It is with great sadness that we have to inform of yet another great loss, the passing away on May 28th of our dear friend, colleague and former teacher Karel Dibbets (1947-2017). Karel was one of the initiators of what to some still may ring a bell: Dutch IAMHIST, what would become the Dutch Association for History, Image and Sound. Together with Bert Hogenkamp and many others he organized the XV IAMHIST conference in Amsterdam in 1993 and published the proceedings with the corresponding title Film and the First World War in 1994. Probably most known, however, Karel is for his work on the pioneering database and encyclopedia Cinema Context.
“Professional expertise: Asparagus with salmon” was the first thing I learned about Karel from his profile page, after I had enrolled for a course about Dutch film culture that he was teaching at the University of Amsterdam. It didn’t tell me much about him back then, but it tells a lot about as I have gotten to know him over the past one and a half decades: bon vivant, witty, modest. He enjoyed great food, fine art, music and gezelligheid as much as he enjoyed his work.
Many of us remember Karel as a dedicated and visionary scholar and historian. In 1971, he graduated at the film academy, but soon turned to the University of Amsterdam to study Economic and social history. This step in fact marked the beginning of a long academic career at the University of Amsterdam – a career that, as Karel himself joked about upon his early retirement in 2011, did not exactly follow the standard path. He graduated in Economic and social history 1982, helped establishing a new department for Film- and TV studies, obtained his PhD in 1993, and would keep his position as assistant professor until his retirement.
Karel was never satisfied with superficial answers (and questions), he loved to engage in critical discussions and his sharp-sighted questions and remarks were thought-provoking and inspiring. For Karel, history was not one-dimensional, but complex, and it was the historian’s task to unravel this complexity. At the end of the 1970s, when Karel was a student, he performed a complex analysis of chain formation in the Dutch cinema sector, the type of analysis that we now commonly refer to as social network analysis. Yet the innovative aspect of this study also lay in the way it was carried out: long before the term digital had entered the standard vocabulary of humanists and historians, Karel used to punch cards and computational calculation to deal with the enormous datasets he had created and to solve (at least part of) his questions. The resulting thesis from 1980 “Cinema chains in the Netherlands: economic concentration and geographical expansion of an industry, 1928 – 1977” (in Dutch) is still highly insightful for cinema historians in the Netherlands.
With this research, though innovative and visionary in itself, Karel paved the way for something even bigger, something that would become his life time achievement: the Cinema Context database. Karel always emphasized that Cinema Context is much more than just a database or encyclopedia for information on cinemas and film programs. To him Cinema Context was most and foremost a research tool, which would allow for generating and answering complex research questions about Dutch film culture, including patterns of film distribution and networks of cinemas, distributors and exhibitors. It is only during the last couple of years that this true potential of Cinema Context has begun to be recognized and that it has undergone a radical improvement, partly by initiatives by researchers of the CREATE project under the supervision of Julia Noordegraaf. In my last talk with Karel only a few weeks ago, he showed how happy and grateful he was to find his legacy in capable hands.
Karel’s legacy of course, extends this by far. Next to countless publications on Dutch film culture, including his dissertation from 1993 about the introduction of the talkies in the Netherlands, it is also the projects and collaborations he initiated as well as the inspiring talks for which he will be remembered and which will undoubtedly result in further compelling research questions and projects. Karel was able to push colleagues and students alike to take that extra step, seek for explanations, think out of the box.
Karel did not enjoy being center stage and if an illness had taken over his live, he would not allow her to dominate his conversations. During the last weeks at the hospital, there was a coming and going of family, friends and colleagues. Although exhausting, talks about future projects and plans fulfilled him with joy.
Karel, his wit and vision will be greatly missed. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues.
Kathleen Lotze (Utrecht University)