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Film Archivists in China: the 2012 FIAF congress

Image of a workshop at FIAF on the transition to digital technology, l-r Jon Wenstrom (Swedish Film Institute), David Walsh, Thomas Christensen (Danish Film Institute), Sungji Oh (Korean Film Archive)

A workshop at the FIAF congress on the transition to digital technology, l-r Jon Wenstrom (Swedish Film Institute), David Walsh, Thomas Christensen (Danish Film Institute), Sungji Oh (Korean Film Archive). Courtesy of the China Film Archive.

The collective noun for a gathering of film archivists? A vault? A screening? The more cynical might say a confusion. Certainly, at the annual congress of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) held in Beijing in May, in addition to a certain amount of confusion surrounding voting procedures (something of a tradition at FIAF congresses), archivists were understandably confused by the sheer scale and rapidity of the changes to their world brought about by digital technology. And so a good deal of the proceedings set about addressing some of these concerns, not least the workshop organised jointly by the Technical Commission (of which I am the head) and the Programming and Access Commission, where we looked at the digital world from different perspectives and tried to offer some guidance on acquisition, management, preservation and access. (Some of the guidance we offered is now available in a few handy documents on the FIAF website).

Our fellow commission, Cataloguing and Documentation, have also worked hard to push for worldwide implementation of an important new European standard for film metadata (EN 15907:2009), and are hoping that this will become an ISO standard shortly. To boost their case, they had the British Film Institute to present their successful adoption of CEN standards in their new Adlib database (the first organisation to do so). This commission is also working on a revised set of cataloguing rules which will be compliant with this standard.

FIAF retains a very strong interest in analogue film technology, and there are many who view the demise of this traditional technology not just as regrettable, but as something to be resisted at all costs. In this context, when the Technical Commission wondered in passing whether it should investigate the feasibility of film archives manufacturing their own film stock when all the big players (Kodak, Fuji) decide to drop it, the FIAF delegates were understandably excited. Establishing a cottage industry for film stock seems implausible to many, but I suspect that unless we can come up with definitive evidence to support this view, the idea will not rest.

Technical matters were only a part of the events: the congress began with a two day symposium on animation films, linked to a week-long festival of well-attended public screenings. Favourites included a talk on Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette animations from the Filmmuseum, Düsseldorf, the work of Walter Ruttman presented by the Munich Filmmuseum, and some extraordinary ‘non-camera’ films by the artist Julian Józef Antonisz from the Filmoteka Narodowa in Warsaw. Set against these western films were a number of fine films from China and Japan, many of them only just saved from oblivion as recognition of the importance of film preservation began to take hold in these countries. The British dimension was represented by a short programme from the BFI, and two films from IWM presented in the form of Digital Cinema Packages, our first venture into D-Cinema screening.

The Congress was hosted by the China Film Archive, an organisation which appears to be one of the most well-funded and well-staffed film archives in the world, having well-equipped cinemas and a state of the art tracking system in the film stores, using RFID (Radio Frequency Identification – a kind of remote barcode system). The CFA were enthusiastic hosts, and FIAF members from all around the globe, including both North and South Korea, were made very welcome, although those of a more fastidious disposition found the locals’ delight in eating chicken, bones and all, a little hard to cope with.

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