299: Orphanistas Gather

Archival Spaces 299

NYU Orphans Film Symposium

Uploaded 7 July 2022

I attended my first Orphans Film Symposium in 1999, which was also the first iteration of what has become an important event in the moving image archival field. Orphan films refer to films that have fallen out of copyright or have never been copyrighted, their owners long gone. But OFS has expanded the meaning to denote all those moving image works which have been neglected, lost, invisible in cultural memory, therefore under-utilized and under-appreciated. Founded and still directed by Dan Streible, professor in the Moving Image Archive Program (MIAP) at NYU, the Symposium from 15-18 June this year was held in and co-organized by Concordia University, Montreal. I attended via Zoom, which meant I was blacked out of a number of screenings. The theme for the Symposium was Counter-Archives, which potentially entailed reading the archive against the grain, discovering hidden archives, addressing practices of repurposing “found” film materials, contextualizing their historical and ideological origins, and articulating community ownership in the light of new media economies. Or as the Orphans website notes: “We mean to invoke a disposition toward ‘orphan films’ that foregrounds not just abandoned materials but also stories, themes, and peoples often underrepresented, absent, or silenced by historical struggles for power, access, and survival. We aspire to include orphan films redressing historical injustice in its many forms and contexts, and to embrace films that offer such communities a voice and visibility.” 

Albert Kahn Archives of the Planet
Albert Kahn Archives of the Planet

The concept of a cinematic counter-archive was first articulated by Paula Amad in her study of the Albert Kahn Archives in Paris, the first Google Earth-type project; beginning in 1912, and running for almost twenty years, Kahn hired a whole battery of photographers and cameramen to visually document the planet, the way cartographers mapped the world, producing 183,000 meters of film. According to Amad, the counter-archive consists of Bergsonian images from memory that have no utilitarian or evidentiary purpose, but merely exist to be forgotten. In its focus on the incidental, the everyday, the non-essential information at the fringes of the image, the Kahn project constitutes a counter-archive.  

De Ciera Manera (1972, Sara Gomez)
The Navajo Moves into the Electronic Age (1968)
Totem Land (1927)

Thursday morning began with two cataloging and preservation projects focusing on Latin America: 1) The Sara Gomez restoration project – Cuba’s most famous female documentarian – at the Vulnerable Media Lab at Queen’s University, and 20 the Columbian project to preserve video from the Atrato and Columbia Pacific Archive (1994-2008) which documents Native and Afro-Columbian community protests against the government’s war on leftist guerillas, during which they became collateral damage. The next panel discussed two Native American projects, which attempt to create community-based counter-narratives to mainstream images of those communities: The Tribesourcing Southwest Film Project recruited members of the Diné community to produce commentaries on a collection of films about the Navajo, while Tom Child of the Kwagu’t First Nation has been preserving the estate of George Hunt, his ancestor who worked with ethnographic filmmakers Edward S. Curtis (Land of the Headhunters) and Franz Boas, but never received proper credit. 

Malcolm X: Struggle for Freedom (1964, Lebert “Sandy” Bethune)

The afternoon began with a presentation from the Smithsonian African American Museum (NMAAHC) about Lebert “Sandy” Bethune’s unfinished film Pan Africa (1972), while the Media Ecology project explored “the idea of Africa” in American newsreels and other found footage, noting that western images of Africa only produce a self-portrait, depicting the Continent as an exotic land without history or culture, and only civilized through colonialism. Next, we returned to America to explore the Willie P. Jackson collection at NMAAHC, which documented life around Solomon Lightfoot “Elder” Micheaux’s Church of God in Washington, DC., and viewed a compilation of a police-recorded press conference given by Malcolm X in 1962, after a deadly police riot killed unarmed Black Muslims; the tape had been long suppressed by L.A. P.D. but is now held by UCLA Library. The afternoon ended with striking Kodachrome home movies from 1947 of the Melungeons in East Tennessee, a mixed-race ethnic community of European, Native, and African American lineages.

Otisvillle Fim Club: A Mad Man’s World (1978)
seeds of Discontennt (Detroit Audio Project)

 Friday morning focused on previously hidden collections in private hands, including a selection of home movies about the Canadian resident schools, where First Nations children were incarcerated for decades, the Portable TV collection in Rochester, N.Y. focusing on the racist urban renewal policies of city government in the 1960s/70s, and Canadian gay men’s tapes by artists who died of AIDS. In the latter presentation, the speaker accused mainstream archives and the Orphans Symposium itself of homophobia in preserving AIDS estate collections, a claim only partially justified, given the decades-long work of Jon Gartenberg and the AIDS Estate Project. The last two presentations of the morning discussed the New York State Otisville Training School for Boys film club films, and the discovery of a Detroit audio collection, involving interviewing discontented black Detroit youth, the latter now available online at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research.

Esdras Baptista at work, n.d.
Memmortigo (1933, Delmir de Caralt)

In the afternoon session, panelists from Mexico and Spain screened student films from the 1950s, in the former case made by CREFAL (Regional Center for Fundamental Education in Latin America) to educate illiterate peasants in liberal democracy. Next, the Universidade Fluminense Federal in Brazil introduced the work of Communist filmmaker Esdras Bapitista who documented leftist political activity in Brazil for decades. Before Orphanistas viewed a selection of four films about or by radical worker organizations in the USA, Japan, and Norway, to end the afternoon, they discovered Memmortigo (1933, Delmir de Caralt), a newly restored avant-garde film from Catalonia. The title translates as Suicide, the film a metaphoric journey through life, its well-dressed hero on a walk through the countryside; employing the Kuleshov effect, in that whatever the young man sees in p.o.v cuts expresses his internal psychic state.  Memmortigo is an important addition to the international film avant-garde, especially as it intersects with amateur films.

Six et douze (1968, Ahmed Bouanani)

The first two presentations Saturday morning introduced the efforts of Cine-Archiv (Paris) to preserve the surviving fragments of Med Hondo’s first, never released Ballades aux sources (1965), and the establishment of the archive of Moroccan filmmaker Ahmed Bouanani, whose film Six et Douce (1968) – a city film about Casablanca – was screened. The next two sessions were dedicated to the Black Panthers: The Yale film archive screened Breakfast (1970) and other films by Josh Morton, a radical filmmaker allied with the New Haven Panthers at that time, and NMAAHC showed clips from a restoration in progress of Black Chariot (1971), a community financed fiction feature film by actor/ writer Robert L. Goodwin; the Christian inflected film about a Panther-like organization bombed in its Santa Monica premiere – in contrast to the contemporary Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) – and was considered lost for decades.

Ain’t Nobody’s Business…. (1978)
Inside Women Inside (1978)

The symposium’s final session was dedicated to Ithaca College’s Participatory Community Media Project, which screened several films, including Ain’t Nobody’s Business (1978) about battered women and Inside Women Inside (1978), about women incarcerated in the prison system, both as fresh and relevant today as forty years ago. The Project’s touring program of forty-one films, now available for universities and libraries, privileges use value over commercial value, short forms over long, collaborative authorship over individual creation, local/micro issues over global ones, small gauge over professional technology, thus creating new exhibition spaces and empowering both makers and audience. 

The Orphans Symposium is known for bringing archivists and academics together to discuss processes of collecting, preservation, cataloging, and access, and this iteration was no exception. Orphans’ vibe is non-confrontational, more about support and feeling good, or as one long-time presenter put it, “entertainment,” than critical discourse, which is its strength. However, there is an unexpressed notion that every piece of celluloid or videotape is valuable in and of itself, without presenters often communicating its significance, without contextualizing the material within history, thereby coming dangerously close to a fetishization of rare objects. This reservation aside, nowhere can one get a better idea of developments in the archival field than at the Orphans Film Symposium.   

Ballades aux source (1965, Med Hondo)

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

2 thoughts on “299: Orphanistas Gather

  1. I would like to provide further information for your discussion of “Black Chariot” at the Orphan Film Symposium.

    It’s not exactly accurate to state the film “bombed” at its July 1971 premiere. I was present that night, and the full story is this: Portions of “Black Chariot” were shot on videotape, others on film. At the premiere, the video equipment suddenly failed without possibility of repair. The video portions ended up projected out of focus and essentially limited to soundtrack only, ruining the audience experience. Rather than terminate the showing, the filmmaker pressed on through the end.

    As a result, reviewers, with the notable exception of Kevin Thomas in The Los Angeles Times, were quick to accuse the filmmaker of lack of the most basic skills. A print with all elements on 35mm was later four-walled in limited distribution, but by then the damage to the film’s reputation was done. Half a century later, audiences now have the chance to see this film under the conditions it deserves.


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