“Barbara Meter really is one of the greats", says Eye experimental film curator Simona Monizza. “As a maker of exceptional films, but also as a curator and writer about films.” Meter has now been working for almost fifty years, building a broad oeuvre ranging from experimental fiction films to feminist documentaries and personal stories that touch on big events in history. Her films require dedication and attention, but reward these by unfolding artworks that are both enchanting and meditative.
Monuments to transience: the films of Barbara Meter
Barbara Meter (1939) is one of the Netherlands’ most important experimental filmmakers. As part of our celebration of one hundred years of 16mm film, we are spotlighting the work of this exceptional maker who frequently worked and experimented with 16mm. Some of her work has recently been restored by Eye. We speak to Simona Monizza, curator of experimental film at Eye, about Meter’s work and the restoration process.
By Meike Bartlema09 November 2023
At the beginning of the 1970s, Meter and a small group of filmmakers set up Electric Cinema, a platform for experimental and avant-garde film in Amsterdam. Electric Cinema provided an alternative to the commercial film world, opening up greater scope for experimentation. In a small cinema on Haarlemmerdijk – now home to The Movies – films were screened and well-known international artists received, including Valie Export and Carolee Schneemann. The filmmakers behind Electric Cinema belonged to various film collectives, such as the Nederlandse Filmcoop (Dutch Film Co-op). Within this cooperative structure, they did everything themselves: from photography and production to distribution. Which meant they were able to work on their own projects, completely independently of the commercial production companies.
Unfortunately, both Electric Cinema and the Filmcoop existed for just a few years. Nevertheless, they left a lasting impression on the experimental film landscape of the Netherlands. Films didn’t have to be narrative, the filmmakers believed, but could be associative and non-linear like poems or paintings. “Films shouldn’t just be absorbed”, Simona says of the starting point for Meter’s work. “They should really make you think.”
In her film Appearances (2000), for example, it’s not immediately clear what we are looking at. The camera slowly glides across photos and portraits. Sometimes it lingers, zooms in on one of the faces. We get really close, before they disappear again.
It turns out these are photographs of Meter’s Jewish family members, many of whom perished during World War II. Meter, born in Amsterdam in 1939 to a Jewish-German mother and a father who was in the resistance, never knew many of her family members. The family portraits are interspersed with images of landscapes passing by: villages, and also rooms. In the background we hear music and the sound of bustling cafés, passing trains. The cumulative effect of all this is very special: by roaming with her camera across the photos, Meter transforms these still portraits into moving images. It’s as if the family members in the photographs are brought to life, allowing the maker to spend a little more time with them. At the same time, these stationary photos exude a strong sense of nostalgia for the lives these people were not allowed to live.
Delay, zooming in, taking time. All aspects of Meter’s cinematic language; techniques through which she approaches film as a medium and material, striving to re-invent it, time and again.
For example, she works a lot with optical printers, with which she blows up Super-8mm film to 16mm. This makes the texture of the film stock clearly visible. The zooming in brings the viewer up very close to the people and things depicted, giving a sensation of almost being able to touch them. Meter also plays with contrast, overexposure and shadow. These kinds of extreme image manipulations bring the smallest details into the foreground, blurring the surroundings to grain and static.
This formal language evokes how memory works. The highlighted details surrounded by static are just like memories: specific details, random or not, are brought to the fore while others are forgotten, pushed into the background. Meter also makes frequent use of found images and sound, which she uses associatively in her films. “I don’t understand time at all”, Meter says in an interview with Eye programmer Anna Abrahams (in MM2: Experimental Film in the Netherlands since 1960). Sometimes she experiences it as non-chronological; it feels as if everything is happening all at once. This is the reason she makes films, she says: to have the feeling that something at least is under control. With film, you can capture time and continue to repeat it. You are manipulating time, just like when you remember.
“Monuments to transience”, is how writer Richtje Reinsma refers to Meter’s films (in 'Korrels Tijd en Schaduwlicht', Skrien June/July 2008). “The films make it almost palpable that film and people exist only as they pass by, always in motion, until the end”, Reinsma writes. At the same time, film allows moments and people to be recorded, meaning they can be endlessly repeated and therefore kept with you. Until the material itself decays – which in the case of 16mm film happens quite easily. Film rolls are fragile; simply playing them in projectors causes perforations and scratches on the celluloid. Colours can also fade or change, even if the rolls are carefully stored and not played. The material is simply not proof against the passing of time. And somehow this is aptly appropriate to the themes of Meter’s work. “Makers such as Barbara Meter often like it when the material changes over time”, Simona says. The transience of the material itself starts to also play a role in the film. If the films are to be preserved and shown, however, they have to be restored.
By their very nature, Meter’s films are full of grain and static, which makes restoring her films a tricky process. What static is part of the film, and what is a consequence of its decay? “Together with Barbara Meter and the restoration team, we went through each roll of film to identify what is supposed to be there, and what is down to the effects of time”, Simona recalls. The restorers also go in search of sources, for example to find out the state of the film when it was originally shown. Simona explains that the restorers avoid making the films cleaner or newer than they originally were. “We strive to stick as closely as possible to the film as it was when it was made. That’s the historical moment we work from.” It often happens that the filmmaker has different ideas. “For example, the film may have become discoloured over time, and the maker might remember it always being like that and think it should be like that, even though we can see that’s not the case. In these cases, we have to find a balance. As a restorer you operate between the memory of the maker and your own knowledge and expertise.”
“Together with Barbara Meter and the restoration team, we went through each roll of film to identify what is supposed to be there, and what is down to the effects of time”
Simona Monizza, curator experimental film at Eye
Eye started on the conservation of Meter’s work some twenty years ago, and the work has been carried out in waves. An exceptional process, as for a long time experimental film was considered too much of a niche area. Institutes such as Eye initially had no interest in this, Simona states: “For a long time, it had really disappeared. Experimental films were no longer shown.” The recent restorations have made it possible for Meter’s earlier work to be preserved and screened. The places and collectives she was once part of, such as Electric Cinema and the Filmcoop, are much harder to retain. They now exist only as traces in the archives, in the form of names, a few photographs and the odd film.