Distant Reading the History of Swedish Film Politics—in 4,500 Governmental SOU Reports

Together with my PhD student Fredrik Norén, I am currently writing an article for a forthcoming thematic issue on ‘archives’ in the Journal of Scandinavian Cinema. Our article gives a new archival perspective of the history of Swedish film politics and policy making, by so called distance reading and topic modeling of one particular collection, 4,500 digitised Swedish Governmental Official Reports (from 1922 to 1991). Basically we argue that by using different computational methods, digitised collections (and archives) can today be scholarly scrutinised in their entirety. In the current version, the introduction to the article reads as follows:

Archives are never neutral—through them bits and pieces from the past are studied. At best, scholars glean representative segments and traces from them. At worst, only specific samples are used, stressing the particular: “the anecdotal nature of evidence”, as digital humanist Andrew Piper has polemically characterised the traditional ways of doing humanistic research (Piper 2016). The ‘anecdotal nature’ of humanistic inquiries and scholarly work has, however, been due to the analogue nature of archives and collections. Since all archives are (and have always been) epistemic grounds from which history is written, the structure and organisation of them have determined what type of research that could be executed. Then digitisation happened—and scholarly work could suddenly be drastically reconfigured.

The digitisation of historical films and related film historical material have increased enormously during the past two decades. Different forms and formats of humanistic infrastructures have gradually developed, which film and media historians have (and will increasingly) benefit from. In Sweden, the National Library (togehther with the Swedish Film Institute) is step by step increasing the amount of films available at filmarkivet.se, and at the sister site, filmarkivforskning.se—which one of us authours (Snickars) has been responsible for—a tremendous amount of contextual film and media historial material have been digitised, amassed and made available. Arguably, the ways in which Swedish film history and cinema culture is researched and understood is gradually bound to change as a result. If the so called New Film History turned out to be a reconceptualisation of the history of moving images in the late 1980s and 1990s—and to some extent Media Archeology a decade later—at present, digitally inclined scholars are witnessing a similar reorganisation of (and around) the practices of doing film and media historical research due to digital technology and humanistic infrastructures built around them. The growing amount of digital databases and material in the cultural heritage domain are, as a Bernhard Rieder and Theo Röhle has put it, simply “begging to be analysed” with new digital methods (Rieder & Röhle 2012).

Following David Bordwell, the role models of New Film History scholars were young historians “hunched over microfilm machines cranking through day after day of Moving Picture World or sitting in archives paging through studio memos” (Klenotic 1994). Today, the ideal counterpart—at least as she is envisioned within the digital humanities—is a scholar involved in cross-disciplinary projects using digital methods and tools like data mining, visualisations, topic modeling or GIS analyses. During the last decade, digital technology has played an increasingly important role in numerous film historical projects and platforms, ranging from early cinema programs collected within The Siegen Cinema Databases (Ross & Garncarz 2006) to statistical data about film editing at Cinemetrics (Tsivian 2009) and the radiant Timeline of Historical Film Colors (Flückinger 2011) to the so called New Cinema History, with its computational focus on the circulation and consumption of films (Verhoeven 2012)—not to mention the highly elaborate platform, Lantern, used for searching, exploring and visualising the vast collections of the Media History Digital Library (Hoyt & Hagenmaier 2011). What these projects (and others) have in common is the ways in which computational analysis and quantitative research offered by databases, visualisations and data mining, have allowed film historical researchers to gather new and different information about both film style and the aesthetics of the medium as well as the history of cinema exhibition and reception. Such information would previously have been impossible to gather—or way too labor intensive to undertake. A common denominator is also that digitised archives have (via different computational methods) frequently been scholarly scrutinised in their entirety.

Then again, what precisely does computation allow one “to claim that has not been seen before or that was uncertain in the world of anecdotalism?” (Piper, 2016). This article claims to give a new archival perspective of the history of Swedish film politics and policy making by distance reading and topic modeling 4,500 digitised Governmental Official Reports (from 1922 to 1991). Our article examines different probabilistic topics related to film (and media) that the algorithm within our topic modeling software (Mallet) extracted from the immense text corpora of all these reports. Initially, the article describes the work performed by governmental commissions and the SOU-genre and its relation to film politics, policy making and film scholarly research. Foremost, however, our text methodologically recounts and analyses novel ways to understand and situate the history of Swedish film politics and policy through topic modeling a massive SOU corpora. Basically, the article captures a number of film discourses and trends in the joint corpus, otherwise more or less impossible to detect and apprehend through a traditional archival investigation. Topic modeling is methodological approach to study themes in texts by accentuating words that tend to co-occur, and together create a topic. The most apparent filmic topic within our corpus, for example, included the following ten terms in strict succession: “film”, “cinema”, “screening”, “producer”, “production”, “entertainment tax”, “film production”, “short film”, “video” and “censor agency”—stressing, for example, that a general theme of Swedish film politics between 1920 and 1990 was devoted to economical issues. Within topic modeling a term or a word may also be part of several topics with different degrees of probability. In addition, the article therefore constructs and traces a broader context of Swedish film politics over time, especially in relation to other media formats and institutional actors.

Governmental Commissions & the SOU Genre
Before submitting a proposal for new legislation, the Swedish Government regularly examines alternatives, a task carried out by an appointed Committee or Commission of Inquiry. Basically, the governmental committee process is a way of accessing knowledge around particular issues of concern. These might range from a major policy decisions affecting Swedish society as a whole, to small and technically complex issues. Arguably, governmental commissions have during the last 80 years—as both a cause and effect of the establishment of the Swedish welfare state—developed into an effective instrument of majority parliamentarism. Decision making via governmental commissions, however, has a long history in Sweden. The national legislative process providing the Government—and prior, the King—with a proper decision support, dates back to the 17th century. Over the years governmental commissions became accustomed to the most diverse tasks for policy making; the preparatory system was dynamic, inexpensive and hence survived during centuries.

From 1922 and onwards, the work of governmental commissions (usually) resulted in a written report. It was published in a series known as the Swedish Government Official Reports, Statens offentliga utredningar (in Swedish, abbreviated as SOU). Since then, all such reports have been published with a distinct numeral: the first SOU devoted to film, for example, has the number SOU 1930:26. In essence, SOU-reports and work performed within governmental committees had the task of preparing the State for apt and rational decision making. After 1945 “the range of subjects covered by governmental committees has expanded to include virtually every area of the Swedish welfare state”, according to political scientist Rune Premfors. Stressing the importance of the work executed by governmental committees, he has stated that some 40 percent of all legislation in Sweden around 1970 were based on commission proposals (Premfors 1983). During the 1960s, certain policy issues also started to be investigated internally within governmental Ministries, resulting in reports in the so called Ds-series [Departementsserien]. The SOU-series, however, with its external investigations performed by a commission staffed with some four to five members and usually running for a numbers of years, is arguably the more important historical source on Swedish governmental policy making—not the least since governmental commissions were modeled on ideas around scientific inquiries with SOU reports often engaged in ambitious efforts to (re)write history.

Today, some 200 SOU-inquiries are usually in progress at the same time. After a governmental commission has submitted a report to the responsible Minister within the Government, it is also dispatched for consideration to relevant authorities, advocacy groups and the public. “They are given an opportunity to express their views on the conclusions of an inquiry before the Government formulates a legislative proposal” (Government Offices of Sweden 2016). Consequently, it has historically been argued that this particular legislative feed-back system is a “distinctive working method” within Swedish democracy itself (Meijer 1956: 8). Naturally, governmental commissions have occasionally been accused of being biased. When the Government appoints a commission, it also provides a set of guidelines—instructions that might have a political tendency. Guidelines ascribe what specific issue a commission should examine, what problems that need to be solved, as well as date when the final report should be completed. As a consequence, SOU reports usually propose various committee suggestions, sometimes even including how these ought to be financed.

As Jan Johansson has argued in his dissertation, Det statliga kommittéväsendet [The Governmental Committee System], the two most essential features of the governmental commission system, has been (and still is) the focus on expert knowledge as well as an urge to reach some form of compromise or consensus (Johansson 1992). Governmental commissions’ have, in short, been an arena for the exchange of factual arguments among experts (including academics), situated within a rationally oriented Swedish style of policy-making, ultimately geared towards reaching an agreement. Committee work have, in fact, often been organised in a similar manner, involving different actors and persons—that nevertheless need to agree. One concurring step has usually been to give a dedicated name to the committee, such as the “Data Archiving Commission” or the “Film Commission 1968”. The orientation towards compromise and consensus has, hence, in various ways been “structurally fixed”, were committee members simply “have to arrive at a final report” (Veit 2009:186).

Regarding the medium of film, one of the first governmental commissions devoted their work to draft a new subsidy system for the production of Swedish feature films, Statligt stöd åt svensk filmproduktion (SOU 1942:36). Heading that commission was legal adviser Carl Romberg, from the Swedish Department of Justice, and committee members also included the head of Swedish Radio, Carl Anders Dymling, and well known film directors as Victor Sjöström and Arne Bornebusch. The mixture of persons, some with filmic hands-on experience, can be seen as representative how governmental commissions on film were usually staffed. One of the most important governmental commissions on film, the “Film Commission 1968”, whose work resulted in the SOU, Samhället och filmen [Society and Cinema] from 1970, included both the Head of the Swedish Film Institute, Harry Schein as well as the directors Jan Troell and Kjell Grede. In addition, the director turned film historian, Gösta Werner from Stockholm University contributed with a lengthy history of “Swedish film during 75 years”—in nineteen chapters. The work performed by the “Film Commission 1968”, in many ways testifies to the textual significance of the SOU genre. Reports were often of book length, and some were even published in a number of volumes. Commission work usually went on for years. In the case of the SOU, Samhället och filmen, it took five years and appeared in four volumes, together spanning some 750 pages.

The SOU genre, thus, indeed bears textual witness to and gives evidence of contemporary societal conceptions—around film and film policy making, in this case—not the least since committee members often disagreed. According to law, governmental commission work had to be archived, and preserved papers from the “Film Commission 1968”—in 29 volumes at the Swedish National Archives (Riksarkivet)—attest for example to Schein being displeased with Werner’s film historical survey. In short, he wanted less film aesthetics and more focus on cinema audiences and film production (Schein 1973). Since governmental commissions relied on expert knowledge, they can hence also shed light on the role of academics and the involvement of research. In general, governmental commissions relied on scientific research; sometimes separate research anthologies were published in conjunction with SOU reports. One of us authors (Snickars) has elsewhere argued that media studies in Sweden in fact arose at the intersection between the media industry and its public, the needs of media and cultural policy—filtered through governmental reports (and other official inquiries)—as well as academia’s newfound interest in media (at both social science and humanities faculties). Especially, the 57 media-related SOU reports (between 1960 and 1980) were an important engine for the development and institutionalisation of media research in Sweden (Hyvönen, Snickars & Vesterlund 2017). The same holds true for the medium of film as well, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. Gösta Werner has been mentioned, and in addition, the later professor of film studies at Stockholm University, Leif Furhammar, took part in the so called “Film Censorship Commission” from 1964 to 1969. After 1980, however, it seems to have been more rare to include academics in governmental commission work on film. Media historian Mats Björkin (then at Stockholm University) was all likely the last academic to be involved as a secretary in the governmental commission on the preservation of documentary film heritage, SOU 1999:41. Suffices to say, SOU reports on film have over the years been frequently used by film historical research in Sweden; in Furhammar’s classical study, Filmen i Sverige (1991) some 15 SOU’s around film are for example discussed and referenced.