- Cinephemera: Archives, Ephemeral Cinema, and New Screen Histories in Canada eds. by Zoë Druick and Gerda Cammaer
Zoë Druick and Gerda Cammaer have assembled a fascinating collection of essays by Canadian film scholars on a wildly diverse set of topics, including silent-era Quebec “actualities,” early IMAX experiments, the influence of Jean-Luc Godard on Québécois cinema, the archival practices of the CBC and the National Film Board, Canadian avant-garde and experimental cinema, amateur filmmaking, wilderness travelogues, lost Canadian features, “found-footage” films, Aboriginal film and video production, and the history of the demise of the original Winnipeg Jets hockey team as told through video clips from discarded broadcast tapes found in the garbage bins outside the local CTV television station. Each of the essays is a consideration of some facet of what Druick and Cammaer call cinephemera, the portmanteau word of their title that is intended to link these various topics. The authors are all guided by an understanding of the cinema as a profoundly ephemeral phenomenon, and each offers a particular Canadian example of such “cinephemerality.”
The cinema’s ephemerality is at least partly an effect of its ubiquity. In the last 120 years or so—that is, since the invention of the motion picture camera—a vast amount of moving imagery has been created, the preservation of which has been an enormous challenge. The most significant problem was the volatile nature of the first recording materials. Most early movies, until at least the 1950s, were made on a nitrate film base, which was literally volatile—likely, that is, to burst into flames but [End Page 486] certain eventually to dissolve and disintegrate. Even the alternative that was finally developed, the acetate base, or so-called safety film, tends to dissolve rapidly into a vinegary mass in the film cans stored in archives. Images recorded on non-film materials, like videotape, can also deteriorate disturbingly quickly and are not easily duplicated without a significant loss of quality. While all of these and other formats have provided varying degrees of flexibility and portability, this typically came at the cost of physical instability. Estimates of the number of films from the silent era that have been lost around the world range from 75 per cent to as high as 90 per cent, largely through deterioration, but also as a result of outright neglect. Similarly high numbers of early television programs, recorded either on film or on videotape, have also been lost.
What does remain of the moving-image archive is not secure, and new digital media are as volatile as other older formats. Moreover, the cost and complexity of digital conversion are often prohibitive, which means that even more moving imagery is being lost as decisions are made about what to convert and what to leave rotting in the archives (or to toss in the trash). The situation is especially dire in Canada, as the authors in this collection reveal. Without the dominating force of a large and powerful feature-film industry, Canadian cinema has in fact been characterized by an extraordinary diversity of moving-image production but also by an even more profound ephemerality given the various agencies and institutions, state and private, with often competing interests, that have been charged with the task of preservation. As Jennifer VanderBurgh says in her essay in the collection, on the CBC archives, “ephemerality is often a question of value. That which is valued tends to be saved, while everything else is left to entropy, deterioration and other forms of degradation and loss.”
The value of moving imagery in Canada is being determined within complex social and political contexts, which are vividly represented and analysed by the contributors to this collection, many of whom are also themselves involved in preservation efforts. No nation or culture can adequately understand its history over the last century or so without a sense of the vast number and diverse kinds of moving images that have been created and that have guided and reflected that...