Paula Amad, Columbia University Press, 2010. 408 pages; $35.00 / £24.00
Expanding upon her 2001 Film History article, “Cinema’s ‘Sanctuary’: From Pre-Documentary to Documentary Film in Albert Kahn’s ‘Archives de la Planète’ (1908-1931),” Paula Amad’s Counter-Archive: Film, the Everyday, and Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète is an important intervention into the methodology and study of early twentieth century moving images. Amad draws from the work of film historians – especially the work of Tom Gunning and his articulation of the “view aesthetic” – alongside that of theorists Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer and, most importantly, Henri Bergson, and crafts a unique history that is actively engaged with the theory of film, reality, the archive, and the everyday.
Taking Albert Kahn’s expansive Archives de la Planète as her object of study, Amad tells the story of a man who, between 1908 and 1931, commissioned and amassed a vast collection of film reels in an effort to document changing and dying cultures at the beginning of the twentieth century both abroad and in France, where Kahn had immigrated and become an established banker. Because Kahn contracted individuals to travel all over the world and shoot whatever attracted their interest, the films of Kahn’s archive are both indebted to and strikingly different from the early twentieth century actualities that have garnered scholarly attention in the past. Situating Kahn’s films on the lines between these early film actualities, (pre)documentary, and salvage ethnography, Amad firmly roots the Archives de la Planète in the then-burgeoning field of human geography. [End Page 43]
Whereas the article upon which Counter-Archive expands is dominantly invested in a discussion of the history and content of the Archives de la Planète, Counter-Archive is a fascinating and in-depth exploration of the culture of the early twentieth century, chiefly focused on the overlaps between the theory of human geography, theories of “the archive,” and Kahn’s films. In this way, Amad’s book is more invested in reclaiming the theories of Henri Bergson arising from and concerning early film than presenting a straightforward history of Kahn, his films, or his archive. Working to combat “anti-cinema” readings of Bergson that rely on the assumption that “Bergson believed film was only capable of reproducing the illusion of life and that consequently any conception of memory that resembled film was entirely misconstrued” (218), Amad writes of the personal connections between Bergson and Kahn, of Bergson’s visits to the Archives de la Planète, and of Bergson as a theorist whose ambivalence about film has been misread and misinterpreted.
Where Counter-Archive excels most, however, is in its consideration and theorization of the range of media encompassed by the Archives de la Planète, namely the still image autochrome slides that were produced alongside the mostly unedited moving image films. By exploring the range of cultural fears and assumptions regarding the autochromes and moving image films, Amad makes a compelling case for a way of writing film history that is at once highly medium specific and trans-media.
By writing a history steeped in theory, Amad is able to situate Kahn and his archive firmly within theory while simultaneously writing a history of theory. While his approach more or less assumes that the reader of Counter-Archive comes pre-armed with a knowledge and understanding of Bergsonism, in particular, it allows Amad to provide a model for a way of writing film history and thinking about archival research that is fresh and inspiring.