On Thursday 29 and Friday 30 October 2020 the European Rural History Film Association (ERHFA) held an international online workshop. Because of recent developments in the pandemic, the workshop was turned into an online workshop by the hosting Institute of Rural History from Sankt Pölten. It proved to be a successful platform to bring together people with different kinds of interests and backgrounds to discuss and think about the issue of rural film production in Europe and beyond. The flexibility of digital work meetings also resulted in always changing and dynamic audiences for each session, allowing participants to cope with other meetings or teaching duties while still attending the workshop.
The workshop started Thursday afternoon with a session on the ERHFA and its initiatives. Host Ulrich Schwarz-Gräber from the Institute of Rural History welcomed the participants and addressed in his introduction the opportunities that these kinds of digital meetings offer for an international organization as the ERHFA, to enhance communication and further collaborations. Following the introduction, the president of the ERHFA, Peter Moser from the Archives of Rural History, communicated on on-going ERHFA-activities and the status of supportive members who are new to the association. Subsequently, the Technical Commission reported on recent developments related to the Cinema Rural Filmdatabase of the Centre for Agrarian History (CAG) in Leuven, Belgium, the importing methods from this database to the ERHFA-database and new features that were added to the Online Portal of the ERHFA-database. The first session was concluded by an update and brainstorm on future activities initiated by the organization.
Session II was scheduled for Friday morning and was dedicated to on-going and new research projects by ERHFA-Members. Sven Lefèvre from the Centre for Agrarian History kicked of the session with a presentation on Cinema Rural, addressing how the project had initiated several digital campaigns to reach out to the public, which results came up after visiting new and often unknown collections,and how CAG has dealt with research on copyright and copyright holders to make film material available to the public. Two fragments were shown from the Belgian Farmers’ Association’s archives, which sparked interesting debates on the use and power of music, the importance of comparative history (especially with Eastern Europe), and recurring ideas on gender roles in these rural films.
After a short virtual coffee break, Andreas Wigger from the Archives of Rural History in Bern, Switzerland, gave further insight into the project of creating a video-essay based on footage made by Suisse agronomist Walter Schmid during his visit to the United States in the 1930s, which he used as educational material to show his students farming practices and the use of machines in the USA. By doing so, the Archives of Rural History are experimenting with using a video-essay as a mode of communication for research based on moving images. The presentation brought up some methodological questions such as on how to be on guard to not just acclaim the ideology of a certain film, which, as with other historical sources, can be avoided by researching the broader context of these ego-documents, showing the importance of comparing and assessing other media and sources as well. Other discussions touched upon how, in contrast with written academic texts, these film-essays bring up the question of an adequate referencing system and how these films by agronomists should be seen in a wider tradition of agricultural pedagogy and the promotion of modernity in an agricultural society, which goes back to the 19th century.
Before the lunchbreak, Brigitte Semanek from the Institute of Rural History in Sankt Pölten presented recent developments and new insights on the project Niederöstereich-Privat, which aims to catalog and map 70.000 home movies from the 1910-1990 period in the Niederösterreich district. This time consuming task should be done “as accurately as necessary and as efficient as possible” and will result in an auxiliary tool to help researchers to put these sources into new research. These home movies bring up some burning methodological questions when cataloging and describing them, showing that these are a very different kind of moving images in comparison with more institutional films from other ERHFA-members. The second part of the presentation focused on how home movies are suitable sources for further research by rural historians. Inspirational potential research questions were presented to the public, for instance on leisure and sports activities such as hiking trips and the specific food culture which is associated with it. Another example showed how these home movies are a unique historical source to look at gardening as a social practice, looking at furniture, consuming culture, and decoration in gardens over time. To conclude, attention was drawn to the importance of extra context information added by home movies’ owners via oral history and citizen science, also possibly providing insights in the practice of producing these home movies.
Session III gave the floor to two Austrian based research institutions who presented their work and current research projects. Stefanie Zingl from the Austrian Film Museum presented different projects and experiences the Film Museum gained on working with home movies. To prevent these films to become orphans when they enter the museum, they have to be documented thoroughly, with oral history as an important tool to contextualize and detail information on the filmmaker. The wide variety of possibilities and richness became clear through different projects such as Ephemeral Film, Am Rand: Die Stadt or Amateurinnen, a project on female filmmakers. All these experiences lead to the publication of a volume on amateur film archeology, which draws attention to the importance of the specific materiality of these films. The Austrian Film Museum organized different initiatives to reach out to the wider public and to incorporate citizens in working with these sources. For instance by interviewing the makers during Home Movie Day 2020 on the practice of making and viewing the films and making these testimonies available on YouTube. These thought-provoking examples sparked a discussion from the audience on the difference between the concept of ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ and the importance of studying the rural with the urban context in mind.
Ingo Zechner from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Digital History (LBIDH) concluded the session by presenting some of the institute’s research projects which apply digital methods and embrace new technology in the humanities, on the intersection between Visual History, Urban History, Cultural Studies, and the History of Modernity. The presentation gave the audience a look behind the scenes, with some interesting examples from previous projects such as IMediaCities or the Ephemeral Films project. The various cases highlighted the importance and potential benefits of these new digital techniques such as Linked Data and the use of Wikidata-vocabularies. Some of the techniques shown included automatic analysis and automated description of moving images, analysis of camera movements, and linking people, buildings, and other elements depicted in specific shots to establish cross-over relationships between different films. The use of these techniques is no longer a matter of the future and offers possibilities for further applications of these films, for example by offering them in an app that interacts with the real world. It once again demonstrates the importance and potential of moving images as a historical source.
The workshop was concluded by a general conclusion and discussion, also addressing the opportunities of Zoom-work meetings. Everyone agreed that ERHFA and its members are all growing and learning from their experiences. Cataloging and archiving forms the basis of further initiatives in the future, with some promising topics which were discussed during the presentations, such as gender, the use of sound and music, or comparative histories in a Cold War-context. The different urban examples provided by the Austrian research presentations drew attention to the importance of studying the rural in interaction with urban-spheres, also looking into the margins of rurality. The two-day meeting organized by the Institute of Rural History in Sankt-Pölten can be considered a success, with plenty of food for thought and inspiration for future initiatives to further explore the unique characteristics and potential of rural films.
Sven Lefèvre, Centre for Agrarian History