Bad Film Histories: Ethnography and the Early Archive (University of Minnesota Press, Spring 2019)


In Bad Film Histories, I consider: What kind of artifact is an early ethnographic film?  What kind of historical claims do these films make?  And what kind of archive(s) do they combine to form?  The answers to these questions tell us something about early ethnographic film, but these questions also aim for early film history, a field that eerily echoes ethnographic discourses of salvage and preservation, while simultaneously overlooking the frenzy born out of these discourses in visual-ethnographic practice.  In foregrounding the ellipses and excesses of ethnographic cinema, my research articulates an alternative archival site, as well as an alternative approach to early film history.

“Weird Loops: Drone Cinemas, Climate Change, and the Work of Mourning,” in Cinema of Exploration: Essays on an Adventurous Film Practice, ed. James Leo Cahill and Luca Caminati (American Film Institute/Routledge, 2020)

In this chapter, I examine the evidentiary qualities of drone footage of climate change, especially as these images return to and rework the practice of aerial imaging that stretches across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I also explore the peculiar temporality of drone recordings and the work of mourning that these images encourage us to do. In my view, they do not share their temporal expressions with other aerial or drone visualizations, nor with any other photographic or cinematic predecessors. These images are indices of “what is” and “what has been” (i.e., this is dying or dead) but they are also images of “what will have been” (i.e., this will have died). Drone images, in other words, are invitations to mourn what will inevitably be lost. They are images of a posthuman future, one inscribed in the very technology used to produce them.

“Pas de chemin, pas de ligne,” MAST 1.1 (2020), ed. Maryam Muliaee and Mani Mehrvarz

This short essay responds to the question “What is Media Studies?” for the inaugural issue of the Journal of Media Art Study and Theory, Mapping Media Studies. 

“Let It Burn: Film Historiography in Flames,” Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 41.1 (2019)

This essay examines the figure of fire as it circulates in theories of history and migrates to film theory. Perhaps more so than any other historical artifact, both celluloid, in particular, and film, more generally, have a privileged relationship to fire. In turn, I argue that the flames of film history are not (or not only) events to be overcome or warded against; they are instead essential to a rigorous understanding of film artifacts and historical methods, one that distinguishes between moving image materials and, in this case, attends to the specific historicity of celluloid.

“Mixed Media: Ethno-zoography and the Archives de la Planète” in The Zoo and Screen Mediaed. Michael Lawrence and Karen Lury (London: Palgrave, 2016), 43-63

The last year of Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète coincided with the Exposition Coloniale Internationale in Paris, an event that lasted six months and attracted more than 33 million visitors to the Bois de Vincennes. The exposition celebrated the expansive reach of French colonialism by putting one of the largest and most elaborate human zoos on display. In this essay, I examine the final moments of the archive, the encounter between photography and film as they participate in the staged colonial encounter of the exposition. This final visual event doubles and repeats the original archive, making visible the visual and archival instabilities that had been there all along.

New Silent Cinema, co-edited with Paul Flaig (London and New York: Routledge/AFI Series, 2015)

This project engages a recent wave of returns to early and silent film in popular and avant-garde cinema, art, literature, and new media. The contributors to this collection consider how this contemporary phenomenon intersects with key debates in silent film scholarship and archive studies as well as the imitations and repetitions of silent film that surface throughout the 20th century.

In my own contribution to the collection, I explore The Scene Machine, an application developed as part of Images for the Future, a government-funded initiative, dedicated to the restoration and digitization of more than 700,000 hours of film from the Dutch national archives. I am interested in  the simultaneous and irreconcilable differences that these kinds of new archival formations produce, the historical confusions that they inscribe upon the surface of their collections. How do digital archives of early cinema intervene in our thinking about the digital? And what does the digital do to our conception of the early archive?

“The Maison and Its Minor: Lumière(s), Film History, the Archive,” Cinema Journal 52:4 (Summer 2013): 25-48

This article examines three distinct examples of expedition filmmaking in the Lumière archive: the Village Ashanti series; Alexandre Promio’s North African street scenes; and Repas d’Indiens, a single shot from Mexico City.  Taking departure as an historical fact and a critical tool, this essay explores the visual, epistemological, and archival instabilities that the expedition films produce.

My afterthoughts on this article available here.

“Shadow Lives: Josephine Baker and the Body of Cinema,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 54:1, 7-39

This paper intervenes amid a wave of conferences, special journal issues, and book-length studies devoted to Josephine Baker, the African-American star of French-colonial cinema.  While this recent work importantly writes Baker into national and visual histories, it mistakes her films for sturdy historical documents and misreads the evidence that they provide.  This paper reroutes our understanding of Baker through the indexical complexities of her films.

“Cut, Paste, Glitch, Stutter: Remixing Film History,” Frames 1:1

In this article, I take the remix as a starting point for engaging the intersection between film objects, early and silent film historiographies, and contemporary visual culture.  I argue that the remix is a metahistorical work, a mode of historical expression that is fundamentally about film artifacts and historical telling.  The remix opens onto the possibility of new film histories and historiographic futures: not the digital annihilation of the celluloid archive, but a reinvigorated theorizing of film history that owes and offers something to the living present.

Work in Progress

“Body Parts,” in Incomplete: The Feminist Possibilities of the Unfinished Film, ed. Alix Beeston and Stefan Solomon (University of California Press, expected January 2023)

Images at the End of the World: Historicity and Mourning in the Twenty-First Century (manuscript in progress)