with Joshua Ng, IT & Technical Executive, AFA.
*This is the first of a four-part blog series as part of Asian Film Archive’s Save Our Film initiative. Read more here to find out about the initiative*
What is film restoration? Why do we need to restore films? What are the processes involved in restoring a film? Should all films be restored? What are the supporting infrastructures required to run a film restoration lab? These were some of the questions I brought with me when I joined the 3-weeks long FIAF Film Restoration Summer School (FRSS) in Bologna, Italy in June 2016.
Given that I am a digital native, what could I possibly glean from attending a film restoration training course. After all, what do I know about film? You might be right — I felt like a fish out of water initially. It was as if I had just opened a door that I had only been peeking through for the past few years. However, as AFA’s Information Technology (IT) & Technical Executive, I am required to be involved in the film restoration process, whether it is to make sure the vendors are delivering on time or to fix the subtitles.
Besides, you can’t escape from digital technologies in current film restoration workflows. 10 out of the 13 steps in the film restoration process involve some form of computing device and they certainly qualify as information technology. Another reason why I was sent to the summer school was so that I could see how a world class film restoration lab operated and to learn from fellow course mates who came from around the world.
This is the seventh edition of the FIAF Film Restoration Summer School that began in 2007. It was organised by the Federation Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF), the Association des Cinematheques Europeennes (ACE), the Italian cultural institution/archive Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna and L’Immagine Ritrovata, a film restoration and conservation laboratory. This year’s summer school was unique because built into the curriculum was an array of events: the 72nd FIAF Annual Congress, the Symposium: New Life for Cinema’s Past, the 30th anniversary edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival, a special edition of The Reel Thing and a two weeks practical internship at L’Immagine Ritrovata. On top of that, there was a special Lumière! The Invention of Cinema exhibition organised in conjunction with the film festival. What a treat!
It was a rare opportunity to attend and participate in so many film preservation and restoration events in 22 days. This made the experience of the Summer School more worthwhile than ever. As such, there was an overwhelming number of applications, but only 40 participants were accepted into the programme. 34 countries were represented: Argentina, Austria, Australia, Brazil, China, Czech Republic, Egypt, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Japan, Korea, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mexico, Mozambique, Myanmar, Norway, Portugal, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Uruguay, and USA.
During the FIAF Congress, archivists from the various countries presented the innovations they had discovered and the challenges they faced. For instance, Niklaus Wostry from Filmarchiv Austria shared how they had built a nitrate vault entirely out of wood with the source of inspiration from a Japanese nitrate film box. Nitrate films are highly flammable and once ignited, is almost impossible to extinguish. Building a nitrate vault out of wood seems to run contrary to conventional construction principles. They ran some tests and found that during a nitrate fire, a building made of wood is three times more stable than concrete. It was also built with solar air conditioning (solar cooling), a zero-energy concept using the sun. This is a vault I must visit one day.
It was also inspiring to hear how some of our fellow Asian countries have managed to fight their way through bureaucracy, overcoming all odds to be where they are today. The report from Thailand was particularly heartening. Chalida, the director walked us through the history of the Thai Film Archive. Established in 1984 with zero budget, one table and an empty building that was subsequently flooded twice, the Thai Film Archive is now a public organisation with a mediatheque, a 400-seater cinema, and a preservation building under construction, scheduled to be completed by 2019.
— Rachael (@rachaelfilm) June 25, 2016
The story of the Korean Film Archive is also quite interesting. It was founded in 1974 as the Korean Film Depository. Fast forward to May 19, 2016, the archive opened a new preservation center at Paju. It has enough space to store materials for 30 more years. It even has a brand-new film stock processing lab. We applaud the Korean government for realising the importance of film preservation and building a film processing lab when film processing labs around the world are closing.
One presentation during the symposium that caught my attention was the presentation of Nicola Mazzanti from Cinématèque Royale de Belgique. He used the analogy of a horse vs a camel to represent film on film stock vs film on DCP. “A horse is a horse is a horse; a horse is not a camel and a camel is not a horse”. What he meant was that DCP cannot conserve film, and film cannot conserve DCP. There are fundamental differences between the two. One of them is the difference in colour space, as you can see in the picture below. His horse versus camel rhetoric was repeated throughout the sessions by subsequent presenters, panellists and among the FRSS students.
— Joshua Ng (@joshuatj) June 25, 2016
The Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival is essentially a celebration of restored films. Screenings were held all day for a full week. I managed to catch Modern Times (1936) at the Piazza Maggiore, under the stars. It was a real treat as I had not watched a Charlie Chaplin film from start to end before. What surprised me the most was that such an old film could still draw such a big crowd. There were more than 1,000 people there at the town square that night. It was quite magical to experience cinema the way it was meant to be, as a social, communal event. I also got to watch Stella Dallas (1925) by Henry King and Couer Fidele (1923) by Jean Epstein on 35mm with carbon arc lamp projection and live music accompaniment at the Piazzetta Pier Paolo Pasolini. Both films were oversubscribed and some of us had to sit on the floor. But it was a small matter — the inconvenience only added to the whole magical experience.
AFA submitted its Cathay-Keris Malay Classic restored film Gado Gado (1963) to Il Cinema Ritrovato for consideration. We were so excited that the film was selected for screening. The film played to a curious crowd of more than 100 people at Sala Scorsese. The audience enjoyed the show and was particularly tickled by Wahid Satay’s comedic rendition of Olele, a local folk song.
Watch a snippet of the restored Gado Gado (1963)
The opportunities I had to meet and speak to so many archivists, while filling my days and nights with cinematic gems, made me realise how applicable the adage of “never stop learning” was at that point. More importantly, as I watched and breathed the rich history and culture surrounding me in Bologna, I started to appreciate the true significance of why the work of archives is so vital to humanity’s understanding of each other. Why there is an urgent need to advocate for support of the work of archives. Why there is a reason to champion the saving of our cinematic heritage.
The work of AFA and what we are preserving for a future generation, suddenly took on even more magnitude and meaning.