With this report of my fieldwork completed at the film archives in the Balkans, I would hereby like to express my gratitude to the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies for granting me generous funding, without whose support, I would not have been able to do this essential research. My trip began at the ‘Nitrate Film Festival’ in Belgrade, the only archival film festival of its kind in the Balkans, and so very fitting for the start of my journey through cinema’s history around the turn of the century, where indeed films were on nitrate support and therefore highly flammable. After interviewing the head archivist of the Yugoslav Cinematheque, I soon discovered that one of the largest collections of the silent period itself went up in flames to be recycled for plastic raw material. So amongst the archives; dusty documents, decaying films, fragile paper newspapers and fading memories, a discerning and intriguing voyage between myth and history began.
Participation at the film festival allowed me to network with the community of archivists and film historians in the region, and discuss the state of archives and history in the national institutions. In Belgrade, I gathered important written material on one of the first fiction films made in the Balkans, Karadjordje or the Life and Deeds of the Immortal Duke Karadjordje (1911, dir. Ilija Stanojevic) as well as had the opportunity to view it on the big screen at the cinematheque. In addition, the festival screened newly restored footage from the Balkan Wars in 1913 from the Serbian side from the Djoka Bogdanovich collection. Then following in the footsteps of the film director in Theo Angelopoulos’ Ulysses Gaze, my journey took me to Skopje (Macedonia) where the cinema pioneers, the brothers Manaki, left their cinematographic legacy. At the Macedonian film archive, I viewed the whole collection of their films ranging from 1907 to the 1920s, constituting important records of local life for the Vlach minority in the Balkans and for Macedonians. I also had access to their paper archives in various languages as authorities shifted: Ottoman Turkish, Greek, Romanian and Serbian-Croatian. In Tirana, I was welcomed by the head archivist of the Albanian Film Archive who showed me their film collections and storage facilities, as well as providing access to the earliest surviving footage filmed in Albania and written material on its film history, the least known and largely neglected area of all cinemas in the Balkans. In addition to viewing the first amateur (homemovies) films in Slovenia by Dr. Karol Grossman dating back to 1905, which preserve the traces of family and social life, I discovered two early texts written in 1896 by a doctor and a teacher in local newspapers on the advent of Cinematography. In Croatia, I saw various footage from Opatija filmed by the Lumière brothers (then under the Austro-Hungarian empire), and locally produced documentaries by pioneer Josip Karaman in Split, recording the important social events in the city. The most interesting discovery was a 1892 article written in the local newspaper in Split pre-dating the Lumière brothers’ invention, describing the functioning of the kinetograf (by Edison) and its capability of recording life posthumously. Similarly in Romania, I was able to consult the Romanian-French daily newspaper L’independence Roumaine where the first cinema screenings and local productions were chronicled and described by a certain Claymoor as part of the High Society column. Here, the Romanian film archive arranged a private screening of early medical films by Dr. Gheorghe Marinescu and other early footage from local cameramen on 35mm. My interview with Romanian film archivist and historian Marian Tutui, proved very helpful in gaining further knowledge on the Manaki brothers’ activities in Romania, and establishing transnational connections in this period. The minute and lenghty work of the Bulgarian film archivist in the form of two volumes kept at the Bulgarian Film Archive, provided me with endless information on cinema screenings and related activities in Sofia and other major cities in Bulgaria from 1896 to 1914. Subsequently, I viewed some newly discovered footage of Sofia dating to circa 1905, newsreels from the Balkan wars, and I consulted newspapers in the state and national archives. The contact with the renowned Bulgarian film historian Petar Kardjilov proved to be the most fruitful, as he shared his research on early cinema and in particular the activity of Charles Rider Noble, an Englishman in the Balkans.
Overall, I have collected an enormous amount of information in relation to the history of early cinema in the Balkans. This material will prove invaluable to the contextualisation and corpus for my PhD thesis. In addition to presenting my research at the upcoming 2014 BASEES conference in Cambridge, I hope to use more of the interviews and resources discovered during this trip in presentations and publications of the coming years. This shows that indeed the Balkans had a very rich and interesting film history, not to be disregarded in comparison to European cinemas, and so my work will give an insight into its history, the inter-cultural and transnational character of cinema’s development in the region around the turn of the century, and open new perspectives in the understanding of cinema as art, document and industry. Having established very important contacts with film archivists and historians in the region, will further help the progress of my thesis and open up new avenues for collaboration. I hope to be able to return to the Balkans, and in particular to conduct research in the Greek Film Archive and possibly further research in local state archives, as this was not possible during this summer’s fieldwork trip due to shortage of funding and time. In conclusion I would like to reiterate that I am extremely grateful to the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies Research and Development Committee and their support for my project, without which this journey and the discovery of new material would not have been possible. Without their support, one of the most important cultural histories of the new Europe would remain in silence.
Topic of research: History of early cinema in the Balkans and haptic visuality of archival films
University of St Andrews