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The Free University and Digital Humanities Research

Theses for Roundtable at ASEEES Annual Convention (2023) "Building a Free University in the Post-Soviet Space: Challenges and Opportunities"

Published onDec 12, 2023
The Free University and Digital Humanities Research

University of Pittsburgh, Free University

In my presentation, I will talk about the connection between the Free University and the digital humanities research. More specifically, I will focus on how courses that I taught at the Free University (Brīvā Universitāte in Riga) helped to build the foundation for Daydreams («Грезы»), the first scholarly database of feature films produced in the Russian Empire and films produced on its former territories during the first years after the October Revolution. It contains the most complete filmographies, synopses, and iconographic materials (such as promotional stills, posters, and frame enlargements) for more than 2,500 films produced in 1907–1919.

This project was launched in January 2022 when I started to teach an online course, “Cinema of the Russian Empire: History, Poetics, and Iconography,” at the Free University. This course consisted of three parts: (1) work on the database project, (2) film screenings and discussions, and (3) guest lectures and Q&A’s with historians of early cinema. All students enrolled in the course collected images for the database by reviewing the trade press, handbills, and other sources. Some of them were making copies at libraries; others were working with digitized materials. This work continued in January 2023 when I started teaching my next course, Early Cinema. The Key Films and Research Practice. Students of this course were able to collect more images and focused on working on film librettos (synopses) originally published in film periodicals and handbills of the early 20th century.

A few words about our database. The title of the database comes from a canonical film by Evgenii Bauer, Daydreams (Грезы; 1915), an adaptation of Georges Rodenbach’s novel The Dead Bruges. At the time, the concept of daydreams was among the most important in various reflections on and discussions of early Russian film; Maxim Gorky was the first to use the word “daydreams” in his groundbreaking essay about cinema written in 1896.

The database is divided into sections chronologically, with each section representing a year. Within the year, films are arranged alphabetically. It is also possible to get the films presented in alphabetical order. Each film has its own web page, where a filmography is followed by information on the film’s survival status and the location of its script, if one exists. When a film libretto — an original film synopsis — can be located, its full text is published after the filmography. Illustrations such as production stills, posters, and frame enlargements are added to the page.

The database is bilingual, Russian and English. Many sources, such as film posters and photos, do not require translation, but all the filmographic and bibliographical references for each film, as well as the plot summaries, are being translated into English. Currently, we have prepared brief English filmographic references for films produced in 1917 and 1918; these translations do not contain all existing film titles, references, and plot descriptions. For this information, one may consult the Russian version of the database and use automatic translation tools when needed; proper English translations for all the materials will be added over time.

The database will be an essential tool for scholars because the overwhelming majority of early Russian films are considered lost. Of more than 2,700 Russian films, fewer than 367 are currently known to exist, which amounts to only 13.6 percent. Most of these are incomplete, often in small fragments. Many of these films had a significant impact on film and theater of the twentieth century in Russia and worldwide.

A true history of cinema cannot be based exclusively on major titles — it should cover as many films as possible. At the same time, it is obvious that it would not be possible to collect a complete dossier of sources for every early film with materials scattered across archives and periodicals all over the world. That’s why, rather than researching information title by title, we must start building up the database by investigating the most relevant sources (periodicals, archives, museums, and private collections) and adding the material to the web pages of their respective films. The principal sources for collecting synopses and iconographic materials are film periodicals from 1907 to 1921, which include 17 titles.

As of June 2023, we had collected over 5,500 promotional stills. We are now shifting our focus to librettos and hope to complete the new collection so the demo version of the database can be released in early 2024. The database and website were developed by Alexander Grebenkov, a data engineer and research fellow at the University of Lorraine (Nancy, France). Our research team is immensely grateful to the scholars who have supported this project and agreed to deliver guest lectures.

DOI: 10.55167/88be54a63010

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