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‘We’re not taking care of it’: why film preservation should be prioritized | Documentary films

There’s a widely taken-for-granted consensus that in film lies immortality; in Damien Chazelle’s recent drama Babylon, a Tinseltown gossip columnist waxes rhapsodic about how actors captured on celluloid effectively live forever in posterity, her general sentiment reiterated in higher-minded terms by reams of film theory scholarship. Advertising lingo rebranded cherished memories as “Kodak moments” in response to our species’ innate desire to freeze a fleeting unit of time as a physical quantity we can revisit over and over at our leisure. This line of thinking is understandable, seeing as anyone can click over to the internet and watch 100-year-old footage of working-class daily life. But Inés Toharia needs everyone to know that it’s also fundamentally mistaken.

“We’re going so fast as a society that we don’t always realize what we’re leaving behind,” she tells the Guardian from her home in Spain. “We should pause to think about saving our digital materials, because they don’t last forever. And a lot of video today isn’t even meant to last, things like security camera footage, a lot of what’s on YouTube. We’re producing more than ever, but we’re not taking care of it. A friend shows me a video of their kid taking their first steps, I think, ‘Oh, that’s not going to last.’”

Her new documentary, Film, the Living Record of Our Memory, casts a wide net over the urgent topic of moving image preservation, from a condensed history of the motion picture to a grim warning about its precarious future. The filmstrip lives and dies, just as subject to deterioration as any one of us. To indefinitely continue access to the ever-expanding glut of content – not just an invaluable artistic heritage, but a crucial account of how the world is and was – requires a herculean ongoing restoration effort from a global network of passionate experts and cinephiles. Toharia’s edifying visual essay gives these unsung heroes of the arthouse their due, establishing the high stakes of their mission and celebrating the small miracle that happens every time they rescue another title from the brink of extinction.

“Though everyone knows film culture, knows what a film is, we don’t really know about the effort that’s behind film history,” Toharia says. “It’s easy to watch films now – with the cloud, they’re right there whenever you want them. But so much labor goes into that. It is often due to the work of perhaps one or two people that we are able to enjoy a film. This isn’t recognized enough! It’s not always the best-paid job, but they do it anyway, because they believe in their work. It’s valuable, and if they don’t do it, no one will.”

She begins with a compact crash course in film-making technology: the movie as we know it was born onto a thin ribbon of flexible plastic called “stock”, and even though many of today’s releases are shot by digital cameras with data-bank storage, big Hollywood studios still store a print of each production using the analog genuine article. The many varieties of stock offer the most vivid richness and precise fidelity of color, but it’s far from a perfect system. Even with state-of-the-art facilities able to keep their archives weather-controlled down to a fraction of a degree, the years take their toll on materials susceptible to warping, congealing, hardening and discoloration.

In broaching the topic, Toharia had to thread a delicate needle between an explanation accessible to the layperson and a level of analysis engaging to those already knowledgable. “The topic is huge, and the first problem I encountered was people worrying our approach would be too specialized for a niche audience,” she says. “I realized that this had to be really open … There were some great stories I loved about technology, for example, Technicolor – how the process was different, why it became invaluable, why it fades differently than other stocks. There are many things I would’ve loved to get deeper into, but we would’ve lost most of the audience. The idea was that this could be a base, and that if you like this, you’ll find that there’s plenty more to research and learn about. We wanted it to be appealing, and to show everyone that they’re connected to this world.”

Decomposing nitrate film. Photograph: Kino Lorber

Restoration affects all of us, even the casual consumers who assume that their viewing diet has no connection to the oeuvre of Tunisian silent cinema trailblazer Albert Samama Chikly. Bringing due recognition to masters lost in obscurity is only one part of the job; every movie, no matter how ubiquitous, requires attention and care. This invisible toil hides in plain sight, from the Museum of Modern Art’s careful spiffing-up of Night of the Living Dead (a balancing act that demanded that the original grunginess of the film be guarded while cleaning up its look) to the streaming canon-expansion fronted by Martin Scorsese’s non-profit Film Foundation. “There’s everything in film!” Toharia says. “Anything you want to learn about: science, tradition, fashion, hairdos, relationships between people, human stories, psychology, sociology. We live through the visual.”

That statement grows truer with every passing day, as the cameras that live in our pockets generate a patchwork coverage of modernity from a billion perspectives. The question of where to put all this raw information has not been fully answered by digital storage technology, which has a prohibitive price tag and requires constant re-migration of data out of hard drives that expire even faster than stock. “We’ve gone digital, there’s no way back,” Toharia says, but she’s got an eye on new frontiers within our current computerized paradigm. The final minutes of her film touch upon intriguing developments in next-gen technology, including a small glass coin containing warehouses of virtual memory and synthetic DNA capable of compressing video into pill form.

“Digital is a tricky thing,” she says. “In preservation, and especially in restoration projects, you can do beautiful, amazing stuff on a computer that would’ve been impossible with photochemical processes only. Digital advances have made a much wider array of cinema available much more quickly, but it’s far from perfect. It doesn’t last either, it’s just different issues of preservation.”

Cinematheque Française film vaults
Cinematheque Française film vaults. Photograph: Kino Lorber

As much as this calling demands from those who heed it, the sweat and tears all go toward a worthy cause. In her grand montage of humanity, Toharia includes clips from the Senegalese landmark Touki Bouki, the Indonesian vérité curio Mother Dao, silent salvage ethnographies capturing the culture of Inuit tribes. These are documents of their time, a testament to political and social realities that can stand in the face of revisionism from bad-faith agents. Though we may think of a trip to the movies as a luxury, the medium serves an indispensable purpose as a mosaic of overlapping truths from which we can piece together an idea of ourselves. Film is the sharpest mirror we’ve got, and it’s incumbent upon the species to keep it from cracking.

“We have to preserve this, because we don’t learn,” she says. “We’re evolving, but in a commercial way, just for profit. We don’t always see how many valuable things are being destroyed by inaction. But we can correct ourselves.”

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Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash