Rethinking the Concept Based on Nationhood Open Up the Archives!

Colonial history: Stefanie Schulte Strathaus in the interview
Stefanie Schulte Strathaus in the interview | © Goethe-Institut

How can an archive remain a lively, dynamic place and how can both artists and viewers have a say? The Arsenal Berlin defies conventions and is redefining how we handle archival material.

By Teresa Althen

Many film archives still regard themselves as keepers of sensitive material and only very rarely allow access to it – especially if there’s a risk of its being altered or edited as a result. The Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin is different: its projects with artists and filmmakers, drawing on its archives of over ten thousand films from all over the world, are breathing new life and significance into material that had been gathering dust for way too long.

For Arsenal co-director Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, it’s high time to fundamentally rethink national archives that are based on the concept of the nation-state. The work of film archives has previously been about safeguarding original footage and giving it a place in the present day and age as part of our cultural heritage. The large number of films from colonial archives and documents about anti-colonial struggles for independence call for a new approach to the future of these archives and a change in archival practices. “A film isn’t a film unless it is shown. And an archive isn’t alive unless it opens its doors,” says Schulte Strathaus. So Berlin’s Arsenal is working closely together with artists and filmmakers to take films off the shelves and bring them to life in the present day and age by organising screenings and research within the framework of contemporary projects: this is the way to foster decolonial thinking and break up outdated structures.
We talked to Schulte Strathaus about the need for a new conception of archives and the need to create something new in order to rediscover something old.

Most of the documentary films made in colonial contexts are now kept in European archives. And only a fraction of that footage was shot from the perspective of the colonized themselves. So to whom does this material really belong? To whom should it be accessible – and how? Why are some of these archives left to gather dust and what can be done about that? Archivists and filmmakers who work with archival footage address these questions in the following interviews.