Impressionnist Report by Patricia Caillé

One of the interesting ways of looking at Claire Demoulin’s abundantly documented presentation in the second session of the Transcultural Production Seminar is to consider how the method and sources she used may open up new ways of thinking about transculturation through the operation of various networks. She brings to bear on her research an interactionist perspective in a research project located at the junction of several areas of research inquiry: knowledge produced about the functioning of the film industry, the operation of networks, about the development of film culture and the contribution of migrant communities to filmmaking. Relying on microanalysis and film sociology, she moves away from film analysis as a means to recover the dissemination of more or less overt political messages through narratives and film form. While using public and private sources to trace minute details of the lives of people who worked in film she stays away from historical biographies that reify a single-handed approach to film creation and political commitment. Examining instead the parallel trajectories of exiled filmmakers and technicians from Germany and Eastern Europe (in particular those orbiting around William Dieterle) in the 1930s and 1940s, she seeks to recover the development of various kinds of gatherings that may have been instrumental not only in raising awareness about what was happening in Europe at the time, but also in the material dissemination on both continents of ideas, and even worldviews in part through cultural artifacts. This enquiry into a range of activities that were part and parcel of the lives of exiles working in film in Hollywood may bring us closer to grasping how a larger range of commitments at the intersection of professional, social and charitable engagements, contributed to cross-pollination and cultural transfers. In doing so, Claire Demoulin raises the issue of the extent to which immigrant communities may have become mediators in such a process of transculturation. Her approach obviously raises the question of agency on the margins of the film industry and the leeway these protagonists may have had to question and affect hegemonic filmic and cultural representations in the midst of normative constraints.

Claire Demoulin developed her research around two lines of questioning; the different types of circulation of cultural transfers and their efficacy. Her project is daunting considering how difficult it is to locate and document ephemeral interpersonal relationships in social circles and to assess the influence they may have had. Using maps to highlight proximity and analytical descriptions of the activities of networks (which means drawing material from a multiplicity of sources that may be very scattered), she traced their existence, their activity, and speculated on the impact of gatherings of different kinds. Thus, she highlighted the role of “places of sociability” like salons that brought together cultural elites, “schools of thought” (i.e. politically engaged intellectual movements), “committees, leagues or associations” (that could be more or less political) and “professional environments”.

Claire Demoulin focused more particularly on professional collaborations. Through the film credits of a popular of a film genre at the time, film biographies, mainly Dieterle’s (The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Dr Ehrlich’s Bullet (1940), etc.), she recorded the recurring presence of exiled film staff as a means of mapping out regular collaborations in filmmaking. She investigated the extent to which such proximity among exiled creative film staff may have inflected film content as a means to comment on what was happening in Europe at the time while bypassing censorship, the industry being eager not to lose the custom of American audiences that may have seduced by Hitler’s rise to power in Europe.

She also paid close attention to the influence of intellectual circles like the Frankfurt School, as it informed the creation in 1938 by Max Reinhardt of the Workshop for Stage, Screen and Radio in Hollywood. A majority of its teachers were largely the same Eastern European filmmakers and practitioners who acted as mediators between cultures. Exploring the school archive provided Claire Demoulin with the opportunity to recover the hybridisation of film cultures that took place in classes taught there. The school contributed to the dissemination of a much more diverse film culture with a large range of European films then considered as international films.

Claire Demoulin also investigated the creation by Dieterle and other filmmakers in exile of a non-profit organisation, the European Film Fund that was financed by its members and that attempted to bring relief to refugees from Eastern Europe seeking to flee Nazism. Here again the list of contributors to the relief fund, and the activities it was involved in is a means to reflect on the ways in which such a network was conducive to the circulation of information between both continents, and the involvement of refugees on the margins of the industry may have contributed to cultural transfers. In this respect, her focus on the failed film production project of the Villa Aurora provides another interesting example of the limits to such ambitions. 

Claire Demoulin’s presentation opens up new ways of thinking about collective agency in collaborative filmmaking, and the potential outsiders may have had to become the living mediators in a process of bringing news and culture from home to their host country. They also contributed to the dissemination of a more international film culture that could challenge hegemonic views in the host country, as well as initiating newcomers to a highly structured and hierarchical film world.

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