of cinema. The department and the cinémathèque were in the same building, so I really abandoned myself to an omnivorous appetite. In the first days there I watched 35mm prints of Vendredi Soir (Friday Night, Claire Denis, 2002), Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) and Buster Keaton’s The Navigator (1924) with live piano accompaniment by Matti Bye. I fell in love.

I love the description of the Cinemateket as a ‘temple of cinema’! And so your MA thesis in Stockholm focused on silent cinema?

My MA thesis, “Silent Cinema in the Digital Age: From the Romance of Celluloid to Online Archives”, was a comparative study of Swedish silent film viewing across different media and contexts: the 35mm screening of newly found Gränsfolken (Brother Against Brother, Mauritz Stiller, 1913) at the Cinemateket on the 2010 UNESCO World Day of Audiovisual Heritage; the DVD box collection of Swedish silent classics – including Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage, Victor Sjöström, 1921), Häxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages, Benjamin Christensen, 1922), Herr Arnes pengar (The Treasure of Sir Arnes, Mauritz Stiller, 1919), Erotikon (Mauritz Stiller, 1920), Terje Vigen (A Man There Was, Victor Sjöström, 1917) and Gösta Berlings saga (The Saga of Gösta Berlings, Mauritz Stiller, 1924); and the early films on the Swedish online archive, such as Max Skladanowsky’s comic trick film Komische Begegnungen im Tiergarten zu Stockholm (Comedic complications at Djurgården in Stockholm, 1896). In my thesis’ conclusion I highlighted that these different technologies allowed an inter-medial experience with early and silent cinemas’ visual culture. There I advanced the idea of a hermeneutical approach, a philosophy of moving images’ historical interpretation. When writing my PhD research proposal I basically took it from there.


Körkarlen | The Phantom Carriage, 1921

Very cool project. And finally: what about your personal interests or favourites in early and silent film?

I love the heavy dark atmospheres of Weimar films, such as Pabst’s Die Freudlose Gasse (Joyless Street, 1925) and Leo Mittler’s Jenseits der Straße (Harbour Drift, 1929), and Soviet montage. I have recently fallen in love with the poetic montage of Mikhail Kaufman’s In Spring (1929), whose recent digital restoration by the Dovzhenko Center with electronic music accompaniment by Oleksandr Kokhanovsky is amazing!

I love In Spring too! Thanks so much for the interview, Grazia.

Previously: An interview with Bin Li, nitrate film specialist.

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7 Responses to Silent cinema from the vaults to the world: an interview with film archival scholar Grazia Ingravalle

  1. Fantastic interview and a great resource on so many levels! I bookmarked a lot of the links in the article. I am not a film scholar associated with any academic film department or cinemathèque but I found Grazia’s approach to her research deeply compelling and incredibly insightful. Her thinking is very helpful in focusing my contemporary vision through the lens of silent cinema, especially her comments on both diachronic and synchronic approaches. And her views on the “temporal distance” will cause me to go and seek out some reading material!

    The process of conceptualizing and making silent film is a remarkable touchstone in view of the many ways in which we absorb, create, and disseminate images. Grazia sits at an important intersection between archiving and remixing–all within the context of our digital era. I look forward to reading her work as it evolves.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. popegrutch says:

    A wonderful and very informative interview. It always worries me how rarely historical theory and archival theory speak to one another – as if for fear of corruption, or of losing some kind of status game. More of this sort of thing is needed.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. MIB says:

    Great work as ever! :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I very much appreciate these posts. I learn so much each time and my interest expands with every post and every follow-up film I encounter. Thank you, yet again!

    Liked by 1 person

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