Searching East Asian Archives

posted July 28, 2010

East Asian cities have become showcases for some of the most lavish architecture of modern times. They may prompt Western visitors to exclaim: “Is this Asia?” But how are the cities portrayed in cinema?

For the book they recently edited, Cinema at the City’s Edge: Film and Urban Networks in East Asia (University of Washington Press, in cooperation with Hong Kong University Press’s TransAsia: Screen Cultures series), Yomi Braester and his colleague James Tweedie collected essays by scholars of cinema, architecture, and urban studies from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

For anyone interested in exploring archives of films and other moving images from East Asia, Braester offers these thoughts on his own research, in an interview with MIAN:

I did use a number of archives. They included the Beijing Film Archive, which is the only one in possession of some of the materials (for example, Chinese documentaries from the 1960s); the archives of the Shanghai Media Group, which holds many TV programs and video materials used solely for internal Communist Party consumption; the Shanghai and Beijing Municipal archives, which are now thoroughly computerized – they don’t have any moving images as far as I know, but they have much related materials; and the Beijing People’s Art Theater archives, which do include some recordings, although I did not use them. One of the reasons for not relying on the BPAT recordings is that unlike the US or anywhere else I know, videos are widely available on the free market in China. That’s true for film classics as well as theater productions. Another form of archive that may be somewhat special for China is collections of independent films. There are such collections at Shanghai University, Fanhall (in Songzhuang, near Beijing), UC-San Diego, and a few other, smaller places; other foundations have idiosyncratic but marvelous collections, notably the Long Bow Group. People familiar with these circles rarely need to use the formal archives; instead, they get copies from the curators or from the directors (which is what I did). I have a long list of acknowledgments in my book, and it reflects the large amount of help I received from archivists, curators, and other facilitators of archival material.

The steepest learning curve had to do with finding out whom to approach for unofficial materials, and which stores hold the best collections of published VCDs and DVDs. A memorable experience of an obstacle was my attempt to use the archives of the News and Documentary Film Studio. I was ushered into a room, where the archivist was extremely friendly. He explained to me that the materials I was interested in were just across the hall from where we sat. Then he said: “to get into that room, all you need is a letter of recommendation – from a person at the ministerial level.” My connections in Beijing do not extend to national bureau chiefs, so I have never crossed that corridor.

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