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The Greek Film Archive: An Ark of Historical Memory
© Maria Komninos
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Film archive practices today are shaped by their need to meet new challenges (digitization) without neglecting their traditional functions. Museums and digital libraries, along with other venues that cultivate a love of cinema, are the target-audience whose needs contemporary archives must meet in order to contribute to an audiovisual education.
The meaning and purpose of an archive has been the object of discourse by great intellectuals like Jacques Derrida, Mary Ann Doane and Laura Mulvey. The French philosopher Derrida examined archive management in the context of repulsion and pain. Doane looked at how information is recorded and stored in terms of memory and timeliness.[i] Mulvey explored how new technologies offer new ways of perceiving the film experience and how they simultaneously involve the viewer because of the capability of disrupting the narrative line, uncovering new and unexpected pleasures in the study of texts on film.
The introduction of digitization in both storing and filing films has fundamentally changed the study and teaching of film at the theoretical as well as the practical, or hands-on, levels. In collaboration with European archives, the Greek Film Archive has laid the foundations for organizing audiovisual education in the new digital environment. Given that an exclusively technology-friendly approach harbors dangers, both for the collection’s future management as well as for its use as an educational tool, the Archive believes that it is a primary responsibility of the state to provide the requisite funding for restoration programs and, in a secondary phase, to proceed with digitization because film can wait as wisely observed at a recent Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF) conference. 

With regards to its use as an educational tool, there is the visible danger that stems from a gratuitous emphasis on new technologies without a parallel cultivation of a broader theoretical framework. This is a field in which the Archive is trying to maintain a balance between the production of modern technical expertise and a continuous reference to the theoretical and historical dimensions of cinema. 

The dual role of a modern Archive: museum and digital library

The meaning of an archive, as approached by Jean-Luc Godard and Mulvey is quite useful in understanding the conflicts separating technophiles and technophobes. Godard, in one of his many discourses, wrote: “Cinema is a means for writing history and at the same time cinema shapes its own history as it unfolds. It can offer hints as to how we can make history, a history of men, women, children, civilizations…The archive is the appropriate place for realizing such enterprises and the fact that this isn’t happening is not without consequences.” [ii]

The distinguished director argues in favor of an archive that functions along the lines of the French Film Archive, simultaneously producing cinephiles and creators. He also believes that cinema itself writes and produces history. These views come into conflict with Anglosaxon approaches that believe film archives must collect without interfering in the criteria.
In his work Derrida raises many important questions about the role of archives as guardians of memory.
The issue of an archive is inextricably linked to memory and the technologies of its preservation and propagation as a legacy for future artists but also as a segment of collective memory. 

“Because the archive, if this word or this figure can be stabilized so as to take on a signification, will never be either memory or anamnesis as spontaneous, alive and internal experience. On the contrary: the archive takes place at the place of originary and structural blreakdown of the said memory. There is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of repetition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside. [iii]
According to Mulvey, the introduction of digital technologies spurred a new wave of cinephilia: “with the spread of digital technologies…textual analysis stopped being a limited academic practice and returned perhaps to its beginnings as an act of cinephilia.” iv

Similar discourse is productive as we ponder the future of European archives and specifically the Greek Film Archive, archives which at this juncture are trying to find a balance between the ideal of a critical museum policy and market demands for their transformation into databases accessible to users while also permitting them to open their collections to other archives and their colleagues. In our estimation, such roles are not mutually exclusive and we can function as both digital libraries and museums.[v]

Despite the failure of the vision of a European course along the highways of new technologies, the entire philosophy of managing cultural institutions was shaped by the European Union’s technocrats based on the principle of digitize or die. The First program, launched in June 2002, the Midas program which is accessible today at, and most recently the digital portal European Film Gateway at were all introduced in this spirit. 

Archive directors today are trapped in the clash between technophiles and technophobes in terms of the strategy their respective institutions should follow. This clash is summarized in the exchanges between Nicola Mazzanti and Alexander Horwarth, curator of the Austrian Film Archive. Mazzanti, one of the directors of the Bologna Archive, suggests archives end their isolation and make their collections accessible to both researchers and cinephiles. Horwarth’s position encapsulates the technophobe’s stance on the issue as he believe that the new conditions open up a shift in policy characteristic of the European Union authorities. For example, the use of the word “content” instead of “collection” favors a policy that downgrades the material base such as film on which collections are based. Furthermore, the word “access” also indicates a shift in archival policy because consumption has priority in neoliberal rhetoric. Thus instead of archives’ policies focusing on a relationship with the material that is based on the collection, that is on film, the goal becomes their transformation into image databases.[vi]

Mazzanti says he never supported the view that film archives abandon their role as museums. He proposes a strategy by which film archives operate simultaneously as libraries and as museums. According to his assessment, many archives have neglected to develop access on demand, which is a vital element of a contemporary library’s operation.[vii]

But let’s focus on the most recent position outlined by Danish Film Institute curator Thomas Christensen before the “wise men’s committee” at a public hearing in Brussels on October 28, 2010.
Firstly, he observes that the basic mission of European archives and film archives is to preserve, document, and make accessible the history and culture of the cinema. Archives have a long tradition in promoting film in analogue form. These films are kept in specially-treated canisters, which are the best means for preserving this unique historical material. This tradition is challenged by the digital age so new models need to be developed for the qualitative promotion of films with historical value.
Christensen believes that digitization is expensive and raises issues already examined in the debate between technophiles and technophobes: that is, that images and sounds cannot be viewed merely as content but also legacy and art. His views on the effectiveness of applying business models to the digital stores of the European film heritage is that “it would be simplistic to expect that this would yield substantial revenues for the archives. Digitization must be a cultural investment aimed at securing better access to the European heritage.”

The Greek Film Archive’s contribution to the preservation, maintenance, and documentation of silent era films

The preservation of some films from the silent era and their relatively recent digitization decisively contributed to the systematic research of the silent era that faltered due to the material’s inaccessibility. In the 1950s, Aglaia Mitropoulou traveled to Paris where she formed a deep friendship with Henri Langlois,[viii] who effectively became her mentor. Thus the idea was born to collect Greek films, not just surviving films from the silent era [ix] as well as films which weren’t in producers’ possession in order to create a Greek institution along the lines of the French Film Archive—an enterprise initiated with the founding of the Greek Film Club in 1950 which in 1963 formally became the Greek Film Archive.[x]

The foundations for creating the Greek Film Archive’s collection of silent films were laid in the 1960s. Angelos Prokopiou donated part of the collection of his father, Yorgos Prokopiou, who as official photographer and cinematographer of the Asia Minor campaign for the General Army Staff had recorded over 14,000 meters of film.[xi] Documentation about this collection can be found in the multilingual[xii] Another important record is the excerpts from Angelos Sikelianos’s performance of “Prometheus Bound” which was filmed by Dimitris Meravidis. The collection of photographer Gavrilis Loggos, an assistant to Hepp, is also interesting.[xiii]

With regards to fiction films, the Greek Film Archive has the only collection from a production that starts in 1916 and ends with the 1932 The Shepherdess’s Lover (O Agapitikos tis Voskopoulas), a film to which sound was introduced experimentally.[xiv] The oldest surviving film is The Adventures of Villar (1924). Its restoration was completed in 1991 with material Hepp donated to the Archive. Achilleas Madras’s 1927 Maria With the Five Sons (Maria Pentayotissa) was initially silent but in 1939, hoping to distribute it among the Greek immigrants in the United States, it was converted to a sound picture at a Hollywood studio in a rather unconventional way as Madras and Frida Poupelina dubbed all the actors’ voices.[xv] Based on the material that Mitropoulou purchases from Madras and supplementary material from a private donor, the film was restored in its sound version in 1993 with support from the EU’s Lumiere program

Other milestones in amassing records from  the golden era of Greek silent film are the discovery in the French Film Archive of  Dimitris Gaziadis’s Astero [xvi] (1927) with French titles and its restoration in Paris thanks to the Lumiere program. Also important was the incremental acquisition of a large portion of the material from Orestis Laskos’s Daphnis and Chloe (1930).[xvii] Its restoration was particularly difficult because many segments were from subsequent edits to which sound had been added. In 1992, with help from Laskos, Thodoros Adamopoulos achieved a true feat by reconstructing the original titles and stripping sound that had been added later.
Mitropoulou’s discovery of Stelios Tatasopoulos’s 1932 Social Rot (Koinoniki Sapila) is also important. Tatasopoulos was a student of Dimitris Gaziadis and worked with Mitropoulou and the Greek Film Archive’s technical staff to restore the film.[xiii] The film is the first to depict social conflict and look at drug use and prostitution in the Athenian underworld.
Indicative of the interest in this period is that restored films from this era were screened in the 1990s at retrospectives at the Centre Pompidou and MoMa in collaboration with the Greek Film Center. More recently, the Greek Film Archive screened Astero, Daphnis and Chloe, and other films at the Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. These restored films are frequently screened at the Nitrate Film Festival organized by the Serbian Film Archive in Belgrade. This year the Austrian Film Archive screened Daphnis and Chloe accompanied by a wind ensemble. Also indicative of these films’ significance is the fact that important contemporary composers like Minas Alexiadis, Nikos Platyrahos, Miltos Logiadis and Filiipos Tsalahouris have written music for them. 

The Greek Film Archive’s contribution to the preservation, maintenance, and documentation of films from the sound era

Early in the twenty-first century, research on the history of cinema moves along two axes: the history of cinema through institutional shifts and the history of its reception by the audiences. In the Greek case, interest is focused mainly in the first direction through the ground-breaking study by Aglaia Mitropoulou, whose "book "Greek Cinema" was not just one more history of the Greek cinema but also a history of how the corps of Greek film documents was perceived as an object of historical interest and how films were acknowledged as a part of cultural heritage." [xix] Other efforts followed, some influenced by Marxism and others that adopted tools from the repertoire of contemporary historiography that combines categories of social sciences with psychoanalysis and cultural studies (the journals “Film” and “Sychronos Kinimatografos” (Contemporary Film)). 

Indicatively, we mention work by Yiannis Soldatos (Soldatos, 2002), Tonia Sotiropoulou (Sotiripoulou, 1995), the collection “Le Cinema Grec” edited by Michel Dimopoulos (1990), my own (Komninou, 2002), and Ioanna Athanasatou (Athanasatou, 2002). The second direction lags considerably in terms of bibliography, with the exception of Kouamis’s book which uses economics tools to focus on the profile of the consumer and Dimitris Eleftheriotis’s study which uses analyses from cultural studies. Also telling is the fact that in the last decade, the English-language bibliography shows a surge in interest in specific aspects of Greek film: Marianne McDonald and ancient tragedy (McDonald, 1983), Andrew Horton and the work of Theo Angelopoulos (Horton, 1997), a special issue of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies published in 2000, Eleftheriotis’s paper on commercial film and the popular movies in southern Europe (Eleftheriotis, 2001), as well as Lydia Papadimitriou and the Greek musical (Papadimitriou, 2006). 

As for non-fiction features from the sound era, the Greek Film Archive’s collection contains a large number of news reels and documentaries, including the Olympia collection with Dimitris Papadoukas’s footage from the Greek Civil War and the activities of the left,[xx] unedited footage from Roussos Koundouros’s travelogue “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great”, science films, and industrial documentaries.

The Greek Film Archive’s collection of fiction features numbers over 200. Noteworthy films in this collection as The Shepherdess’s Lover (1932), the Apachides of Athens (1930), where there is experimentation with the recording of sound. The first film’s restoration was completed in collaboration with the Deutsche Kinematek. Also important was the 1994 restoration of the sole film directed by Filopoimin Finos, the 1944 Song of Separation (To Tragoudi tou Xorismou) from a worn copy found in Egypt and the negatives which were in very poor condition. Nikos Koundouros’s O Drakos (1956, English title The Fiend of Athens)[xxi] is a milestone in Greek film. Its restoration revealed the fact that until the 1980s, the original negative was used in Greece to create new copies—a practice that resulted in considerable damage that was restored by the Greek Film Archive’s lab. Finally, a number of more recent films such as Kostas Ferris’s 1974 The Murderess (I Fonissa) require restoration because color copies also fade, causing loss of material to the specific film. Its restoration was overseen by the director himself who worked with the Greek Film Archive’s technicians and the resulting restored film was screened at the inauguration of the Archive’s new premises in 2009.


i M. A. Doane, The emergence of cinematic time, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass and London, 2002.
ii . L. Godard, ‘Les Cinematheques et l’histoire du cinéma’, Travelling, 56-57,
iii ibid
iv L. Mulvey, Death 24x a second, Reaction books, London, 2006
v M. Komninos, ‘European film archives at the threshold of the digital era: Museums or data banks? ‘International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics,τ.4,ν.1,2008,σ.93-8.
vi ibid., pages 95-96. 
vii ibid., page 96
viii Henri Langlois is considered the founder of the movement to create film archives. In the 1930s, with the help of Jacques Prevert, Georges Franzi, and Jean Mitry, he collected films that were rotting in the attics of Parisian homes and stored them at his family home. In the post-war period, he emerged as the main inspirator of the French New Wave because—in the words of Godard—“watching films at the Archive we learned how to make movies”. A. Mitropoulou, “Greek Cinema”, second edition, Papazissis, Athens 2006, page 417; J. L. Godard, “Histoire(s) du cinema”, Gallimard, Paris, 1998, p. 182. 
ix During the Nazi occupation, a large number of films that have been rescued were made into pulp used for combs to combat a lice infestation. 
x An institution known as the “Archive of Greek Films-Greek Film Archive” was formally established by Royal Decree 105/1963. Founding members were the directors Nikos Koundouros, Mihalis Kacoyannis, Grigoris Grigoriou, and Yorgos Zervos; the writers Stratis Myrivilis, Ilias Venezis, Alkis Thrylos, and Mona Mitropoulou; the journalists and film critics Eleni Vlahou, Lena Savvidi, Spyros Skouras, and Savvas Pylarinos; and, the art critics Angelos Prokopiou and Eleni Vakalo. ibid, page 417.
xi ibid, pages 60-61
xii Multilingual database with emphasis on fiction features that includes elements of the Greek Film Archive’s filmography during the silent era as well as since. 
xiii (search keywords images from 1920-1930)
xiv On this, see F. Hess “Sound and the Nation: Rethinking the History of Early Greek Film Production”, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, issue 18, 2000, pages 16-18.
xv On this, see F. Hess “Sound and the Nation: Rethinking the History of Early Greek Film Production”, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, issue 18, 2000, pages 16-18.
xvi (search digitized films)
xvii A. Mitropoulou, pages 85-88
xviii (search digitized films)
xix M. Komninos, “an intellectual in the public sphere” in A. Mitropoulou, op. cit. page 21
xxi A. Mitropoulou, op. cit. pages 187-189

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