Archival Spaces 244
Orphan Film Symposium Online 2020
Uploaded 5 June 2020
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Orphan Symposium, which was to be held in Amsterdam from 23-26 May, was moved online via Vimeo, beginning Tuesday, May 26th and continuing for four days. The original interrelated Symposium themes, “Water, Climate, and Migration” were kept for the live streamed version, although I’m assuming the event was slightly abridged, given time constraints and rights issues. For Orphan founder and organizer Dan Streible, Professor at New York University’s Moving Image Archive Program (MIAP), however, it was no small feat to move online, after almost a year of planning with the Eye Institute in Amsterdam, the Symposium’s announced host. Thanks to former MIAP students, Paula Suárez, now Director of the Mexican documentary group, Ambulante, and Walter Forsberg, the Symposium was able to piggy back on Ambulante’s online film festival infrastructure, ably assisted by Edgar Domínguez and Manuel Guerrero. As a result, the Orphan Symposium ran like clockwork, except for a few minor streaming glitches, and was rewarded with an online audience of usually more than 100 participants for any individual event.
Being on West Coast time, I missed the first morning’s live stream, although I didn’t actually know it initially, because I mistakenly watched a couple pre-recorded presentations, including a 1911 Thanhauser film about death and destruction caused when the Bayless Damn broke in Austin, Pennsylvania. By the afternoon session, I had gotten into the groove, although it wasn’t until the next day that I figured out how to get into the simultaneous chat room (on the left side of the screen), which was a really great feature, because it allowed all the participants to comment, ask questions, and communicate with each other, as the presentations were unfolding, making for an extremely lively and interactive experience. For those that missed the Symposium, some of the films and presentations are still available (https://vimeo.com/user5490513).
One of the most iconic images of the Symposium, seen repeatedly in the opening trailer, was of the Statue of Liberty sinking into the ocean, an image taken from a 1929 Fox newsreel outtake, If the Antarctic Ice Cap Should Melt?, introduced by MIAP students Shiyang Jiang, Zoe Yang, & Zhen Lai. Apparently never published at the time for being too phantasmagoric, 90 years later the image has become very real. Water as both a life-sustaining and hostile force informed other interventions, including Thanhouser’s Thirty Leagues Under the Sea (1914), William Beebe’s Bathysphere in Haiti and Bermuda (1927-1934), Heinrich Hauser’s The Aran Islands (1928), and Les Blank’s The Ways of Water (1971).
Ironically, Tuesday afternoon began with Linda Tadic of Digital Bedrock discussing the adverse environmental impact of digital archives (and by extension) the digital infrastructure that made the Symposium possible. While we often assume that digital is “clean,” it in fact leaves a huge carbon footprint from tons of ewaste containing heavy metals to extreme energy needs for cloud servers. Digital technology does come at a cost to the planet, just as previous forms of modernization have.
In just how the present ecological disaster is taking its total on all forms of human life was visualized by Eiren Caffall in a brave and shocking film. In Becoming Ocean (2018), she maps planetary climate change onto her own body in painful detail: she has a rare kidney disease and is “drowning” from within. That Caffall has outlived doctor’s predictions for decades, suggests a ray of hope for the earth.
That became clear watching Jennifer Lynn Peterson’s presentation of two 1927 National Parks Service films on road building, Wheels of Change and Roads in Our National Parks, which both still exuded optimism about future development. The Public Health Service’s Sources of Air Pollution (1962) and Countdown to Collision (1972) offered nearly apocalyptic and surprisingly prescient visions of our present ecological crisis. The latter film contains an ingenious scene of someone peeling off layers and layers of packaging, capturing in a visual nutshell our religion of waste. Equally prescient, if more depressing, was Rolf Forsberg’s short fiction film, Ark (1970), in which a man attempts to create a sustainable biosphere in an industrial wasteland, where survival is only possible with a respirator and a clear plastic hazmat suit, only to have it destroyed by other humans. Wildlife conservation and the anthropocene was also the subject of a group of silent-era German nature films (Bird Images at Feather Lake, Around the World in 2 Hours, 1914-15), the former title featuring Lena Hähnle (1851-1941), an early leader in nature conservation,, as well as Western Greenland (1935) .
A completely different perspective on water was offered by Charles Musser and Walter Forsberg who presented the Union Films production of The Case of the Fisherman (1947), a previously lost film, recently found in the Pearl Bowser Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Shot in San Pedro, CA. for CIO’s fisherman’s union, the film countered the government’s suit to convict the union of Sherman Anti-Trust violations, claiming the fisherman were businessmen, rather than workers engaged in collective bargaining. Given the virtual disappearance of fishing industry in San Pedro, the film seems as anachronistic as the following film, the Soviet Let’s Get Acquainted (ca. 1972), which visualized fresh water fisherman in a pre-industrial never-never-land. On the other hand, Fisherman’s discourse on labor issues is as relevant today as ever.
Labor, but also migration, informed the somewhat strange, industrial film, Hands Across the Border (1963), made by the Great Western Sugar Company about the so-called “Braceros,” Mexican workers imported by the agricultural industry from the 1940s to 1964. As presenter Jessie Lerner noted of this new digital restoration, the film is tinged with racism, even as it tries to assuage the white fear of brown people. Equally disturbing for their revelation of subconscious societal racism were Polish Settlements in Brazilian Wilderness (1933), which treated aboriginal people as fauna, Schwertmühle (1967-69), about migrants living in Germany in temporary displaced persons housing from the 1940s, and the Swedish, Medical Age Assessment (2017), whose subject were Middle Eastern émigrés.
However, the Orphan Film Symposium 2020 offered not only darkness, but also light in the guise of a series of remarkable avant-garde films, including Helen Hill Award winners Martha Colburn and Jaap Pieters, as well as the films of Tatjana Ivančić, Zora Lathan, and a sneak preview of Bill Morrison’s in progress The Village Detective. Apart from the films still available on line, I should mention the great Orphan Symposium blogs, which can be read at https://wp.nyu.edu/orphanfilm/.