Last week I attended the 7th Orphan Film Symposium in New York City. “Orphans,” as it is known, is a biannual event that draws archivists, preservationists, scholars, collectors, and artists from around the world to watch and discuss non-commercial and/or neglected films. This year’s theme was “Moving Pictures Around the World,” and included presentations and works from 17 countries.

One of the most interesting panels was on the topic of “Repatriation,” and featured a talk by Paolo Cherchi Usai, Director of the Haghefilm Foundation, and former Director of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

According to Cherchi Usai, repatriation may be understood as an act of justice, of returning objects that were illegitimately taken from their place of origin. Repatriation is not about “exchange,” which implies a balance of trade, but the moral rights of owners. These rights apply not only to nation states, but also to ethnic, language, or other groups within a nation state.

From the point of view of the repatriating archive, repatriation is an act of deaccession; for the receiving archive, it is seen as “collection development.” Cherchi Usai points up examples of international film repatriation projects from the 1960s and 1980s that served the dual aims of allowing repatriating countries to delegate preservation work deemed to have secondary value to the country to other parties, and enabling receiving countries to fill gaps in their national collection.

Cherchi Usai problematizes this convenient arrangement, however, arguing that repatriation must be done for the right reasons; irresponsible deaccessioning, on one hand, and poor collection policy, on the other, are not good ones! Moreover, he argues that while a film in a repatriating country’s collection may not belong to that country, it must have circulated or been distributed there at some point, thus making it part of its national film heritage. The film archives in the Netherlands reflects this perspective, and collects both Dutch and international productions.

Cherchi Usai suggests that films and reproducible media are different from other cultural objects, precisely because they can be copied. The repatriation of films and other media therefore does not necessarily need to involve the transfer of the original physical object. New prints and copies can be made, ensuring that both the receiving country and the source country have access to shared pieces of film heritage. Cherchi Usai also emphasizes that repatriation is not just about the return of a physical carrier, but also the rights of the people and things depicted in the images.

On a practical level, Cherchi Usai stresses the importance of transparency in the curatorial principles and objectives behind any repatriation project, as well as written contracts with stated timeline and deadlines. He also warns institutions against committing to any repatriation agreements unless they have the resources to fulfill their obligations. Ultimately, he argues, the goal of repatriation should be to benefit the public by increasing their access to preserved film heritage.

More on the rest of Orphans tomorrow…

– Yvonne

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