When saying “those old movies” is not enough

This text is translated from “Cuando decir “esas películas viejas” es insuficiente” already published in Spanish on this blog. We warmly thank Itzíar Gómez Carrasco for helping with this translation.

Motivated by a feeling of surprise, my students were looking for words to express their opinion about a program of short films, that I had selected from different film archives as part of the FIAF Programming Game call.

These 35 students were part of the Found Footage Workshop that I teach at the recently inaugurated Pohualizcalli Community Film School in the Municipality of Iztapalapa, Mexico City. Their expectations for joining the workshop were to create audiovisual works using archive material, some as part of a documentary and others as part of the experimental found footage tradition. The students were aged between 24 and 65, and the vast majority of them had never experienced an invitation to watch one movie after another as part of something called a “program”, following an order that was outlined in a paragraph without anticipating what they were going to learn, feel or think.

What I mean to say is that although they were more or less familiar with an idea of ​​”archive materials”, they did not recognize the experience of watching them without considering their “use” within another piece of work, but they could appreciate them in their completeness and in relation to others, without necessarily illustrating a theme, but a sensation or an idea.

The program Washing day that I proposed to them, had as its central film the short film Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day (1915), which gave its name to the whole selection. The program began with Flipbook 9 – La puce (c 1896-1900), which I had seen at the Pordenone Festival a couple of years ago, and continued with experimental animations, also including commercials from two different parts of the world (Argentina and New Zealand). The idea of ​​this selection was to explore everyday sensations, taking a washing day (involving feelings of boredom, annoyance, dark thoughts, humor and of course, joy) as a pretext.

Although the title refers to something that I think is trivial, it encourages new viewers to eagerly investigate the meaning of their relationship. One of the characteristics they have in common is that it does not matter if the viewer does not know the language in which the film is made, since the content is perfectly understandable. In a subtle way, each material shows the development of emotions in an ordinary day, emotions as a strategy for viewers to empathize with the look of the past.

I asked my students to view the program individually so they would have the opportunity to set their own pace. For some of them it was disconcerting to see a late 19th century pre-cinematic mechanism alongside a 1978 Caroline and Frank Mouris animation, but the biggest surprise was to find that there was a world of film archives to navigate, with its limitations, but above all with its diversity.

When I compiled the Washing day program, I thought that it should serve as an excuse for those who click on each of the links to be tempted to explore. However, one of the students’ questions was how do I search? By searching, I replied, but the answer was not satisfactory. Searching, in the age of Google, has created certain expectations for us. What I managed to explain is that each case is different, you have to understand how the archive collections have been formed and the materials they share online has to do with their priorities and copyright issues. This conversation got us ahead of the curve with respect to something that can be theoretical when we consider access policies.

Another topic was about what film archives are thought to do. One of the students noted that it seemed to him that not everything he saw was an old movie, or maybe it was, but different, since it did not seem to him that it was archive material. The questions that came up in the discussion were: what do you call a movie with intertitles? Was a commercial something that we could consider an archive? From what moment is a film called an archive film? How “old” is old? What do you call something that is old but doesn’t seem so?

The discussion in this context allowed us to explore aspects of the history of cinematography in a non-formal manner, the vocabulary with which we can familiarise ourselves, the creation of collections and, of course, the need to see these materials in a movie theater. Inviting us to watch a program in the form of a list of internet links (for those of us who have the reference of having participated in a screening in a physical space) can be an exercise of translating the experience, of flexibility in the face of  current limitations and also of opportunity, since the online availability of materials has increased or, the diffusion of virtual tools has been strengthened.

But for many others, Programming Game, is their first time in front of what we call a “program” to refer to the result of a reasoned selection designed for an audience. I think that in the case of this group of students, the importance of discussion and exchange of ideas around the meaning of archival materials was also revealed. Each program proposal can be seen as an exploration guide, an invitation not to get lost (or to get lost in a good way). It is also an opportunity to participate through “programming”. Potentially we can all do it, not necessarily to make a professional career out of it, but to understand the language of cinema, the work of film archives and the conditions that give meaning to what is available, and of course to be more critical viewers of what curators and archives offer us.

“Old”, was insufficient to name the surprise caused by looking at a variety of works found in film preservation institutions, so I do not doubt that the new searches of these students will be enriched by the way in which films are named and made available on each of the web sites of these archives that are open to the world.

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