Inés Toharia Terán’s new documentary Film: The Living Record of Our Memory, comes at the viewer with a torrent of sounds, images, histories, curiosities, and loose ends. It pays homage to some of the oft-forgotten but still vitally important members of the filmmaking community. These include archivists, curators, and technicians who guarantee our film heritage is salvaged for future generations.
There’s something overwhelming about being inundated by so much material covering so many facets of film preservation. The subject deserves a miniseries length of consideration at least. Instead of being turned off by the structure, its very nature indicates the valiant battle being waged in the name of film preservation. “The living record of our memories” comes thick and fast, and it’s in danger of irrecoverably deteriorating.
Film: The Living Record of Our Memory functions like a beginner’s guide to the fascinating, if unheralded, aspect of cinema – film restoration and preservation. Terán’s comprehensive documentary provides an expedited survey of preservation history, which must consider early nitrate film, a film stock that was highly flammable and thus led to many devastating fires. Before the industry had considered its future and transitioned to more sustainable “safety film”, much of early silent film was highly disposable and all but discarded. This was the original physical media; our cultural memories were stored in vaults, slowly wasting away.
In the early half of the 20th century, film preservation was a grassroots endeavor of individual collectors. Restoration became a later iteration of the process. Even today, restoration and preservation remain first-world concerns – assuming one could rescue a film from oblivion. Not every film is so lucky.
Early on, pioneers like film historian Lotte Eisner and archivist Henri Langlois helped usher in the cinematheque culture, which was specifically created to combat the trashing and disregard of silent cinema. This was work done outside the studios that saw no monetary value in maintaining their past catalogs. Studios got in on preservation only when they realized there was potential money in it. One of the early exceptions was Walt Disney, who was very cognizant of protecting his films. It’s part of the reason we have pristine access to the Disney filmography.
Film: The Living Record of Our Memory gives film lovers a renewed appreciation for the integral members of the community who are often relegated to the periphery beyond the Hollywood limelight. Toharia Terán readily highlights a panoply of avid cinephiles, filmmakers, archivists, and visionaries who comprise this global mission of kindred spirits. They are a rag-tag assortment of folks who make do sometimes with limited resources propelled by reservoirs of passion.
Toharia Terán taps many willing participants and noted filmmakers like Costa-Gavras, Jonas Mekas, Wim Wenders, Ken Loach, and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro among others. However, she also finds time to acknowledge bits and pieces of film folklore. One such story involves how archivist Henri Langlois saved F.W. Murnau’s 1926 silent film, Faust, for posterity during Nazi occupation, all thanks to some shrewd wheeling and dealing.
Other anecdotes acknowledge the mission to reclaim the filmography of Indian director Satyajit Ray, George A. Romero‘s remastering of Night of the Living Dead, and how Tod Browning‘s 1927 silent The Uknown was lost for years because it was mistakenly deposited amid a sea of other unknown titles. Meanwhile, The Library of Congress’ “Mostly Lost” Film Festival gathers a cadre of audience members who try to identify the titles of recovered films.
Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation has become one of the most visible and highly touted organizations of its kind in the contemporary landscape. They have made it their goal to explain preservation to the general public while focusing their efforts and resources on cultural preservation all over the globe through the World Cinema Project. The importance of such work cannot be understated.
Changing “accepted” films becomes more difficult as the canon becomes more entrenched. Groups like these are critical for maintaining the dialogue of our shared cultural heritage. 35 MM film copy is deemed the best method to preserve a functioning file. According to the archivists, digitization is not the same as preservation – but film in any format is fallible. Technology and culture will continue to change, and future migrations will be necessary. If 80 percent of silent film is lost by some estimations, it boggles the mind how much of our digital memories will be lost even as our respective media footprints proliferate exponentially.
Several of those interviewed in Film: The Living Record of Our Memory, liken this preservation work to a monastic-like profession transcribing memory for those who have not yet been born. Because if we lose these recordings, images, and memories of those who came before us, a kind of cultural amnesia could occur.
Toharia Terán’s documentary argues that even the smallest acts sometimes have monumental, even serendipitous, consequences. From old home movies to current personal “mini-movies” captured on one’s phone, Toharia Terán and her subjects make the passionate treatise of their lasting importance.