A reel of celluloid film at the Cinemateca Portuguesa


by Srijan D 14th Jun, 2020

While the lore of the vampire is a pervasive myth, the titular vampire of F. W. Murnau’s 1922 horror film Nosferatu is definitely known to exist – on celluloid film. The Count Dracula of German Expressionism inherited a lot besides characteristics from his English literature ancestor, the Count Dracula of Bram Stoker.

A charge of unauthorised adaptation would have banished Murnau’s gothic horror film that had the recording of a symphony playing along its visually imperative monochrome frames and imagery of a bloodthirsty monster, imagery that to this day lives on in the countless vampire films.

And yet, that is precisely what happened. Bram Stoker’s widow Florence sued the studio behind Nosferatu, forcing it into bankruptcy and worse. The judge pronounced a death sentence for the film, ordering all negatives of the film destroyed.

We know that Nosferatu the film exists so it must have survived, but how? Film recorded on celluloid is notoriously flammable and susceptible to minute fluctuations in humidity and temperature. Somewhere in the world, a copy of the film was preserved, restored, and released. Just like the vampire, the film was kept alive. In this case, we do not know who the archivists might have been, but we know that a large part of our cultural history and memory exists and has formed because of the preservation of such works of art.

This is not a new theme for our world. Even the period of Classical Antiquity is stated to have begun with the earliest appearances of Homer’s poetry. We have used art as an epoch, along with a living tapestry of our thoughts, history, and thus, future.

In such a scenario, a film archivist is much like a librarian of Alexandria. Few will have heard of archivists, and even so, the name usually surfaces when the loss of a film’s original prints in a fire or other such incident is reported. Many have heard of the French New Wave of cinema, but fewer are aware of the work of Henri Langlois, a French archivist who co-founded the moving archive known eventually as the Cinémathèque Française. Hours spent in the the Cinémathèque world would inspire directors such as Godard, Truffaut, and Langlois. Their singular-minded passion for preserving cinema, bolstered in part by the efforts of the French government, made sure that a traceable, tangible family tree of most, if not all, French Cinema survived to this day. It even braved the Nazis along with its nemeses humidity and temperature changes.

Closer home in India, film preservation and archiving has had a rather protracted history, emerging out of five-year plans and government committees, with formal archiving beginning in 1954 with the foundation of the National Awards and the stipulation that award-winning films will be submitted free of charge to the National Film Library in Delhi.

However, this in itself is not in complete alignment with the idea of preservation as being free of qualitative judgement. I spoke to Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, archivist and founder of the nonprofit Film Heritage Foundation who reminds me of critic Andre Bazin’s words, “Cinema’s goal was to create a medium that could capture and record human lives and events for posterity as realistically as possible, a subconscious attempt to overcome the fact of death in the same way as the Egyptians embalmed their dead”. Shivendra founded the FHF in 2014 as a consolidated archive that also aims to train and educate. “We need to realize that the moving image is an art form that is also a visual document of our lives and the times we live in and when we save films, we are saving our lives and ourselves.” he says.

That mission lies officially in the hands of the National Film Archives of India, existing as part of the core of the Film and Television Institute of India. Founded largely due to the influence of various Indian film societies, film critic Marie Seton, and the efforts of Kishan Lal Khandpur, the Archives lie on a tree-lined street in the peaceful western Indian city of Pune. The NFAI came into functional existence much after landmark achievements like the government-organised International Film Festival of India in 1952 and the state-funded Pather Panchali in 1955. Late as it was, the yet-unborn NFAI suffered for funding as well, partly due to governmental attitudes on cinema, bolstered by the fact that archiving or preserving is a resource-intensive technical process, involving precision and funding.

Labelling celluloid film at the Cinemateca Portuguesa. © Krish Makhija

As Dungarpur explains, “Film preservation is not a business. While one can look at possible revenue streams, they are unlikely to be profit-making. Our aim would be to be self-sustaining. But the world over, most film archives are dependent on government and private grants and donors to a large extent. Bigger Hollywood film studios have seen the value in preserving their libraries and most of them have their own film vaults and entire departments devoted to the restoration and re-release of their films.”

Dungarpur would know, not only as one of India’s leading archivists but also as the director of “Celluloid Man”, a 2012 documentary on archivist Paramesh Krishnan Nair, or PK. Nair was a government appointee to the FTII in 1962, and transferred to the NFAI in 1965, taking up the role of the archivist – the one man in the one room that would be the archives.

For those who have not seen the documentary, it might be a little difficult to understand the true legacy of Nair, who spent the next twenty seven years not just as the head of the NFAI but as a mythical embodiment of the idea of archiving cinema itself. He single-handedly ran the task of archiving Indian cinema, going to lengths that even today seem too fantastic to be true. And yet, this is what it took for the Indian film industry to be able to keep a record of its past – the work of one obsessive man, working under limits of funding and cultural perception.

A rare image of PK Nair at work at the NFAI. © Film Heritage Foundation

I asked Shivendra about how this cultural perception affects us. Even today in India’s Constitution cinema is mentioned under entry 62 in the Seventh Schedule of the State List, which deals with “taxes on luxuries, including taxes on entertainments, amusements, betting and gambling.” he reminds me. Cinema has often been seen as a vice, or as something that doesn’t have value that will be of historical use. “The dialogue between the Industry and the Government still circles around taxation and censorship. Film preservation and archiving cannot be run by the bureaucracy and till that changes, nothing is going to change for the future of our film heritage.”

Director Sudhir Mishra is of the view that as a people we are unable to appreciate the cultural capital afforded to us. “We are used to seeing our culture transactionally, focusing on the immediate and its monetary value. The truth is that preservation of culture is important because it is a record of who we were, where we came from, and what makes us up. One cannot simply view such a thing in terms of financial value.”

This emotion is strangely echoed to us by works of art we have lost over the ages – from epics written in primitivity to the master records lost in the Capitol Records fire, and one often feels that the safety of the digital medium is dependable. But is that true?

Not so, as director of photography Krish Makhija, himself fond of shooting film, explains. “First of all, analogue recordings of any kind will be of the highest resolution by definition. Secondly, if preserved well, modern tape outlasts media recorded onto CDs or DVDs.” Finally, he asks me, how many times have I moved my digital media in the past few years?

Several times now that I think of it. We had floppies, and CDs of all kinds, and DVDs that wouldn’t play, and then when I moved to the cloud I realised that sometimes artists pull their albums off – I simply don’t own a copy anymore.

With that in mind, the idea of near-eternal physical media makes sense. Like a vampire of antiquity continuing into the future, fragile to some elements but ultimately immortal, like Nosferatu, like whatever PK Nair managed to save.

A container of celluloid film at the Cinemateca Portuguesa © Krish Makhija

On improving archiving facilities in India, Shivendra adds that besides more institutional and cultural understanding, “The film industry should donate funds for film preservation whether under CSR or otherwise and the central and state governments can support film preservation through grants in terms of land, infrastructure and even funds.” The Film Heritage foundation regularly holds events, exhibitions, and screenings and their efforts at restoration have borne fruit. In a major coup in 2012, Shivendra was able to restore Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (1948) as part of a joint effort by director Martin Scorsese, and in 2018 the Foundation hosted directors Christopher Nolan and Tacita Dean, for a discussion on shooting on film, among other things. Shivendra hopes that efforts like these will inspire volunteers, learners, and other benefactors to join in – the Film Heritage Foundation is doing exemplary work in not only archiving films but in preparing archivists themselves through its annual training workshops as currently there are no diploma or degree courses in film preservation.

One might be at this point again be tempted to ask the point of preserving things, but the question is moot. Portions of The Odyssey, composed in the 8th century BCE by Homer, was adapted as recently as the year 2000 CE by the Coen Brothers. From pictures of our childhood to the audio of the Moon landing, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to a social media post you made, it is difficult to separate ourselves from how we remember things.

Perhaps easier, is infusing interest and effort in film archiving and restoration. Not everyone might be a Langlois or a Nair, but even a healthy respect for preserving our past and institutional directives to this end can be the catalyst for something of which we will strangely never be able to forecast the importance.

And this is precisely why it must be done.

Srijan D is a writer. Some of his work can be found on IG @floorcollapsing

Featured Image : A reel of celluloid film at the Cinemateca Portuguesa © Krish Makhija

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