I used to work as an office monkey for non-profit organization that worked as advocate for the preservation and restoration of film, television, and recorded sound. It is now defunct, owing to years of funding problems, differences of opinion, and adminstration woes (no, I was not one of them, I swear).
On the film side, the buck has largely been passed to the already-overworked Library and Archives Canada, the NFB, and the private sector. I have very little idea what has gone on since the organization shut up shop (not that they had any real power), but I have heard even less about the importance of Canada’s audiovisual history and the preservation of it in the media over the last few years, which is quite worrying.
South of the border, the National Film Preservation Foundation, was actually created by Congress, not just a wee group of archivists, has the backing of AMPAS, and includes people like Martin Scorsese on its Board of Directors. They have a lot of money and high-profile support, meaning that their programs to help archives, libraries, museums, universities, and other groups preserve film and develop educational programs so that people can see them and understand their importance. Their grants are practical and many. It must be nice. Hollywood really has a lot of influence, too, which probably helps a lot.
A few years ago, I did a one-week training course in footage research in London. It was great, really, but I didn’t take steps to pursue that career path further (maybe one day). My favourite part was visiting the British Film Institute Archives in rural Essex, a huge facility that smelled of vinegar and dust, but with sophisticated equipment and passionately nerdy experts. They didn’t just have film, but memorabilia. I took a photo of Peter Sellers’s International Driving Licence. There were movie costumes, tech crew diaries, and all sorts of amazing things. If you have the opportunity to visit, you really must go. It is a great place. The BFI at Southbank is a treasure too, showing films from around the world, obviously, but also amazing things that is just weird, wonderful, and super-British. (I couldn’t even get tickets to Went the Day Well last summer, as every show sold out.)
Canada’s closest equivalent to the BFI’s Southbank Complex is the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The name Bell kind of shows you how dependent on the private sector film is here. Also, this week, they are showing a lot of stuff that the cinema where I work will be presenting in the next couple of months.
At one point, I did want to be a film archivist myself, but as my technological skills are lacking and my knack for science is virtually non-existent, I didn’t do it. What didn’t help? A film archivist at LAC telling me not to do it, at least not in Canada, because it is bogged down in bureaucracy, grossly underfunded, and, frankly, few people gave a damn. (Since then, a friend has started working there, and loves it, despite these problems.)
Why is that? Because people just assume that films will be around forever? Because Canadians, who are generally ambivalent about Canadian-made film, care even less about the older stuff?
Based on my experiences at Failed Non-Profit, the latter is probably a big part of the problem, but I believe that people just don’t think about films ‘disappearing’. Oh, it’s all digital now, right? What does it matter? Make it digital and it will all be fine.
Well, essentially, all this (long) preamble is to say that, no, it’s not fine, and assuming the digital revolution is going to fix the troubles that film archivists face is a nonsense. Sure, it is much easier to restore film. It may be be easier to make DVDs and Blu-Rays and make them available. But have we agreed on format? Do we know that hard drives will last forever, because discs sure as hell don’t. Should we be worried about quality loss from the digitization process over time? Should we be concerned about catastrophic hardware failures?
And what about the film? Well, it’s a key part of the process, and the most important one. And film is a damned complicated medium. But keeping a film safe and whole is absolutely essential, and not because the artifact itself is important (which it is).
Why am I ranting in a not-entirely-informed way here? Because my friend Joe, who is working on a degree in Chemistry at the moment, sent me this article by the Royal Society of Chemists about the vagaries of film and film preservation and how digital is not the be-all and end-all that a lot of people want it to be. Go read it instead of this dross.