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« Tuna 4 / 2020

The Film Archive in Estonia: A History in Space

Inspired by The Importance of Film Archives, a 1948 article by Ernest Lindgren, one of the leading figures of the post-World War II film preservation movement and a long-time curator of the British National Film Archive, this article discusses the history of film preservation in Estonia by concentrating on the spatial situation of the National Film Archive. Between the mid-1950s and early 1990s, several construction projects for the film archive were initiated, all of them failing in various stages of development. Nevertheless, these architectural designs serve as time capsules, encompassing the (past) present as well as the future, and expressing the ideologies and ideals of their time of inception. In general, they reveal two chronologically determined approaches to the functions and social position of the institution: on the one hand, the film archive as passive storage, and on the other hand, the film archive as a cultural hub, as well as a centre of competence. From the founding of the Film and Photo Archive at the National Archives in late 1936 to the early 1980s, the former understanding prevailed. Film preservation, which until 1970 was the task of a designated department at the Central State Archives, was largely limited to collecting, safekeeping, documenting and cataloguing the (predominantly documentary) production of the local film (and in due course TV) industry, which it also served as a reservoir of archival footage. Although the films were initially kept at Toompea, the historical seat of power where the new building of the National Archives was erected in the latter half of the 1930s, the construction plans of the post-war decades reveal that the film archive was initially seen as a literally and physically peripheral establishment to be built at the edge of the city, in an industrial district far from the public eye, forming a part of the film and TV production complex and relying on the latter’s competencies (in lab work, for example). In terms of both its public role and specialist expertise, perception started shifting after the film archive became an institutionally independent entity, first under the name of the Estonian SSR State Central Archive for Films, Photographs and Sound Recordings (1971) and later as the Estonian Film Archive (1989–1998). In 1983, a design was completed by the architect Ester Liiberg, according to which the film archive was to be built in central Tallinn in the vicinity of the Estonian television studio on Faehlmanni Street. In addition to state-of-the-art vaults, the building was to include a cinema, an exhibition hall and a café, all open to the public, as well as an impressive complex of laboratories for all media in the collection (in addition to film, also for photographs and sound recordings). This spectacular plan was soon abandoned, however, as the USSR’s quickly deteriorating economic situation halted all construction work in the cultural sector. Another attempt was made in the early 1990s on a site located at the outer edge of Lasnamäe, Tallinn’s largest residential suburb. The new spatial programme included even more public functions (for instance, a library, a sound studio, and a photo lab), while on the preservation side the fully functional film laboratory (generating new prints on 35mm film) was abandoned due to its high maintenance costs. This time, the design process was terminated at an early stage, since the construction budget would have been prohibitively large for a young country struggling to find funds for even the most basic functions. Nevertheless, on a much smaller scale, the ideas discernible in the designs of the 1980s and early 1990s were partially realised in a former military prison on Ristiku Street that was converted to house the archive between 1996 and 2000. While not all plans were completely actualised, the Ristiku building became a supportive environment for developing a 21st century film archive. The latter will hopefully materialise in the coming years when the film archive, together with other departments of the National Archives in Tallinn, moves into the National Library building, which is to be reconstructed by the mid-2020s.