Keeping Cinema Alive By Restoring Older Films

The harsh reality is that every year countless films disintegrate because the chemical base of the film corrodes over time. Once the camera negative, internegative and last print of a film are gone, the film is gone forever.
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I've been going to the Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival in Bologna for four years, and it's always a treat. There's the joy of discovering newly restored old films that are often better than most new films. There's the spectacular city of Bologna, site of the first university founded in Europe in 1088, and graced with the most amazing churches on every block. And then there's the food. Bologna is the center of the slow food movement in Europe, and the combination of traditional Italian food made with local organic produce is unbeatable.

The festival, now in its 28th year, is a celebration and showcase for many of the films that have been restored in the preceding year. Think of it as the annual harvesting of the restoration work. However, the general public may not be aware why restoration is so critical.

The harsh reality is that every year countless films disintegrate because the chemical base of the film corrodes over time. Once the camera negative, internegative and last print of a film are gone, the film is gone forever. One can read about it, but never have the pleasure of seeing it as it was meant to be seen, in pristine condition on the large screen. Fortunately, a few dedicated teams around the world work in concert to track down worthy and endangered films and begin the expensive and laborious process of reclaiming them for posterity. Thanks to these film scholars, researchers and film detectives, film students and the general public are now able to see excellent versions of films that have been significant in the history of film. Film restoration serves not only the broader goal of art preservation, but also has a pedagogical mission: it makes it possible for those of us who are educating the future filmmakers of the world to have access to the riches of the film past. Several years ago I invited Cecilia Cenciarelli, a top Cineteca di Bologna curator known for her Chaplin restorations, to our campus to present a program about film restoration, and I could see how eye-opening it was for our students. It's important for film schools and educators to participate and support restoration so that the next generation of filmmakers has the opportunity to see the films that have shaped our history, keeping the flame of cinema alive.

Although the primary focus of the festival is presenting restored and rarely seen films, it does so in a most audience-friendly manner. Every year the festival is organized around honoring individual filmmakers, film movements and historical periods, including a section on what happened 100 years ago. This year the festival honored, among many other cinema legends, the 100th anniversary of the creation of Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character. On a much more sober note, World War 1 is a hundred years old, and there were a number of films about the war.

I saw a Belgian pacifist film Maudite Soit la Guerre (War Be Damned) about two close friends, both flyers, who discover themselves on opposing sides in the war and end up killing each other. Shown outdoors at night in the Piazza Maggiore before thousands of spectators, with live music and astounding aerial shots of dogfights, this recently discovered and newly restored color film made in early 1914 carries a powerful, dramatic message.

Also shown that night were archival shots taken from a dirigible in 1918 at the end of the war, flown over battlefields, villages and towns totally annihilated by massive bombing. This recently restored and never-before- seen footage of massive destruction makes its own silent case against war. I also saw the little seen gem by Ernst Lubitsch, The Man I Killed, his only dramatic sound film, about a French soldier who is haunted by the German soldier he killed in the war. This surprisingly modern film is as relevant today as when it was made in 1932.

Besides having the opportunity to view such powerful films, over the week-long event I was able to speak with a number of film scholars and journalists, cinephiles, curators and festival directors. One night, I attended the Mercato della Terra slow food market held near the festival headquarters where I shared grilled fish at a picnic table with my friend Pierre Rissient, the great French "man of Cinema," as he was called in the Todd McCarthy documentary on his life. Pierre, who was assistant director to Jean-Luc Godard on Breathless, has been the indispensable man for French and American filmmakers for 50 years.

That same evening, I saw a screening of the Jin Xie's Stage Sisters (1964), an emotionally realistic dramatic film about young provincial opera stars who come to the big city of Shanghai in 1940 as civil war rages in the background. Afterwards I chatted with Gian Luca Farinelli, the charismatic director of Il Cinema Ritrovato and its guiding light for 28 years, congratulating him for presenting such a powerful film. He said his restoration laboratory, L'Immagine Ritrovato, had been working five years with the Shanghai Film Museum and the Shanghai International Film Festival to restore this masterpiece. I could feel in Gian Luca's voice how proud he was for this achievement. It is what the Cineteca di Bologna, the umbrella organization of the festival, is all about.

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