Towards an Archive of Reactions
(or how I started to beleive in time travel)

by Nour Ouayda | May 2024

The following is an excercise in imagination.

Some days ago, I tried to recall the moment I started to develop a distinction between old and new films. When I was around 8 or 9 years old, the films I was watching obsessively were The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Titanic and The Parents’ Trap. Even though I was vaguely conscious that some of these films were made years ago, and others were my contemporaries, they all belonged to my time and none of them felt old.

In an attempt to dive deeper into this exercise, I managed to pinpoint in my memory an undefined body of Egyptian films that my grandmother used to watch on television when I was a child. Two television channels, ART and Rotana, showed re-runs of 1950s to 1980s Egyptian films all day. I have never watched these films myself, but I vividly remember my grandmother watching them, sometimes singing along as a lot of these films were musicals. And as my brother, cousins and I passed by the TV room, she would point to the television set and tell us the name of a certain actress or actor, often accompanied by a fact about their life or their career. I understood that my grandmother had watched these films multiple times, in the same way I had watched my films over and over again. I felt that these Egyptian films on television belonged to my grandmother’s time. It was maybe my first encounter with films that I felt belonged to a time before mine.

As a child, this temporal distinction between old and new was not defined by the date of production of the film. It only became so later, when I was a teenager, and I discovered Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times in a history class on the industrial revolution. This film did not belong to my time, nor to my grandmother’s, it belonged to a historical time that I was far removed from. This was when I first encountered the notion of a classic.

Preservation is always linked to value. What value does a film hold for it to be deemed worthy of preservation? And who gets to bestow that worth on the film deciding on its preservation or restoration? The criteria upon which value is attributed to a certain film is variable and not very coherent as was the case with my Sound of Music, my grandmother’s Soad Hosni musical and humanity’s Modern Times. The value attributed to a film can be of course instrumentalized to serve certain agendas (political or economic) that do not inscribe preservation in a gesture of care but of exploitation and often censorship and erasure. I am aware that the term “value” has a financial connotation linked to the worth of a film in the distribution market. But I would like to also use it in its original meaning of indicating significance and importance, a significance that can be of any kind. The films we value are also films we handle with care and affection, and it is up to all of us to always give space to the multiple attributions of value, without judgment or hierarchy.

What I would like to focus on here is the social value of films, a value generated by their exhibition. Films are artifacts created to provoke reactions. They affect us and we generally tend to communicate the reactions they provoked in us. These reactions can belong to the realm of the affect, of thought, and of imagination. They can be discussions, debates, stories, anecdotes, texts, works of art, interventions, happenings, or any action resulting from the exhibition of the film.

I would like to propose the accumulation of all these reactions as a potential site of an archive. This archive is provoked by the screening of a film, it is linked to it in that sense but also expands beyond it. It is an archive of all the material and immaterial layers formed by the reactions that surround the film-object. The center of this archive is not the film-object itself, but the event of its exhibition. In other words, the archive I am proposing is not constituted of 1,000 film objects located in a vault somewhere, but of the vast constellation of reactions generated by the screening of a certain film. In this case, preservation becomes the labor put in to stabilize the object materially so it can be screened again in the future, generating reactions and experiences that are unimaginable today.

« L’archive ne nous arrive jamais seule » or « The archive never arrives to us alone » writes Rania Stephan in a text on her practice as a filmmaker and editor working with archival images1in Stephan, Rania. L’étoffe des songes, published in the special dossier “Circuler dans les archives du cinéma : rencontres, gestes et affectivités” edited by Ghada Sayegh and Nour Ouayda, January / February 2022 Issue, Hors Champ, Indeed, when we encounter the preserved artifact during a screening, we also encounter this archive of reactions that surrounds it. This archive is invoked at every screening, it cannot but appear, like a ghostly presence that links the bodies of the spectators to all those that watched the film before them and those that will watch it after them. I like to think of it as time travel, not in the sense that a film transports me to the time it was made in but in how the screening connects me to all past, present, and future exhibitions of the film.

In its nature, this archive of reactions cannot be grasped, defined, planned or measured, as it is made of an accumulation of layers that are sometimes visible and sometimes invisible. For example, certain reactions can remain secret, never shared by the spectator with anyone but themselves. These secrets are part of this archive even though they remain invisible to us. Similarly, the archive contains reactions of future audiences that are unknown to us today. It is thus not an archive that is but an archive that is always becoming. The preservation of the film-object is a way to sustain the continuous formation of this archive.

That said, once this archive is formed (all it takes is one screening and one spectator), it cannot be negated. Even though the film-object is an important element in the formation of this archive, its withdrawal does not stop the movement of the archive that can accumulate around it. In other words, if a film is lost, censored, or erased, as long as someone has seen it, their experience of it can be shared and will provoke new reactions. There are many examples of absent films that are still present through the descriptions and stories people tell us about them. So, as long as there is – or was – one witness, the archive of reactions continues to expand, beyond the absence or the presence of the film, beyond the film itself.

The archive of reactions is not a curated archive nor is it necessarily coherent. It is a loosely connected network of interactions that are dispersed in time and space. By accepting that this archive cannot be contained nor constrained we accept that it cannot be possessed nor controlled. It’s the opposite of a quantifiable and describable archive that exists in one place and that is controlled by a person, a group or an institution. And here I would like to end with two questions: When imagining this archive of reactions, what new archival spaces and places of cinema can we envision building? How can we challenge notions of possession, control, and locality to create archives built on a different set of relations?


This text was first presented by the author as part of the panel “Generating futures from projections of the past: new archival spaces and places of cinema” in the framework of Arsenal’s Archival Assembly #2, Silent Green, Berlin, June 2023.

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    in Stephan, Rania. L’étoffe des songes, published in the special dossier “Circuler dans les archives du cinéma : rencontres, gestes et affectivités” edited by Ghada Sayegh and Nour Ouayda, January / February 2022 Issue, Hors Champ,