Too many voices have hailed the death of film. But it’s not dead.

For the major studios – that seek to control production, distribution and exhibition – ringing the death knell is an imperative if they’re to keep the conversation about the victories of digital technologies alive. Outside of the studio system, the conversation has already shifted back to film and how to keep it running well into the future. Archiving and preservation are back on the agenda and the focus isn’t necessarily on digital. Outside of practical implications the conversation has shifted too. Instead of bemoaning the death of a beautiful, romantic medium, or even comparing it to its crisp, pixelated counterpart, talk has now stepped away from the apparatus altogether, placed squarely on the shoulders of the only person who can truly determine whether or not film is alive: the viewer.

It’s true that the advent of digital is the biggest change facing the film industry since the introduction of sound. But archives are not discarding prints as if they were useless relics of the past. Unfortunately, for these guardians of film culture, they continue to face financial obstacles, relying too often on diminishing government or state funds and the support of volunteers. This is precisely why the public conversation needs to change. It’s time to move the online conversation on – let’s stop talking about “the death of film” as if it were a story to tell the next generation with melancholy in our hearts and let’s start talking about what’s actually going on around the world with existing and newly discovered works that want for preservation.

This somewhat more active attitude comes from six days of thoughtful, challenging conversation – on and off screen – surrounding the so-called crisis and uncertain future of film. International Short Film Festival Oberhausen offers multiple answers to every question, letting the works speak to the issues, magnified and projected onto a big screen for everyone to encounter. It’s also a festival with an identity and a strong curatorial voice. Though many people work at putting together the various programs, the overall vision has conviction and cohesion. Oberhausen understands that the conversation is wider than the space that holds it. The festival is malleable and it bends to meet the needs of cinema, never forcing it into a box. Most significantly, it welcomes constructive interaction from the community; inviting filmmakers, critics, curators, programmers, journalists, distributors, exhibitors, archivists, academics, students and anyone with a willingness to participate in sculpting film culture to join the conversation – whether that’s by simply sitting in the auditorium or taking part in one of many interactive screenings and discussions.

Continuing last year’s introduction of an archival program, Oberhausen invited a further four representatives from global archives to present recent restorations and findings from their region. The program opens the archives to the public and gives life to the work they do. This year the festival invited the Harvard Film Archive, Eye Film, Filmoteka Muzeum and the Temenos Archive to present.

Beginning as a small collection of 16mm film prints to teach the so-called canon at the university, the Harvard Film Archive grew organically from a few hundred to over 30,000 items across a number of formats; mostly audio visual but also including documents and other artefacts accompanying artist collections. Donations often include non-film related materials, such as a collection of Hollis Frampton’s recordings and papers, all of which are made available on site at Harvard through the library. Significant findings included an increase in experimental content and a comprehensive online catalogue of the collection’s holdings.

In terms of issues that face the archive, the major problems remain access to funding and the degradation or loss of materials. A common issue is for filmmakers to register their collections at a lab only to later learn that the lab has since closed and retrieving their prints is no longer possible. The end of Kodachrome has also proved to be a challenge. Residue left by glue that has separated in AB rolls can also mean that an original work requires restoration. Presently the Harvard Film Archive send films requiring restoration to an external lab, though they do have plans to purchase their own 4K scanner to ease the process and keep the work in-house down the line. With only two people working on restoration, they currently average eight short films a year, in addition to other ongoing projects. With regard to gleaning greater funds from the US government, Film Conservator Liz Coffey was hopeful and candid when she said, “We try to push the envelope on that and they don’t always notice.”

With regard to the accessibility of their content, the archive will lend internationally, though they do restrict borrowing to International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) members and film festivals they feel confident can safely project the films without damage, such as Oberhausen in this instance. Of course, a constant hurdle here is that not all accredited venues can screen every format and it’s often the case that Super8 films and straight audio tracks need to be transferred onto digital formats to secure public exhibition. They also run regular screenings at the Harvard Cinémathèque that includes In Person sessions with filmmakers as well as tributes to great directors, drawing on the wealth of titles from their original canon. Visibility is, after all, what restoration and preservation is all about.

Locomotion (Anne Charlotte Robertson, 1981, super 8 film), Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection at the Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University

Locomotion (Anne Charlotte Robertson, 1981, super 8 film), Anne Charlotte Robertson Collection at the Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University

The showcase selection included two shorts from film diarist Anne Charlotte Robertson whose films were donated to the archive shortly before her death. Locomotion (1981) and Depression Focus Please (1984) were the only two films screened from digital files, owing to the originals being shot on Super8. Creating blow-ups of Robertson’s work was complicated because the films were traditionally one part of a projection performance that also included taped audio and a live commentary. In consultation with Robertson before her death, the archive settled on transferring the films to DigiBeta to better preserve the taped audio. Transferring the Super8 originals, and with the sound on a magnetic stripe, meant that the visual and aural quality of the finished restorations was as close as it could get to her performed projections. Of course some fading, occasional sync sound issues and the lack of her added live commentary means the works will forever be altered in some way. Being tasked with perpetuity is, as with any question of history and science, a matter of negotiating the best possible outcome that most accurately represents that which is being preserved.

On the question of visibility, the Temenos Archive is exemplary. Established privately by and for the works of Gregory Markopoulos and Robert Beavers, the Temenos coincided with a decision to remove their films from distribution. Both Beavers and Markopoulos had decided to only show their films at the Temenos site in the open fields near Lyssarea in Arcadia, Greece. Beavers writes, “The goal was to free ourselves from producers, distributors, curators, critics and festivals.” (1) Later, Beavers moved the archive to Uster in Switzerland where the works could be stored in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. His greatest project ever since has been methodically removing the tens of thousands of splices in Markopoulos’ final work Eniaios, a series of 81 films, made up of 22 cycles and with a projection time of approximately 80 hours. The painstaking process hopes to eventually reveal Markopoulos’ epic work – completed but unprinted during his lifetime – so that it may be made visible for the future. The greater challenge for Beavers, however, since Markopoulos decided to remove his films from distribution, is whether or not he should present them outside of Temenos. Reluctant to commit to any one position, Beavers commented that he wishes “To keep the future open for his [Markopoulos’] work.”

Regardless of what his plans are for wider public exhibition, Beavers’ decision to screen two of Markopoulos’ short films as well as an excerpt from Eniaios; Swain (1950), Sorrows (1969) and Eniaios III Reel 1, Gilbert and George (1975); all in 16mm print format, was a bold demonstration of what being an archivist means to him. The true passion for anyone working in film, as Beavers himself a filmmaker well knows, is visibility. Knowing Markopoulos as he did, Beavers is certainly the best-situated person to care for his collection and, we can hope, to make visible the late artist’s talents for new generations everywhere.

As well as wanting to stay true to a filmmaker’s vision and moral project, archives have a responsibility to the films as themselves. Maintaining the integrity of an original artwork through its process of restoration, poses further technical challenges, some of which the archives are ill equipped to deal with – again, largely due to financial constraints. Much like Harvard, Eye, Filmmuseum is in need of funds to update their in-house technology. Though they do currently have a 2K scanner, it is not equipped with a wet gate – the mechanism that fills gaps with emulsion, removing surface scratches. For now, they work on digital restorations together with the Haghefilm lab, where they use an Oxberry scanner to grade and clean the films. Should the archive receive a financial injection in the future, they would be able to achieve more restorations. Again, the emphasis is on negotiating the best possible outcomes to restore as many works as possible, working with the available resources.

Levend Patroon, Bart Vegter: courtesy of EYE, Filmmuseum

Levend Patroon, Bart Vegter: courtesy of EYE, Filmmuseum

Eye Film also hold a bimonthly series called E*Cinema where they screen highlights from their collection and work with film academies to commission new projects. Considered “the father of abstract animation in The Netherlands”, all of Bart Vegter’s films are housed by Eye Film. (2) The archive had been collecting his works since 2004 and, following his death in 2011, received a donation from his family of his more recent digitally animated footage. The majority of what Eye Film preserve is film on film and the shorts screened were an accurate reflection of their ratio of film to digital content: three films were shown on original 16mm format; De Hemel is Vierkrant (Heaven is Square, 1985), Compilatie Bart Vegter: Oud Werk (Compilation Bart Vegter: Old Work, 1970-1980) and Space-Modulation (1994); with one 35mm blow-up, Levend Patroon (Living Pattern, 1980); and a solo digital file presentation of one of Vegter’s more recent digital animation works, New Project (2010).

Space Modulation, Bart Vegter: courtesy of EYE, Filmmuseum

Space Modulation, Bart Vegter: courtesy of EYE, Filmmuseum

As Vegter had written his own software in C on a Linux platform, all carefully protected by a password unknown to any of his friends or family, accessing the unfinished film required a degree of outside help, in the form of computer hacking skills. After finally accessing the hard drive, and Vegter’s eagerly awaited work in progress, the archive must now enlist computer programmers to determine how the software works, to learn the language Vegter was writing. Extracting digital content is a new task for a film archive and ultimately it’s a job for a computer scientist. Still, extracting the artwork and transferring it onto film is an important process so that it won’t become a victim of technological obsolescence – a potential problem that the public conversation on film and digital technologies hasn’t got to, just yet.

Gra na twarzy aktorki: courtesy of Filmoteka Muzeum, Poland

Gra Na Twarzy Aktorki: courtesy of Filmoteka Muzeum, Poland

The fourth archive in this year’s series was the Filmoteka Muzeum, Poland. In terms of accessibility, Filmoteka may be the most advanced; half of their collection – 500 short films – are available to view online via their website for free. Artists donate their films as content – most often in the form of digital copies. The Filmoteka in turn sees their role as a mediator between artists, museum and public. The process is two-fold; first they research and collect content and, where funds permit, restore and add to the collection. In terms of their showcase, the Filmoteka had a less specialised and more diverse collection of films to present. Mostly very short in length, they fit nine films into the program, three made by a collective called the KwieKulik Group; Format Otwarta – Gra Na Twarzy Aktorki (Open Form – Game on an Actress’s Face, 1971) in which a well-known Polish television star had paint, paper, cello tape, clay and other items “played out” on her face for camera; Forma Otwarta – Pracownia Hansena (Open Form – Hansen’s Studio, 1971) in which a number of performance artists create visual and sound pieces that interact with one another to create a lyrical whole, and Forma Otwarta – Ulica I Trybuna Przed Pkin (Open Form – Street and Tribune in Front of Pkin, 1971) where the artists disrupt unsuspecting individuals on the street in “everyday situations” to reveal the rigidity of social spaces.

Pracownia Hansena: courtesy of Filmoteka Muzeum, Poland

Pracownia Hansena: courtesy of Filmoteka Muzeum, Poland

Outside of the impressively detailed archive program the festival continued to create discourse around not only the multitude of mediums that now constitute what we might call “film”, but also how we understand our relationship to the concept itself. To this end the festival enlisted Finnish artist Mika Taanila to curate a special program. This year’s theme, “Memories Can’t Wait – Film Without Film” was timely, intensely provocative and beautifully illustrated the connections between past, present and future concerns over what constitutes film, who makes it, what the cinema space symbolises and the varied ways in which we co-exist inside it with that thing we refer to as film.

Ulica I Trybuna Przed: courtest of Filmoteka Muzeum, Poland

Ulica I Trybuna Przed: courtest of Filmoteka Muzeum, Poland

The general idea was to strip back the experience to its most basic elements, the three A’s: audience, auditorium and apparatus. Film itself – defined as celluloid in this instance – was removed from the equation. This allowed the presence of the audience and the presence of any kind of cinematic apparatus – from breath, to voice, light, sound, blank projection, overhead transparencies, slides, instructions, impromptu outbursts, re-enactments, readings, drawing, talking, and everything else that can be considered in any way cinematic – to take over the space and speak to each and every viewer about their preconceived ideas of what “film” might be.

Interrogating the relationship between viewer and space is not new for Oberhausen, much of the discussion about the cinema space flowed nicely from last year’s central theme, “Flatness: Cinema After the Internet”. But this year’s point of difference was in challenging the concept of “film”. Surely the experience can’t be altogether without parameters. And yet, the disparate engagements curated – including a film that may not have ever existed, Ernst Schmidt Jr.’s Nothing (1968), which is a question of perceptibility and one that I certainly failed to perceive during the “Non-Fiction Non-Film” session – might suggest otherwise. The better question, then, is why do we have to pin it down at all?

The freedom that imagination and moving image – however we might understand that term – offer is endless and if we remove the medium we don’t necessarily remove the experience. What happens in an auditorium (or a warehouse, theatre or museum, and wherever the cinematic space might transition to next) is between the viewer and something else. Whether or not that something is the moving image, their fellow audience members, the space, the screen or the thoughts rattling around inside their head, the one thing we can be sure of is that it is happening.

Evidently, every discussion that we enter into about what film is abstracts the concept even further from what we traditionally understand it as. As such, pursuit of the question, “what is film?” is a rabbit hole we’d be best to set to one side, for now. What the discussion does produce, however, is a discourse that is relevant to the contemporary changes to the medium – such as the advent of digital technologies. If we can accept that our relationship to film might be just as as alienating as it is inclusive, then we can let go of mourning and melancholia. It doesn’t matter if what we experience in the auditorium is via a film print, a blank screen, or a DCP. It might be that we engage with what’s taking place onscreen but it might also be that we’re engaging with other elements in our environment.

We have to be aware as viewers – and whether it was Tobias Putrih’s Negative Inspection (2014) where the film negative was fed through the fingers of each member of the audience as if being inspected on the winding bench in the projection booth, or the program’s final word on the matter with Michael Snow’s A Casing Shelved (1970), where he painstakingly describes his memories of the items on a blue shelving unit in his garage featured in one slide for just over forty-five minutes – that the result was the same: film happens when a viewer is present.

International Short Film Festival Oberhausen
1-6 May 2014
Festival website: http://www.kurzfilmtage.de

Endnotes

1. Robert Beavers, ‘Taking it into our own hands”, 60. International Short Film Festival Oberhausen 2014 program, p. 292.

2. Simona Monizza, “Bart Vegter Restored”, 60. International Short Film Festival Oberhausen 2014 program, p. 279.