A review of the China Film Archive (中国电影资料馆)
The China Film Archive (CFA) is sub-division of the China Film Group Corporation, and an important resource for film scholars. It contains the most complete collection of mainland Chinese films although taking digital and photocopied records out of the archive is expensive and subject to the approval of leadership at the China Film Group, who can and often do deny outside scholars access to materials at the last level of permission. The archive has several locations; to access written and film archival materials scholars should visit the Beijing location on Wenhui Road in the Haidian district (海淀区小西天文慧园路3号), easily accessible by the Jishuitan subway stop on Line 2.
If you wish to contact archivists and employees at the CFA in advance, they are most easily reached by calling the archive’s main telephone number during normal business hours (+86-10 8229-6123). You can ask to be connected with the staff in the multimedia department (多媒体部) for text-based archival materials or the external information department (对外咨询) for film screenings. The staff in the multimedia department can run title searches on an internal archive database (unavailable for outside use) to see available archive materials. The external information department can likewise run searches to identify which films they have available for screening. In both cases, be prepared to provide a list of films to these departments. If you visit the archive without an appointment, the receptionist adjacent the guardhouse can connect you to these offices. Although the archive has many other different units and divisions, most are not set up to receive inquiries from outside the China Film Group.
To enter the archive, you will need an official letter of introduction (介绍信) from a local organization (单位), i.e. Chinese university. This should be arranged through connections you have with mainland Chinese scholars prior to visiting the archive. In the letter, it may be helpful to avoid terms that mark you as a short-term affiliate, i.e. visiting scholar or exchange student, as permission to screen films is more difficult to grant to affiliate scholars. Also include in the letter or be prepared to communicate in person a specific purpose (preferably apolitical) for entering the archives. Be prepared to show your letter of introduction and answer questions to the guards outside the archive. For subsequent visits, the guards may request that an internal contact confirm your appointment in the archive before allowing you to re-enter the archive, so take care to secure the contact information of the archivists or staff members helping you. Once given permission to enter, the authors were each told to proceed to the multimedia unit on the ninth floor.
For written materials, the archive keeps digital files or physical folders for each film. These files include some combination of screenplays and scripts (剧本、台本、分镜头本), stills, film posters, lobby cards, and commentaries by production members (阐述). There seem to be no staff members dedicated to assisting researchers full-time so your ability to work in the archive will depend on staff members’ availability that day. Access to written materials is case-based. For the late 1930’s Republican era films requested by one author, a multimedia office staff member took over a week to gather available digital images from an online database and had the author return to review the handful of images by appointment later—posters and screenplays were being sorted and unavailable for viewing. For the 1970s films requested by the other author, the same staff member pulled the archival folders on the same day. Because the multimedia office does not have a dedicated space for scholars to browse materials over an extended period, be prepared to quickly review and decide which materials you would like copied. Scholars may request permission to take notes on materials but not photographs. Though subject to leadership screening and approval, you can request photo or digital copies that range in cost from several hundred to a few thousand RMB depending on the age of the materials. A copy of a 1970s screenplay was 700 RMB in contrast to a digital copy of a Republican era photograph priced at 1600 RMB. It may take a day, a week or two to get copies of your materials. Wait time depends on the urgency of your visit as well as leadership availability and approval. Be prepared to pay in cash as the archive does not accept credit cards, Alipay or Wechat wallet.
Film screenings can be arranged through the external information department. This activity can carry a steep price of several thousand RMB per film if the film is not digitized and is subject to the openness of the archive and leadership approval. The Republican films requested for screening were un-digitized and “temporarily” (i.e. upwards of a couple years) closed to viewers. Had they been available, each screening would have required 2000-2600 RMB, to be paid in cash. Films of the model works were also closed for viewing and the requested 1970s films were not available. Copies of film are not available for purchase.
The collections department (收集部) of the CFA contains holdings in Chinese film publications and periodicals. However, the department is not equipped to accommodate outside (对外) requests, and the authors were not successful in obtaining access to view the holdings.
Despite the increasingly difficulties posed to foreign scholars seeking access to archives in China, the archive employees with whom the authors interacted did not display any particular sensitivity to the authors’ requests for film titles from historically controversial periods or that featured controversial actors/content. Nonetheless, the authors recommend that non-Chinese scholars present their requests with careful consideration.
University of Michigan
Mei Li Inouye
*The authors of this review separately conducted archival research at the China Film Archive during the summer of 2017 for dissertation research spanning the Republican and P.R.C. periods. To share the breadth of their experiences at CFA, they decided to jointly write this review.
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