Cineteca Milano is renowned for its silent film holdings. With a collection of more than 35,000 Italian and international films dating back to the 1890s, it was both coincidental and fortuitous that, in December 2019, the archive began digitalisation.
Part of a national digitalisation program, the Cineteca decided rather than merely deposit their digitised materials into the holdings of the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome, they would release films online.
Matteo Pavesi, the director of the Cineteca Italiana, tells me they wanted to “make our oldest archival materials visible; we wanted to publish these holdings for everyone to enjoy”.
Since the Cineteca was shut in February, Cineteca’s staff of six have been releasing 20 films a week on their free streaming service.
Pre-coronavirus, Cineteca Milano attracted around 300 users to its site each day.
In March, the online archive attracted more than 4 million users.
Film archives began to be established in 1933 as archivists realised films needed to be safeguarded for their own sake, rather than for military or religious purposes.
Nitrate film used from the early 1890s through the mid-1950s, and magnetic tape used from the mid-1940s to the early 2000s, cannot survive the test of time. So, in addition to managing storage environments, archives preserve films digitally.
Commercial streaming services offer access to films, but they do not ensure this content is stored, saved and contextualised. They are not custodians of history or culture. Archives ensure recordings of the past remain meaningfully embedded in our contemporary life.
In a time when the audiovisual is our primary mode of communication, the archive as an institution protecting and championing our shared history is more important than ever.
Since the British Film Institute (BFI) shut its London doors on March 17, Bryony Dixon, their curator of silent film, tells me they have seen a 200% increase in online traffic.
Short, punchy films are popular, and Dixon says these early silent films are like TikTok: “designed to just go ‘Here I am, I look at this’”.
The BFI is also working to document the period of the COVID-19 crisis.
Britain on Lockdown asks the public to send in videos to chart the national development of the coronavirus crisis.
These Are The Hands is a short and emotive found-footage film using archival public health movies and contemporary footage of NHS staff. We see hands touching the newborn, the young, the aged, the disabled, and the sick. At every stage of our lives, the film reminds us health-care workers are essential.
These Are The Hands was released the day I spoke with Dixon.
“There won’t be a dry eye in the house,” she says. “It is very powerful.”
A quiet archive
While use of these archives in Milan and London has increased under lockdown, Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) has not seen a significant change.
Meg Labrum, general manager of collections, tells me in Europe people “appreciate, celebrate, use, know about their archive”.
In Australia, she says the film archive is “a kind of interesting, slightly odd, cultural provider”.
Although the NFSA has a significant collection in Canberra, it does not release 20 films a week like the Milan archive, nor does it boast a dedicated streaming service like the BFI.
The NFSA’s online presence is focused on curation, rather than the delivery of streaming material. It frames small samples of screen content into topical themes and exhibitions. With rare exception, users cannot watch films, but they can (for example) listen to producers Jocelyn Moorhouse and Lynda House speak about the making of Muriel’s Wedding.
Australia was once the end-of-the-line for global film distribution. Films sent around the globe for viewing would often remain in Australia – it made no financial sense to return bulky film reels to their country of origin. This means the NFSA has an internationally important collection, including items such as the most complete version of the French actress Sarah Bernhardt’s Camille (1911).
As a film historian, I am frustrated by licensing issues in Australia blocking our access to film heritage. Local copyright laws and an aversion to copyright risks have meant these legal issues seem to haunt the NFSA far more than they do in comparable institutions abroad.
With staff working from home, Labrum sees the COVID-19 crisis consolidating the NFSA’s drive towards the digital: “an experiment […] testing just how far we can keep the collection open in a purely existing digital content context.”
While not streaming films, the NFSA has nevertheless focused on digital preservation, continuing the digitisation of magnetic tapes during shutdown.
Films to the people
Two days after our interview, Dixon was put on furlough, her pay reduced by 20% and unsure about her future employment. For now, her team “split work. […] We’ll cover a skeleton service”.
But she remains optimistic about the impact of COVID-19 on the BFI and its operations.
The pandemic has “proved the worth of digitising material and putting it online in a massive way,” she says.
“If it means that the people don’t go to the films, we need to take the films to the people.”
The increased traffic to the BFI and Cineteca Milano shows there is a want to engage with our film histories – coronavirus makes obvious how hampered Australians are in the access to ours.