Film archives: using moving images as historical sources
By Max Long
My first encounter with moving image archives took place in a windowless room in the basement of a building in London. I was there to view a selection of natural history films. I had watched similar films online, but here I could load, spool, and wind up the films myself. Films are the principal source in my research, but prior to my PhD, I had little experience with the medium. Here I was left alone with two towering piles of 35mm and 16mm films, and an unexpected lesson in the materiality of film technology.
Films, which are sometimes assumed to be permanent visual records of the past, can in fact be more ephemeral than the written word. Most films before the 1950s were made on nitrate film stock, which has a tendency to degrade over time – countless films from the early twentieth century have been lost in this way. When it comes to moving images, much of the material at our disposal is fragile and impermanent. As Peter Domankiewicz has argued recently in The Guardian, the resources available for understanding the history of British film have suffered from years of institutional neglect.
Even where a specific film is held in an archive, curators will be reluctant to grant access if there is only a single ‘master’ copy. Digitization has made a lot of material freely available that would otherwise have been locked up and sealed in a can, but there is still a vast amount of film material that is essentially closed to academic research. If viewing copies are made available, appointments to view these can be costly and time-consuming. When you add to this the difficulty of simultaneously viewing films and taking notes, as well as the problems of visual presentation in publishing, the potential setbacks can make archival film work seem impractical for most historians.
However, the first thing that is immediately apparent to any historian that makes the effort to consider moving images seriously, is the huge variety of material that is available, much of which remains untapped. From forgotten Hollywood blockbusters to avant-garde experiments and non-fiction documentaries, the possibilities for historical research in film remain enormous. Genres such as amateur film, often held in regional film archives, are often totally overlooked. Many films have not even made it into the archive, meaning that valuable material can be found lurking in charity shops, car-boot sales and auctions.
Film research to date has been developed in a wide range of different disciplines, including film studies, literary criticism and art history. There is also an active community of film and cinema paraphernalia collectors whose knowledge is often very deep. This means that the history and theory of film as a medium is very well-trodden ground. For historians, this provides a vibrant cross-disciplinary community in which to share ideas, but also an opportunity to think more clearly about what an ‘historical’ approach to moving images might look like.
Certainly there is no single way to approach film historically. The question of what film can tell us about the past, and what makes it different from other sources, remains an open one. As has been the case with images generally, historians have often turned to films simply for illustration. Whilst few historians today employ film as an uncritical reflection of the societies and periods they study, there is still plenty more to be said about film as a source for helping us understand a wide range of historical questions. We can write histories that foreground film as a source, without these histories yielding conclusions about film alone. There is good precedent for this in the history of science, where visual material is often treated not just as a reflection of scientific research, but as helping to shape the very theory and practice of science. Archival film material relating to the British Empire might be used in a similar way; moving images can serve not just as illustrations of, but as valuable sources in addressing questions about colonial administration, violence and propaganda. The AHRC/BFI project Colonial Film, for example, was a significant first step in historicizing the place of film in studies of race and empire. Approaching moving images as complex sources intimately tied to many of the central themes in twentieth-century history might help us to formulate new historical questions across a wide range of topics and regions.
Links to moving image collections
BFI National Archive catalogue: http://collections-search.bfi.org.uk/web
Regional Archives: https://www.bfi.org.uk/britain-on-film/regional-national-archives
Bradford Science and Media Museum: https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/researchers/research-collection
British Council Film Archive: http://film.britishcouncil.org/british-council-film-collection
Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter: https://www.bdcmuseum.org.uk/research/
British Library Sound and Moving Image catalogue: https://www.bl.uk/subjects/sound#
Close Up Film Centre Mediatheque: https://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/library/
Image: Denise Jans, https://unsplash.com/photos/Lq6rcifGjOU