Handheld History

An Interview with BFI Curator Edward Anderson

Special piece for A Day of Silents 2015
by Shari Kizirian

Around China with a Movie Camera contains such a wide variety of footage. How unlikely is it that these kinds of films survived?

We are lucky that anything from this period has survived, especially pre-WWI. Be it inflammable cellulose nitrate base or more modern “safety” acetate stock—film is exceptionally fragile. What’s more, these films have spent a lifetime in circulation. They are worn through use and warped by time; they may have been buckled, bent, twisted, or torn; their splices broken, perforations ripped, images scratched. There is an enormous range of factors threatening a film’s physical survival. There’s also a cultural aspect. Film certainly had not been treasured in the same way as museum artifacts or literary works and, with new sound technologies, silent era films were rendered not only old-fashioned, but obsolete. For films never part of the commercial distribution cycle—home movies or missionary films—there’s an extra risk, as they are so often considered by their makers as mere holiday snaps or somehow too personal or private for anyone to think they could be valued by an archive.

Some of the title names are so banal they belie the fascinating contents. Were the titles given at the time or assigned later by the curators?
Newsreels, actuality films, travelogues, home movies, missionary films, and documentaries, all have their own quirks in naming conventions. Actuality films—think of Nankin Road, Shanghai (1901) or Modern China (1910)—are usually known to archivists by the titles they were advertised as in contemporary film catalogs. Only, of course, these titles weren’t fixed, they were liable to change whenever enterprising film distributors shuffled their libraries and refreshed the titles! Modern China (1910) crops up in catalogs as late as 1919 under the title, In Quaint Pekin. Same film, two names. Newsreel programs don’t strictly have titles at all, so archivists use the first intertitle introducing a story as the film’s name. Some home movies may have been lavished with intertitles by enthusiastic hobbyist amateur filmmakers but, more often than not, home movie footage comes into BFI having been kept for years in a little box with a handwritten note on it. So this note, transcribed, becomes the film’s title.

Where would these kinds of films have been exhibited in their day?
The newsreels, certainly, had sizable cinema audiences. A number of the Pathé travelogues would have been seen in the UK, France, and Germany, if not wider still. The BFI National Archive’s preservation master copy of the Pathé travelogue Pékin et ses environs has German intertitles (about seventeen minutes in). Although they didn’t concern themselves particularly with the political upheavals happening in China during the late teens and twenties, the newsreels got stuck in whenever there was a British angle. It is possible that some of the missionary films were intended for wider viewing, but my hunch is that these works are more akin to letters home than promotional or propagandist films.

Are there still stashes of these kinds of films around BFI waiting to be catalogued?
There’s a bit more stashed around the Archive. Sadly, the major limitation on exploring this kind of material isn’t our ambition or audiences’ appetites, but budgets. Film digitization is a pretty expensive business. If I ever get the chance, I’d like to explore some of our holdings documenting the extreme west of China, in Xinjiang province, around Kashgar. And, the BFI only holds a fragment of the Auguste François footage. I know there is more out there somewhere.

Was color in big demand by exhibitors for these types of films or, because of the cost, more of a rarity?
In the early days, colored films were the rule not the exception. Mostly you see these gorgeous, rich colors being applied to films to accentuate the dramatic or emotional qualities of the images. But it’s also not unusual for tints and tones to be applied to simulate naturalistic color—greens for landscapes, blues for nighttime or watery scenes, etc. With the Pathécolor process, a method of mechanically stenciling dyes onto film prints, you reach the apogee of this kind of work. An Oriental Venice was made right at the end of the stencil-coloring system’s life—just before photochemical color film was invented—and you can see how successfully the colors have been applied, how realistic some of the features appear. Yet there’s also a preternatural quality to the colors: extraordinarily rich greens for the plants and a shimmering purple on some of the buildings. The colors bring a sort of paradox to the film: it’s real life, but somehow otherworldly. The difference in the image quality after restoration was just astounding. Before, the whole film was a generic brown mush. After, new details came to light—like the chap in the boat under one of the bridges. We had no idea there was anything in the dark shadow of the archway.

How unusual was it for amateurs to have access to home movie cameras?
During the 1920s, small-gauge film cameras—9.5mm (after 1922) and 16mm (after 1923)—started to become affordable to Britain’s middle classes. Across the decade, people gradually began to use film to document special occasions: holidays, weddings, their children, and so on. Into the 1930s, when 8mm cameras made the hobby cheaper, suddenly all sorts of folks began picking up film cameras to document their daily lives. There’s a real connection here with the way we continue to use cameras and smartphones today. Home-movie making back then was pretty exclusive to the middle and upper ends of society but it wasn’t rare. It is rare for audiences today to be able to see these films in a cinematic context. Think of China (1928), here are folks on their honeymoon in the Far East—the trip of a lifetime!—and the camera lingers on the details and events that fascinated these ordinary people. In Travel Scenes in Hunan (c.1935), the filmmaker shoots his view out of the front of a litter chair bobbing and bouncing along narrow paths. Shaky shots and whip-pans, it doesn’t make for great cinema, but I can’t think of another moment in any of these films that manages to convey the filmmaker’s own exhilaration so beautifully.