When applying for graduate school in Amsterdam, the three of us tried to imagine what being a film archivist would be like. We each believed we were the future Henri Langlois (founder of the French Cinémathèque). We were going to build and exhibit a fantastic collection of audiovisual and A/V-related material that would revolutionise the field of film studies. It would be our very own baby that we would nurture with films saved from oblivion. Little did we know, film archiving was not quite so romantic.
After four months of studies, reality had already sunk in. Ernst Lindgren’s (British Film Library) example became the foundation of modern audiovisual archiving practices. Lindgren has been praised for his professionalism and rigour, which archivists saw as the main factor behind the successful preservation of the British collection for future generations. In direct opposition to the work of Lindgrenwas Langlois, whose casual
attitude led to the destruction of many film copies by fire. The film archive as an institution has now become the norm under pressure from governments and professional bodies such as FIAF. Is the archivist as film collector a figure of the past?
The answer is no. Private collectors are still very much present, gravitating outside institutionalized practices. We had the chance to meet a passionate collector at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR): Fenno Werkman. Werkman had been invited to present his collection of musical films every evening of the festival at a venue called the Scopitone Café.
A “scopitone” is a type of jukebox featuring a 16-mm film display component. It was extremely popular in the 1960s amongst most cafés across America, Europe, and the Middle East. For a coin, a patron could enjoy Jimi Hendrix or Serge Gainsbourg – sound and image together! The phenomenon, however, vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared, and the scopitones were soon abandoned in cellars—discarded. The musical video clips survived regardless, gaining a second life in the 1980s thanks to the new channel MTV.
Although largely forgotten by the general public, scopitones became interesting for music and film collectors like Werkman. Werkman began his career as a photographer. In the 1970s, he befriended Linda Eastman, better known as Mrs. Paul McCartney, and accompanied them on their musical tour. He used these connections to get ahold of unique footage from their performances, among others.
After tireless collection efforts, he now owns six thousand or more scopitone films. Among this vast assortment his greatest pride is material from the Apollo Theatre that was found in the institution’s attic. Running an archive, though, is a very costly activity. Werkman travels across the world to acquire new material and after digitizing them, preserves the master copies in the optimal conditions of cold, dry vaults. In order to remain an independent collector who can work outside the institutional archives, he sells footage to commercial buyers for up to $50,000 a minute. Often the clientele include television shows such as Top 2000 à Gogo or Wintertijd.
However, this is not Werkman’s favourite way to make his collection accessible. It was evident at IFFR’s Scopitone Café, and by his own confession, that interacting with the public is what brings him the greatest satisfaction. What was then almost surprising to hear was his enthusiasm for digital. He embraces it as a way to give his collection greater longevity and mobility in order to share with a wider public his passion for these now unfamiliar, enchanting music-film oddities.
As future film archivists, we were very excited to meet Fenno Werkman. He showed us that an entire world of film archiving existed outside the institutions. It is up to us, the future generation, to ensure its continuation. So let us not despair, for romanticism is still very much alive in the archive. Langlois est mort, vive Langlois!
(Based on an interview of Fenno Werkman conducted on January 25th, 2015 by Frances Maciver and Sarah Vandegeerde)