World Cinema Project: Recalled to Life

On Film / Essays — Dec 9, 2013

When I was young and becoming impassioned by the cinema, there was this thing known as “foreign films”—a category, to be sure, but also a promise of something exciting, something “foreign” . . . From the perspective of my younger self in the early 1970s, it looked like this: a stream of new movies from Ingmar Bergman and François Truffaut and Federico Fellini, dubbed into English; ravaged 16 mm prints of older acknowledged classics by Sergei Eisenstein and Akira Kurosawa and Vittorio De Sica and Bergman, shown on Saturday nights on public television or programmed in repertory houses; the Classic Film Scripts and Modern Film Scripts series published by Simon & Schuster (once again, wall-to-wall Bergman); a handful of names that were on constant display in the film section of the local bookstore and that were dropped regularly by certain Hollywood directors in interviews (Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci, Michelangelo Antonioni, and, yet again, Bergman); the category known as “Fringe Benefits” in Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema (no Bergman there, for reasons that elude me)—and ads in the New York Times for films that, if we were lucky, might eventually make it up to western Massachusetts.

At that time, there were great swaths of the world that were not commonly associated with cinema, including Africa, Mainland China, and Southeast Asia. Certain countries meant certain directors. India was Satyajit Ray. Japan was initially Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, then Yasujiro Ozu was added, then Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima. There were a handful of filmmakers behind the Iron Curtain—like, Miklós Jancsó was Hungary, Andrzej Wajda was Poland, and Jiří Menzel was Czechoslovakia (Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer had already become American directors). And by the middle of the decade, another handful from Germany: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöondorff. From the perspective of a young boy struck with rapture who lived far from New York, this was a name game, an extension of collecting baseball cards, reciting the names of Academy Award winners, or making Kulturtalk, captured perfectly by Woody Allen in Annie Hall: “Saw the new Fellini film . . . Not one of his best.” This probably all seems quaint and fairly distant now.

In the late seventies and eighties, things changed, and our shared picture of the world of cinema started to become increasingly vast and varied. For this, we have an army to thank: programmers like Sid Geffen, Jackie Raynal, Richard Roud, Tom Luddy, Edith Kramer, Richard Peña, Peter Scarlet, and James Quandt; distributors like Janus Films, New Yorker Films, Cinema 5, Orion Classics (later to become Sony Pictures Classics), Zeitgeist, Kino, IFC, and Wellspring; and critics, advocates, professors, or some combination thereof, such as Tony Rayns, Pierre Rissient, Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson, Elliott Stein, J. Hoberman, Max Tessier, David Overbey, Bérénice Reynaud, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Godfrey Cheshire, Chuck Stephens, and David Chute. If I’ve neglected to mention anyone, that’s because these people have inspired so many younger writers and programmers and distributors, who share a missionary zeal to find, see, describe, and disseminate unknown work.

In 1991, I began working as an archivist for Martin Scorsese, not long after he started the Film Foundation. We’ve worked on many projects since then, and in all the years that I’ve known him, he has always wanted to see and learn more. I will never forget the intensity with which he delved into South Korean cinema, or his excitement when he saw Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen or Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief. In fact, when Marty appeared as a guest on Roger Ebert’s nineties wrap-up show, he named Tian’s film as his favorite of the decade— despite the fact that The Horse Thief was made in 1986.

Over the years, I saw this excitement come into close alignment with his untiring commitment to restoration and preservation. The Film Foundation began as a bridge between the Hollywood studios and the archives when there was none, and then broadened its mission to either participate in or directly oversee the restoration process. Later, the foundation would focus on many titles made outside of the U.S., by Wajda, Ray, Fellini, Antonioni, Renoir, Kurosawa, Powell and Pressburger, and others—in other words, the artists who already appeared as giants in our midst before our shared sense of cinema had expanded. At some point after the turn of the century, Marty started to envision another organization, dedicated to films and filmmakers from other parts of the world, countries and regions where film culture has necessarily taken a back seat to more pressing economic concerns, or where it has been culturally marginalized. He understood that these films would need something beyond simple restoration. They would need exposure. They would need a shot at another life.

The World Cinema Project began in 2007, as the World Cinema Foundation. It was announced at that year’s Cannes Film Festival by Marty, who was surrounded by members of his advisory board, including Cissé, Ermanno Olmi, and Wong Kar-wai (Tian, who was not present, had also agreed to join). Present as well were Ahmed El Maanouni, the director of the first title to be restored, Trances, and Gian Luca Farinelli and Cecilia Cenciarelli from the Cineteca di Bologna, where almost all of the organization’s work has been undertaken, in partnership with the Cineteca’s affiliated lab L’Immagine Ritrovata, overseen by Davide Pozzi. I was asked to come aboard in 2009 as executive director, and my colleague Doug Laible assumed the role of managing director a year later. Recently, it was decided that this endeavor would join forces with the Film Foundation (where Margaret Bodde serves as executive director and Jennifer Ahn as managing director), and that the WCF would be renamed the World Cinema Project, to avoid confusion. The name has changed. The mission has not.

Since 2007, the World Cinema Project has either fully restored or participated in the restoration of nineteen features and one short, from Senegal, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Hungary, Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Iran, and Kazakhstan. And it has supported the restoration of on-set footage and home movies that were used in two documentaries on . . . Bergman. Some of the restored titles have been recommended by advisory board members, others have been suggested by or to people within the organization. Some titles had had no previous exposure in the West, and for many others, exposure had been limited and brief. In certain cases, the negatives were either suppressed or destroyed—no one knows for sure—and the restoration was undertaken with nothing but a single positive print to work from. In one case, we had to match material from the original negative with different material from an interpositive; for Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid, two reels of the negative were lost, and the best surviving material was a positive print with English subtitles, which had to be digitally removed. In every case, we have worked to achieve the best possible result, and our goal has always been to make every title easily available. This collection—including DjibrilDiop Mambéty’s Touki bouki, Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas, Fred Zinnemann, Paul Strand, and Emilio Gómez Muriel’s Redes, Metin Erksan’s Dry Summer, The Housemaid, and Trances—is the first in a series with Criterion that will bring these films to that many more North American viewers.

Cinema is fragile. It is—or was—physically fragile. And the memory of cinema is fragile as well, the very framework of our understanding of all these flickerings, the secret story that we’ve been following from Lumière and Méliès on. These titles are precious, illuminated fragments of that story. It was an honor for us to be able to restore them, and—to quote Dickens—to help recall them to life.