From La fée carabosse (1906), dir. Georges Méliès, featured in Seraphim Arlievsky's program Escape from the Kingdom of Shadows: Color in Silent Film (screenshot by Hyperallergic)

Much ink has been spilled this past year about the future of film. As cultural institutions around the globe have closed their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an increasing number of archives have made their libraries freely available to peruse. But in this new world of expanded streaming options outside of paid services, there’s often too much to watch. How can we make sense of it all? The International Federation of Film Archives has come up with a clever solution: a collective exercise they call the Programming Game. It’s an invitation for film curators, scholars, and fans from around the world to create bespoke streaming programs, drawing their material from the numerous free online archives. The rules are simple: Each program must be less than 90 minutes, and it cannot contain more than one film per archival source. So far dozens of programs have been devised, with more added to the FIAF’s database regularly.

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The program themes range as widely as there is archival footage available. Cats!, programmed by Anna Briggs, is just what it suggests. Among other curios, it features local news coverage of a Houston cat who was stuck in a tree for 11 days in the 1960s, a 1908 French color short about a boy and his fantastic life-size cat, and Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s 1947 short The Private Life of a Cat. Brian Meacham’s Rails on Reels is a train lover’s dream, with train footage from Norway, Australia, Spain, Sweden, Brazil, and Thailand. Dance dance dance by Edoardo Milan is inspired by Pina Bausch and includes dance films from Scotland, Turkey, and 1920s South Carolina, in which Black children play with a homemade drum kit. To Wed! is Young Jin Eric Choi’s sweet celebration of love, including clips of wedding ceremonies from 1930 New Zealand, 1906 Germany, 1947 Finland, and the 1930 wedding of King Boris of Bulgaria.

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Alongside the picturesque and the charming, some programs aim for the profound. Nuno Sena’s Get a Life is about “the general and inevitable in any human life.” It links geographically and temporally unrelated footage of birth, childhood, and a funeral in a search of common human experience. Sans dialogue: Wordless Abstractions From Beyond The Silent Era by K.J. Relth-Miller presents silent films from 1958-78 that “convey the very human emotions of anxiety, confinement, joy and wonder.” Varja Močnik’s The Dinamics of Freedom uses films by Loie Fuller, Dziga Vertov, LA Rebellion director Bernard Nicholas, and sped-up footage of a growing plant to explore what cinematic freedom looks like.

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One of the most moving programs is Lukas Maria Dominik’s simply titled Events and Encounters. A response to physical distancing, it includes clips of a crowded New Year’s Eve 1953 at the Warsaw University of Technology, a 1973 UCLA Bruins football game, a rock concert in Sweden, and people attending the cinema in Germany and France. Like this entire archive of programmer exercises, watching the collective joy of large groups is a balm for the small things we’ve lost during lockdown. If you’d like to submit your own personal film program, you can apply to play the Programming Game right here.

Dana Reinoos

Dana Reinoos is a writer, programmer, and film festival professional based in Milwaukee. Her writing has appeared in BOMB Magazine, and she is...