A Conversation with Nico de Klerk

 

Nico de Klerk
Nico de Klerk

A film historian, curator and researcher, Nico de Klerk’s professional interests lie outside the typical film canon. During his student years, he “roamed a bit initially” before receiving an English degree at the Leiden University and later obtaining his Master of Arts in Discourse Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. His interest in film came much later, and “it came with a  vengeance,” he notes.  Building up his expertise with volunteer stints at Amsterdam art houses and Skrien magazine, he eventually settled at what was then called Nederlands Filmmuseum (now EYE): “Because of the  museum’s programming, I developed an interest in early cinema, nonfiction in particular – that is what made me want to work there,” he says.

His role as the institute’s first Collection Researcher was in keeping with the museum archives’ mission at the time: “the philosophy was that the archive’s perceived weakness, i.e. its lack of canonical and other titles that show up in every top 100, could be transformed into its strength.” He notes the works of programmers Eric de Kuyper and Peter Delpeut, who screened series of unknown materials from such silent film-era directors as Yevgeni Bauer, Franz Hofer, Alfred Machin and Leonce Perret, as well as expedition films of the 1920s and color-film tests of the 1910s. “As an archive, I think, we were one of the first in trying to put ‘peripheral’ topics center stage and open it to outside expertise and input,” he says.

amsterdam workshop 94
Proceedings of the 1994 Amsterdam Workshop on early nonfiction.
amsterdam workshop 95
Proceedings of the 1995 Amsterdam Workshop on color in silent film.

Such measures included the creation of the Amsterdam 
Workshops, in which groups of 50 to 60 international archivists and scholars were invited to participate in discussions of materials and topics de Klerk researched— such as early nonfiction, colonial cinema, the program format, and advertising film. de Klerk would then create unique programs for the sessions. “That’s when I discovered the power and the effects of programming,” he says. The workshops were also intended to give participants an impetus to incorporate their experiences into their own professional lives.

de Klerk’s passion for the peripheral topics of cinema history extends to his interest in orphan films, which he attributes to his work with the EYE. Attending the first Orphan Film Symposium in 1999, de Klerk was unaware of the existing community of like-minded professionals with this interest. “You might say I worked on orphan films before I even knew the term and what it meant…that first symposium was a homecoming…what touched me was the devotion people displayed to those largely forgotten and unknown materials, the knowledge people had acquired about the stuff they showed and introduced, and – most of all – the democratic atmosphere, in that it didn’t matter whether you worked at Yale or UCLA or had a non-cinema day job and did your research in your spare time.”

de Klerk's work on J.C. Lamster, an early filmmaker in the Dutch East Indies, was published in 2010.
de Klerk’s work on J.C. Lamster, an early filmmaker in the Dutch East Indies, was published in 2010.

With such a vested interest in the diversity of both archival holdings and the field itself, de Klerk argues that the greatest challenge facing the preservation community is conformity in programming – that the types of films featured in archival screenings are those that can be viewed at home. Such retrospectives are “predominantly based on a few principles – personality, nationality, genre…insofar these institutes have their own collections, only a fraction of their holdings are being presented.” de Klerk argues that the types of materials that belong to “the slow lane of film history” have been relegated to online exhibitions and presentations, despite the fact that many institutions may lack the resources for a proper online presence; further, these films were originally seen in a theatrical context in much the same way that some of the more retrospective-ready titles were. “I see no reason to relegate these materials to a mere digital life, certainly not when they are presented without any relevant form of contextualization,” he says. “If your mission is to present the heritage you are responsible for, it is imperative to find ways to meaningfully and imaginatively present all your holdings.”

The 2013 Orphans Midwest Film Symposium will be hosted at Indiana University Bloomington this week. For more information, including a full calendar of events, visit the Indiana University Cinema website.

~Kaitlin Conner