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May 24, 2023

Film, the Living Record of Our Memories

film the living.jpeg

Inés Toharia Terán - 2021
Kino Lorber Films

I would think that most documentaries about film preservation are primarily seen by an audience that does not have to be convinced of the importance of film preservation. What we have here goes beyond the rescue of lost Hollywood films. What is perhaps the most eye-opening aspect is the depiction of film preservation as labor.

The first images are silent era footage of work in film labs. Even if there was not always a sense of the films themselves being art, or of being of any interest beyond their theatrical screenings at that time, someone thought that the actual unseen work should be documented. It is not indicated who did this documentation or the identity of the intended audience. Still, it was a jolt to see that whatever the original intention, some understood that the process of filmmaking went beyond the finished product or even behind the scenes depictions taking place on a film set. This is augmented by more recent shots of can after can of films in varying states of decay. We see film archivists handling film that disintegrates in their hands, or scraping away at the mold built up over the years. Even scanning and restoration are labor intensive, frame by frame work, taking years to complete.

Several related topics are touched within the two hours. There is the basic history of how and when the first film archives were established, with a special focus on the work of Henri Langlois of the Cinematheque Francaise. Martin Scorsese and his Film Foundation work is recognized for going beyond Hollywood to rescue films from Africa. Also the importance of preserving home and industrial films as part of a sense of history. Kevin Brownlow, whose book, The Parade's Gone By has been considered one of the best histories of silent era cinema, discusses how his own sense of film history was altered after attending the Pordenone Silent Film Festival which showed several previously unknown films. The film festival, now a major event, had an audience of eight people its first year, 1982.

Brownlow joins others whose understanding of film history has changed over the years when it was generally limited to work made in the United States or Europe. One of the reasons why D.W. Griffith may have had outsized credit as a pioneering filmmaker is because he found a way to copyright his work as early as 1903, when copyright protection for films was not codified until nine years later. Among the other early films discussed is the work verifying the first film version of the Chinese Journey to the West, which much like its contemporary remakes, featured the major action stars of the time.

Among the filmmakers offering comments are Ahmad Kiarostami, Costa-Gavras, Patricio Guzman, and Jonas Mekas. Most of the comments and anecdotes are from an international group of archivists and those who do the hands-on work of rescuing film footage. While some are already aware of this problem, home video collectors will be reminded that even their DVDs and Blu-rays have a limited life span.

Film, the Living Record of Our Memories is currently available on multiple VOD platforms.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 24, 2023 06:44 AM