Researching & Comparing Historical Cinema Cultures

The last ten years have brought significant advances in the collection of empirical cinema history data. Scholars working alone as well as those participating as members in interdisciplinary and increasingly international research teams have begun to excavate not only the expansive historical geography of cinema exhibition sites, but also the temporal trajectories of countless film programs flowing over this terrain. Together, these sites and flows produced zones of space and time that marked out lines of distinction between “popular” and “unpopular” forms of cinema culture from the mainstream to the margins. This data on cinema culture has in turn been located within a variety of non-cinema contexts – gender, class, ethnicity, population density and more – in order to better understand the place of cinema in the production of larger structures of social, cultural, economic, and political power. Not surprisingly, as the push to collect larger and larger amounts of cinema and non-cinema data has grown, so too has the push to find new ways for comparing, connecting, and representing this data using geospatial analysis and mapping.

If the methodological challenges of “new cinema history” are great, so too are the opportunities. To help foster these opportunities, an exciting international workshop was convened in January 2020 at Goethe Universität in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The workshop was entitled Researching and Comparing Historical Cinema Cultures: Film Popularity and Mapping, and it was spearheaded and superbly organized by Karina Pryt, within the framework of the DFG funded project: “Cinema Culture in Warsaw 1895/6-1939: A Transnational Perspective.”

My contribution included hands-on modules on how to share data in and through maps using the open source mapping software QGIS (version 3.10.1 – A Coruña) in tandem with my own ERMA Mapping Movies platform (demonstration notes on the QGIS portion of the workshop can be found at the bottom of this post, for those who may want to try the exercises themselves).

Many outcomes were achieved during this intense three-day workshop, but one of the most exciting for me personally was the addition, by Thunnis van Oort, of a test sampling of Dutch Cinema Data to ERMA Mapping Movies. These data were drawn from the seminal Cinema Context Collection developed by Karel Dibbets, who was a pioneer of data-driven research into the history of cinema.

The ability to connect very large national databases like Cinema Context to one another through a searchable, filterable, exportable, interactive global map holds much promise for the future of new cinema history research as it moves increasingly into transnational frameworks of spatial analysis at scales ranging from the micro to the macro.

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