From the Vault: Film Preservation

There’s no way of knowing how much of cinema has been lost.

The belief is that approximately 75 percent of silent cinema has disappeared, while an equally high number of sound films made in the United States before 1950 have been damaged or destroyed. 

These numbers serve as a striking reminder of the importance of film preservation.

In Martin Scorsese’s film, Hugo, we learn about this significance. Hugo is essentially a film history lesson wrapped up in a family film in 3D. The filmmaker shows us the importance of acknowledging our past and never forgetting our history. In the film, the title character Hugo is a young orphan living in the walls of a train station in Paris. Hugo stumbles upon Georges Méliès, who runs a toy shop in the train station, but little does the boy know that Méliès was one of the pioneers of cinema. So, while Hugo tries to preserve the legendary filmmaker’s history, the filmmaker himself tries to forget his past.

In the early years of cinema, films were filmed on an unstable, flammable cellulose nitrate film base, which required careful and proper storage to prevent decomposition. There was no real concern from the studios to save these films, mainly because they deemed many of their films insignificant. 

In Scorsese’s film, we learn that Méliès even went so far as to scrap the cellulose in his film to make a few extra dollars. It’s heartbreaking just to think of such a thing – a legendary filmmaker in need of money resorts to destroying his films, many of which laid the groundwork for cinema! 

In general, this is never a major issue for the general public. In fact, a lot of people might be unaware of this phenomenon. The fact is that films must be stored under proper conditions, or else they will deteriorate over time.

In today’s society, we strive for the highest picture quality possible because of high-definition television. The notion of film preservation then becomes a concern for all of us. If we are to have the highest image quality possible, we must turn to original negatives of a specific film, but as often is the case when those negatives have deteriorated, all we are left with are lower quality prints.

That’s precisely the case with Armenian films as well.

 The DVD copies of Armenian films claim that the films have been “digitally restored,” but the original negatives to most of these films no longer exist. The film is then restored from later prints. This works like photography; the further away we move from an original print, the lesser the quality will be. These films instead are being transcribed into digital, with no real restoration going into them.

 In 1990, Scorsese established The Film Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving films. This however ins’t enough; for every film we save, thousands disappear. In a number of decades, we could (and will) potentially lose a number of classics.

So, while Scorsese and other filmmakers are saving a number of films – and rightfully so – who’s caring for our films?

The problem is there isn’t so much we can do, as a public. The preservation and restoration of these films requires a great deal of time and money. The most important thing we can do is raise awareness. If a film from an Armenian filmmaker is screening in a local cinema, try to make the trip and see the film on the big screen. In a short number of years, revival houses and repertory theatres will be few and far between. 

If you see an Armenian film on television, and take the time to stop and watch the film – and hopefully fall in love – you might recognize its imperfections. There might be scratches, skips, and jumps between frames, all because its print hasn’t been properly cared for. If the original print no longer exists, we could be left with a damaged film, one that could never be properly restored.

I fear that if our films aren’t already dead, they soon will be. If the negatives of these films are still out there, we need to act now.