Papagena Robbins Presents “Luc Bourdon and the NFB’s La mémoire des anges (2008): Nostalgia and Historical Consciousness through the Individual, the Institutional, and the National” SCMS 2015

At first glance, PhD candidate Papagena Robbins was the odd woman out in panel B7 “Canadian Media Institutions: Negotiating the Local and the National” on Wednesday. While her fellow panelists—Mark Hayward (York University) and Peter Urquhart (Wilfred Laurier University)—may have concentrated on local and national distribution networks, all three presentations were thematically linked through their discourses on audio-visual heritage and finding the national within lost or forgotten historical archives.

Robbins’ paper “Luc Bourdon and the NFB’s La mémoire des anges (2008): Nostalgia and Historical Consciousness through the Individual, the Institutional, and the National” provides a detailed and insightful look into Bourdon’s 2008 collage film La mémoire des anges. Using archival footage from over 120 films in the National Film Board database, Bourdon’s film pays homage to the city of Montreal and directors such as Michel Brault, Claude Jutra, and Gilles Groulx. As Robbins’ may attest, La mémoire des anges is so much more than its description on the NFB website, which arguably compares Bourdon’s process to a DJ discovering and recycling long forgotten hits.

After historicizing the role of the NFB as an institution of heritage and stressing the significant changes that occurred within the organization and the province of Québec in the 1950s and 60s—the era from which the images that comprise La mémoire des anges are taken—Robbins’ close analysis of the film investigates the multi-layered, nostalgia based reactions that the film’s montage elicits within the spectator. As much as nostalgia has become a stigmatized term, Robbins’ is quick to point out the essayistic nature of La mémoire des anges. This film is deeply personal for Bourdon, offering lived experiences that are submerged both materially and within the collective until they are brought to the screen. As a result of this personal nostalgia onscreen, Robbins further theorizes that the layered nature of La mémoire des anges links structures of meaning, spanning from the individual, to the collective, to institutional connections and connotations.

While the question period was heavy with concern for the search, accessibility, and dissemination of archival footage, Robbins made it clear that the multi-layered address of La mémoire des anges makes it a difficult film to fully grasp. A deeper concentration on affect, including Raymond Williams’ structure of feeling, could further clarify how this film links the structures of meaning and explain the various readings on the film.

Like Hayward and Urquhart, Robbins’ research is dependent upon the establishment and maintenance of audio-visual heritage. It may be relatively easy to chastise the NFB for some of their archival efforts. However, the NFB is faced with the same problems that undermine many archival institutions including a lack of funding and yearly budget cuts. We may be at risk of loosing not only historical data, but also collective memories, leaving the dissemination of experiences to those who have lived them, which is also in shorter supply. The future of these images may be questionable, but films like La mémoire des anges give a new life to experiences that are unknown or forgotten, and these must be shared.

-words by Andre Dubois