Non-fiction films from before Nanook of the North (22) are not regarded as documentaries. They are mostly seen as pure registrations of the world, but not for their aesthetic and artistic qualities.

Ulla Jacobsen
Jacobsen was previously editor in chief of the DOX Magazine from March 1998 until early 2009. A lot of the DOX articles republished in ModernTimes was ordered by her. After 2009 she worked freelance, until she died in 2013.

However according to the organisations behind Exotic Europe, this view has been re-evaluated in recent years.

The four organisations have taken the initiative to preserve around 100 early, non-fiction films from 1905 – 1926 by restoring and copying them onto safety film stock, and on video and DVD. This was done with the support of the EU’s RAPHAEL programme.

As part of the project, they published a DVD, a video and a booklet in three languages: English, German and Dutch. The DVD and the video contain fifteen of the films and three essays with a compilation of clips from forty films plus a film about the restoration process.

The booklet focuses mainly on the restoration craft and only slightly on the cinematic-historic context and the aesthetic and structural developments in early non-fiction cinema. It is very interesting to read about the different methods used for colouring the b/w films back then, the techniques used today to recreate these colours as closely as possible and the impressive, meticulous work of restoring films frame by frame, areas that are often neglected. It is nevertheless disappointing that the editors haven’t included more information about the individual films, the contexts they were made in, and the development of the non-fiction film language. This would have increased the booklet’s appeal to a wider audience.

The last chapter in the booklet however does list some characteristics of films of that time: The subjects of the films have eye-contact with the camera, many films are about trips which were very popular also then, and it is common to attach the camera to a moving train or a rocking boat to give an illusion of movement. It also mentions that themes that were dealt with are water, tourist trips, labour, folklore and everyday life – but that is about all the cinematic-historic information you get.

The selection of films published on DVD aim to show life in the first quarter of the 20th century and present Europe as an exotic place. They have selected fifteen travel films covering different areas of Europe. The films are from different years and also represent different colouring methods. The stencil technique that made it possible to add a variety of different colours in each frame is quite impressive in “The Most Beautiful Waterfall in the Eastern Alps” from 1905 – 1910. It has bright, almost naturalistic colours. In general the films have great cinematographic value. Most of the films show landscapes and the people in them, but a few are short documentaries with a narrative/didactic structure or with small episodes. The exotic theme is well-chosen, the Europe depicted in the films looks very different from today.

The three essays add an extra dimension by revealing that a variety of rich material still exists from that period. They are grouped under three themes: travel, labour and posing for the camera, which contributes little to cinematic-historic information.

Their choice of music doesn’t work well. In some cases they use tunes from silent films, in other cases new music has been composed. The latter can be very successful wherever the new music is composed (or improvised) as an independent score that adds something to the film. In Exotic Europe however, the music tries to be anonymous, coming off mostly like muzak. In my opinion, they should have left them silent instead.

The structuring of the material on DVD and the navigating system is simple and logical: the films can be selected either chronologically along a time line or geographically on a map. Nevertheless, it is quite difficult to find your way around as there are only buttons to press and no titles. The titles do not appear until you press a random button. But that is just an annoying detail.

Exotic Europe is definitely a unique and praiseworthy initiative, preserving and bringing forward very interesting archive material to the public that would have otherwise remained forgotten. The finding and sharing of moving images from that time undoubtedly provides us with a highly appreciated treasure. It is valuable for us to see works by the forefathers of the documentary.


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