The Harvard Film Archive

Return to main article:

 “It’s Ali Baba’s cave,” says internationally renowned filmmaker Dusan Makavejev of the Harvard Film Archive (HFA), “thousands of brilliant, fantastic prints, many of them very rare.” Says Bruce Jenkins, former Cavell curator of the HFA, now dean of undergraduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, “The Harvard Film Archive has one of the premier collections of independent film in the country.” For independent filmmaker Andrew Bujalski ’98, the HFA was “a tremendous education — films that I’m not going to see anywhere else theatrically.” Beloved by students, scholars, and makers of cinema, the HFA is at the heart of Harvard film culture.

The University wanted a film library as early as 1927. The Graduate School of Business had asked sometime Hollywood producer Joseph Kennedy ’12 to organize a course on the movie business with Cecil B. De Mille and others. The just-opened Fogg Art Museum, hoping to create a first-of-its-kind film collection, negotiated a film library agreement with the producers. As Peter Decherney writes in Hollywood and the Culture Elite, this was “the perfect meeting of commerce and art” — for Hollywood. But because the producers refused to relinquish control of their films, the agreement never moved beyond the printed page. If it had, its proposed annual competition to select films “worthy of preservation” suggests that Harvard could have been home to the Oscars, which began two years later, in 1929.

Half a century later, Robert Gardner and his colleagues in the department of visual and environmental studies (VES) succeeded at the project that had foundered in the silent era. “You can’t do anything in film without a library of film, a cinémathèque,” Gardner recalls saying when asked to help Le Corbusier plan the “Light and Communication” department in the rising Center for the Visual Arts in 1958, “so from the very beginning I reserved space for it in the basement.” Later, and over time, Gardner, with film producer Michael Fitzgerald ’73 and cofounder Stanley Cavell, raised $1.3 million to buy an extraordinary collection of more than 2,000 35mm prints of the world’s most important films. On March 16, 1979, the HFA inaugurated its exhibition schedule with a restored print of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1925 silent version of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan.

“Without Robert Gardner, the HFA wouldn’t exist. He started it and put it in a condition in which it could flourish and actually be a pedagogical instrument,” says Cavell, who also “gave a lot of my life to it.” (He helped attain additional HFA funding from the Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.) In 1980 Gardner took steps to honor Cavell and secure the archive’s future: “I felt the way to make it solid, to give it substance,” was to establish an endowed, tenured position for a curator/professor “whose work would be to have the vision that guided and led the HFA.” Henry Rosovsky, then dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), agreed, and Gardner personally endowed the Stanley Cavell Curatorship.

The founding curator, meanwhile, was HFA cofounder Vlada K. Petric, a senior lecturer in visual and environmental studies (VES) whose collecting and programming helped create the archive as it’s known today. (Petric’s position, like that of HFA cofounder and VES film scholar William Rothman ’65, Ph.D. ’74, was funded by Luce and other grants, which meant that the Cavell endowment was not then needed.) For 15 years, Petric, a film scholar and a filmmaker, expanded the collection and established a wide-ranging, year-round, nightly schedule of international films, American studio cinema, independent fiction, animation, and experimental film/video screenings that was highly regarded in the film community.

When Petric retired in 1995, it became necessary to appoint the first Cavell curator. After a long search, Bruce Jenkins was hired in 1999. “I was brought in at a very exciting moment,” says Jenkins, who accomplished a great deal in five years as curator. The HFA now meets international guidelines for worldwide film exchange; offers pristine viewing with upgraded exhibition facilities; owns more than 9,000 titles; and has a conservation program. “We went from doing film conservation on the rewind bench of the projection booth to having a full-fledged, beautifully outfitted conservation lab in Watertown,” he recalls (see “Film Archive Goes Silver,” January-February 2004, page 57).

The archive was celebrating its silver jubilee when the film community suffered what many experienced as a cataclysm. In January 2004, FAS dean William C. Kirby announced that the HFA would be absorbed by the Harvard College Library and managed henceforth by the Fine Arts Library. Neither the VES faculty, the Film Studies Committee, nor the HFA board appear to have been consulted. The news came less than two weeks after the undergraduate film-studies track — decades in the making — was finally approved; Kirby cited the need to address budgetary issues and satisfy both the demands of the new concentration and film use throughout the curriculum.

A chief concern for the VES faculty has been the HFA’s public programming, which sustains a vibrant film culture that’s essential for teaching, filmmaking, and scholarship. “Why does the library have any more books in it than those that are on syllabi? That’s the reason you have a cinémathèque,” says Alfred Guzzetti, another cofounder of the HFA. “Film culture is the total harvest of world cinema, in all of its history and all of its glory.” If an archive simply serves courses, he says, “You’re shooting yourself in the foot. You won’t get any interesting scholarship. You won’t get people seeing things they don’t already know about. You close the windows on the world.”

Thus far the College Library has supported the HFA’s prizewinning exhibition. But “there’s only one venue on campus right now for the showing of 35mm films, and we can’t continue to expand our curriculum offerings with this limitation,” says VES chair Marjorie Garber; the University may need more than one state-of-the-art screening space.

Repositioning the archive has helped ease financial constraints, says HFA film conservator Julie Buck. Since the library has swallowed the enormous expense of storing films at the Harvard Depository, the HFA is accepting collections again — more than six were donated last year, including a Fort Devens collection of military propaganda from the 1950s and ’60s; a Somerville High School collection of old educational films; and 25 films from the German Bavarian Film Collective.

The most pressing need remains finding a new curator. Jenkins, who had come to the HFA to work within a robust arts-education environment, resigned soon after the restructuring, and no one has been found to take his place yet. “It’s a double whammy,” says Guzzetti, who’s on the search committee. “We’re saying, ‘We’re coming to you because you’re a very distinguished person; when you come here, you’ll be an employee of the library, and you won’t be able to do the things that you’ve done to become a very distinguished person.’”

With the HFA transfer and Jenkins’s resignation, Gardner, who had built and endowed film programs for 40 years, “sort of lost it with Harvard,” he says. He can laugh about it now, but at the time, he wrote what a veteran dean called a “zinger” of a letter to Kirby, asking him to freeze any use of the curatorial endowment. This past May, after 16 months of negotiations, the story reached its denouement. The original endowment, which has grown to $5 million since 1980, “is now being made available by agreement between myself and the dean to do two wonderful things — two things that they don’t have,” Gardner says. First, a new visiting position in nonfiction film theory and history will bring to VES “a truly gifted filmmaker or a truly gifted writer about film, somebody who is not necessarily just academic but who lives the experience of nonfiction film,” he says, with the additional opportunity to use any available funds to acquire significant examples of the genre for the HFA. Second, a semiannual fellowship at the Peabody Museum will fund an established photographer “to create and subsequently publish through the Peabody a major book of photographs on the human condition anywhere in the world.” For Gardner, this “means that the importance of the practice of art to the humanities at Harvard is recognized, which is something that has been more important to me than anything else.”

You might also like

John Manning Appointed Interim Provost

Harvard Law School dean moves to central administration

Facebook’s Failures

Author and tech journalist Jeff Horwitz speaks at Harvard.

Kevin Young Named 2024 Harvard Arts Medalist

Museum director and poet to be honored April 24

Most popular

Convocation 2017: What Should an Education Be at Such a Moment?

Speakers reflect on the goals of a liberal arts university. 

Nicco Mele

The director of the Shorenstein Center on how the Internet came to mean so much to him. 

Found in Translation

Maureen Freely ’74, longtime translator of Orhan Pamuk, shares the nuances of bringing a text from one language to another.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults