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Our Cinematic History Is At Stake: Film Archives And Apocalypse In 0's And 1's

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The Cinemateque de France in Paris held an important conference recently, with scholars, archivists, digital experts, filmmakers and film historians from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Library in France and numerous other institutions. Over a period of two days, the speakers and the audience exchanged ideas about the future of how humanity will protect our cultural heritage of film and how the Digital Revolution may also pose a threat to our cinematic memory. So much has been lost already when one thinks of the burning of silent film archives when the talkies arrived, and the effects that war, politics and economics have had on restoring, locating, archiving films... it has become an urgent issue.

How is it possible that a film such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis became virtually "lost" and that it took decades and only then by accident was a 16mm version discovered in Buenos Aires? This film provides layers and layers of information about where we were in the 1930s, foreshadowing political movements, propaganda, the rise of Fascism, and economic realities of a wealth gap which presently are echoed in our world today. Thea von Harbou, Fritz's then wife and author of the screenplay and novel on which it is based, later became close to Hitler and the Nazi party while Lang escaped Germany and persecution. The references to both Soviet revolutionary politics as well as film style is obvious and thus the context of the making of the film becomes as important as the film itself, especially as it was not a hit with audiences in Weimar, Germany at the time.

An accidentally wonderful discovery of a 16mm version film print of Metropolis found in Buenos Aires has lead to its recent re-release here in Paris along with an exhibition of archival materials related to the film which are still on display at the Cinemateque. The film's fate was linked to war, politics, economics and simple chaos in that prints were destroyed, went missing, and could have disappeared altogether. Film itself is a fragile medium on which to store original archival copies, yet it turns out that a film print's lifetime is 10 times as long as a digital copy. No wonder two of the sponsors of the conference of Digital Revolution were Kodak and Éclair Labarotories. A film negative, a silver nitrate copy can last, in good condition, for approximately 100 years. There is, of course, the cost of storing and protecting this copy, such as keeping it dry deep in the earth in say a salt mine, and the highly flammable nature of film itself to consider. But a digital copy could end up lasting only 10 years, technology changes and improves and thus the archive will continuously need re-"saving" on new updated digital formats, including clouds. But what if these networks, hard drives, clouds which are storing archives of all of our human knowledge and production are impaired?

The academic (and historical and cultural contemporary of Fritz Lang), Walter Benjamin, whose writings are also enjoying an exhibition in Paris from 21 October 2011 To 05 February 2012 
Musée d'art et d'histoire du judaïsme, wrote in his classic work, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, that the modern means of reproducing art, meant that art had lost its essence or "aura," or as some would say, its authority. Sadly, as a result of Fascism and anti-Semitism, Benjamin ended his own life. But the questions he was asking back then, have more and more relevance as we turn to digital extrapolations of what was once authentic.

When writing my dissertation on Globalization and Cinema several years ago, I had already been dealing with this question of the "Digital Revolution," analyzing the costs and benefits, the risks and opportunities. One thing has always stuck with me over the years, and that is the digital equivalent of the burning of the Library at Alexandria.

Plutarch (AD 46-120) wrote that during his visit to Alexandria in 48 BC Julius Caesar "accidentally" burned the library down when he set fire to his own ships to frustrate Achillas' attempt to limit his ability to communicate by sea.[2] (Wikipedia)

In other words, one of the major centers of learning and knowledge at that time was, in fact, collateral damage in a power struggle. So much knowledge was lost, even today we re-discover many already known and understood and accepted theories, ideas and history once stored there.

What would it take to wipe out a digital archive? What would it mean when all of our archives of film, books, everything, is stored in digital form is wiped out during intense solar storm electro-magnetic activity? (Google's project has now convinced even the National Library of France, whose former leader criticized the project, to join on and seek private public sponsorship).

Then there is the aesthetic question. A digital copy is simply not a film copy. If the original is shot on 35 mm and only a 16mm or even worse a digital copy exists in the archives, can this truly be called an archive? Filmmakers such as Oliver Assayas and Costa Gavras participated in the Cinemateque conference and the one scholar, wondered if we were in fact headed to some kind of "cinema hybrid"?

The economic, political, historical, aesthetic and other questions raised by turning solely to digital archives of all kinds of materials, should lead to more questioning by the public, as these works represent not only our collective knowledge and creativity, but also what we leave behind in terms of how we define ourselves and our world and our priorities.

As films can now be distributed digitally, streamed via satellites, stored on hard drives, the delivery systems have become perhaps less costly, but the purchasing of new equipment to convert "old-fashioned" film playing cinemas to digital theatres also has to be offset. In Paris alone, the increase in digital cinemas has pushed film to the sidelines, into the art house cinemas, which ironically used to make available projected DVDs, when film prints were difficult to obtain.

It seems that, as with reading a rare first edition of a book, we may now find that the screening of an actual film not in digital format will become a rarity, an event for the elite perhaps. I know one French director who still cuts, edits his films on old machines and watches only films via his projectors at home. There is no DVD player, no television. I recall during my days working at a film festival, that we would deliver copies of film prints to the homes of very wealthy individuals who could not take the time to actually come down and stand in line for screening. Now we may find that as with the original works of da Vinci, more original film prints will end up in elitist private collections (thank god for what is left of private funding for the arts and for archives in Europe so that more of us may have access to high quality film original film screenings).

Wouldn't that be a shame? Or even worse, a historical, cultural crime? Cultural heritage should be protected as a human right.

I recall a Dutch filmmaker, Vincent Monnikendam, who made a beautiful documentary in the 1990s entitled, Mother Dao: The Turtlelike. This film was unique in that it was composed of edited images from the teens and twenties of Dutch colonial Indonesia. Many of the images were damaged due to the humidity and improper storage in Indonesia and only some of the footage was saved and brought to the Netherlands. These images almost disappeared entirely. They are some of the most haunting, telling, funny, and historically valuable archives around depicting that era in Indonesian and Dutch history. I am reminded once again of many silent era films which were destroyed. Who knows what we might have gleaned form them about ourselves and how we lived?

Recently at a Norwegian film festival, I went to see the old original documentary, Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl and even the charming way the film was presented, not at all how we would tell this story today, created a different kind of aura, communicating more about the time when it was made and that journey undertaken than the simple facts and lives depicted in the film. I saw it on a cinema screen but it was projected from a tv version on DVD. Even this kitch tv aspect had something to say about the work itself and its historical context.

Walter Benjamin could have added that it was not simply the aura we would lose, but also the context reflected by the technology of the times in which the work was made. As with the horrific choices made to colorize films, or now even make films which were never meant to be 3-dimensional, into ever-lasting cash cows, we must ask ourselves, what do we leave behind by these choices?

And that is when I realize we are indeed demonstrating to future generations, what we today are about... and sadly that where the film industry is concerned, the industry component, and the big money have won.

The aura, the authentic, is held captive, which is especially ironic, considering that cinema started as entertainment for the masses, mostly poor and uneducated.

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