Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3

Restoration as Reimagining History

Restoration as Reimagining History

Spanning almost fifty years and four continents, Criterion’s recently released third collection of films restored by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project is a treasure trove of discoveries, each illuminated by a unique cinematic vision. The works by Humberto Solás, Usmar Ismail, Héctor Babenco, Juan Bustillo Oro, Med Hondo, and Bahram Beyzaie tell the story of many cinemas, growing in different parts of the world and each asserting its right to an independent existence. Navigating among genres, cinematic languages, and ideologies, these six films offer just as many powerful and original points of view. Although each of them draws from a particular cultural, historical, and political landscape, taken collectively, they resonate across all latitudes, reinforcing the universal nature of cinema and its ability to travel far.

These two qualities—universality and broad reach—were inborn with cinema. Soon after inventing the cinématographe in 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumière understood that one of its most unique potentials was to show the world to the rest of the world. Initially dispatched across the globe to present this new apparatus, the Lumière camera operators soon began recording and collecting images: one-minute samples of lands and people previously little seen by Europeans. Before the turn of 1900, Alexandre Promio, Gabriel Veyre, and Félix Mesguich, among others, traveled extensively, to Russia, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Canada, Japan, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, China, and Indochina. Over a century later, it is evident that the Lumière brothers and their associates not only invented a machine or a medium but actually gave birth to the cinematic language—through camera movements, framing, and composition.

In providing the very first moving images of cultures and colonized lands far from their European home, however, the Lumières also inevitably projected the exotic and imperial gaze of their time, place, and status. Thus, the question of representation, in particular the problematic representation of the cultural other—which has inhabited and shaped the whole history of cinema—was born in the institutional configuration of the first decades of the twentieth century, strongly informed by the consolidation and dissemination of the discourses of imperialism and colonialism.

In the 1980s, the term “world cinema” (akin to world music) was introduced as a marketing label for “ethnic” and “other” cinema, a perspective that triggered a heated debate in film and cultural studies: world seemed to automatically designate “the world as seen by the West,” relegating non-Western cultures to a position of marginality. In this context, seminal essays published in Latin America two decades earlier, including Glauber Rocha’s “Aesthetics of Hunger” (1965) and Julio García Espinosa’s “For an Imperfect Cinema” (1969), came back into play. Of particular importance was Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s manifesto “Toward a Third Cinema” (1969), which advocated for a collective, militant, anti-imperialist, and revolutionary cinema in ideological opposition to Hollywood (First Cinema) and auteur cinema and the various new waves (Second Cinema). However, in this provocative text, Solanas and Getino insisted that each of the three cinemas could appear in any part of the world—Third Cinema in the United States, Second Cinema in Brazil, First Cinema in Nigeria. That is, these three cinemas could occupy a virtual and transnational space rather than a geographical one. Over the years, the concept of world cinema has progressively been reconfigured in this way, overcoming the established model of center vs. periphery.

Film restoration can support this reconfiguration, becom­ing a powerful vehicle for imagining and rewriting multiple histories of cinema and addressing questions of cultural identity and representation. It can, for instance, provide new exposure to films that were once considered not canonical enough or commercially unviable, or, on the other hand, to films recognized as national landmarks but that never achieved conventional forms of international distribution. Films that were banned, censored, or reedited to the point that they lost their raison d’être can be reconstructed to the form in which they were originally intended to be seen, and thus reclaim their places in film history. Anticolonial films, struck on second-rate stock and then lost in the deep storage of European archives, can be appreciated anew. Underground films can resurface from the black market and be widely exhibited. Through its ethics and practices, restoration can be a critical act, an act of cultural resistance.

Even before the digital revolution dramatically reshaped its entire landscape, film restoration was always a field with uncertain boundaries, struggling to identify, share, and codify its methodologies. This is not surprising, considering that even in figurative arts the need to “restore” emerged in Europe only in the late modern period (mid-eighteenth century)—though Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes were repaired as early as the sixteenth century due to water damage—and that it was not before the 1930s that this field was fully theorized, assigning a new status to in-depth research and study. Although this approach is close to today’s understanding of film restoration, it took over half a century before the field found its legitimacy and began to formulate best practices. The reasons behind this delay are manifold and reflect both philosophical and practical misconceptions.

Since its appearance, cinema has been perceived as a miracle medium capable of “encapsulating” faces, thoughts, moments of life—and therefore of outwitting time. In one of his most influential essays, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1958), André Bazin argues that—from the ancient Egyptians’ mummies to plastic art—humankind has always attempted to stop bodily decay and overcome death. And that the camera’s ability to embalm time, capturing life in motion, sets cinema apart from the other arts and from the traditional concept of art itself. Bazin’s ontological analysis is extremely fascinating, but it ignores altogether the chemical and physical decay of film itself. The nature of film’s physical fragility has long been misunderstood, leaving the archival community to struggle to minimize the risk of combustion and fires as opposed to identifying long-term strategies for film preservation. The introduction of triacetate film base, in 1948, led to the tragic practice of copying nitrate elements onto safety stock and destroying the original nitrates, only to discover, twenty years later, that the newly adopted film base was possibly more unstable than the nitrate base.

It was not until the early eighties that these concerns escaped the confines of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) vaults and permeated the media, thanks to the collective actions of several passionate filmmakers rallying support for film preservation. Martin Scorsese was one of the initiators of this movement, and in 1990 he was joined by a prestigious group of filmmakers—including George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Sydney Pollack, and Stanley Kubrick—to create The Film Foundation, an initiative focused on preserving American cinema. Over the years, the foundation went on to also support masterpieces made outside of the U.S., at first from the giants of classic art-house cinema—works by Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, and others. With over eight hundred and fifty restored films made widely available around the world, The Film Foundation may be the organization that has invested the most in the safeguarding and preservation of film history. In 2007, Scorsese’s urge to further expand the boundaries of the foundation led to the World Cinema Project, a special program devised to restore, preserve, and exhibit films by filmmakers from regions of the world that have been overlooked by and underrepresented in the dominant international film culture. The Cineteca di Bologna, steered by Gian Luca Farinelli’s passionate and visionary directorship, has had the privilege to contribute to the scientific framework, launch, and development of this project.

Luis Buñuel once said that, as with every art form, making films is about the fundamental urge to represent and understand ourselves as humans. Inevitably, restoring a film is about recapturing that process, or at least getting as close to it as possible. There’s a side to the work that is practically invisible and that even the most complete restoration card at the head of a film cannot fully express. It’s what occurs before one or multiple film elements reach a laboratory to be physically inspected, repaired, or scanned. It’s a path filled with twists and slopes, ethical and practical dilemmas, and time-consuming research, encompassing everything from locating multiple generations of elements in different countries and studying the film’s production and distribution history to tracking down the film’s chain of rights; from dealing with complicated legal issues, families, and government officials to reaching out to filmmakers, cinematographers, film and sound editors, and costume designers. It’s a beautiful profession, which requires a pinch of ingenuity and a healthy dose of detective work, passion and persistence.

In that regard, the forty-one films that the World Cinema Project restored or helped restore between 2007 and 2020 read like a textbook. Including films shot over an eighty-year span and from twenty-five different countries, the project also sketches a sort of restoration atlas, highlighting some recurrent scenarios. The most typical are related to physical deterioration, with severe color decay being found in films from particularly hot or dry regions such as the Middle East and the African continent, and mold, advanced vinegar syndrome, or even colliquation in those from the extremely humid areas of Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. Whereas some of these films lay dormant for years or decades because of their fragile states, others succumbed to political transformations. That’s typically the case in the former Eastern Bloc republics, which lost to the dissolution of the Soviet Union not only their distribution orbit and exposure but also, often, possession of the physical elements of their films, generating ambiguity over versions and rights. And it is also common in countries that have experienced revolutions and the establishment of new regimes, where only a handful of release prints have survived systematic destruction. No film heritages have suffered more tragically than those of the Africans, who have endured, in the words of Aboubakar Sanogo of the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) and the African Film Heritage Project, “loss of sovereignty, the exploitation of the continent’s wealth and natural resources, the dispossession of lands, and dehumanization via cinema itself.” The vast majority of African cinema’s original negatives are held in Europe, by the continent’s former colonizers, dislocated in former laboratories or in film vaults, too often buried in deep storage, uncatalogued. 

Over the past thirteen years, we at the World Cinema Project have recovered film negatives from plastic bags and secret storage locations in the Turkish countryside, arranged diplomatic pouches to pick up cans from the streets of Kolkata, dealt with local customs requirements and with governmental bodies and ministries of culture all around the globe. It is thanks only to several fortuitous encounters and many generous film archivists and historians that all of this has been possible.

Each restoration in this collection reflects the extraordinary vision and commitment of Martin Scorsese, as well as the dedication and expertise of the teams at L’Immagine Ritrovata and The Film Foundation.

Usmar Ismail’s After the Curfew (1954) holds a special place in this project. It was the first Indonesian film ever to be restored, in an extraordinarily collective, international endeavor, born during a restoration workshop in Bologna, Italy, and developed in Singapore before landing in Jakarta. The restoration process was greatly facilitated by the prominent film journalist J. B. Kristanto, who helped us understand the history and nature of Indonesian cinema, and by the untiring commitment of an independent organization, the Konfiden Foundation, created by a group of brilliant and knowledgeable young activists and hard-core cinephiles who invested time and personal resources into lobbying the Indonesian government for support for film preservation.  

Juan Bustillo Oro’s Dos monjes (1934) and Héctor Babenco’s Pixote (1980) required the longest reconstruction time, although for different reasons. Though it belongs to the early sound era, the German-expressionism-influenced Mexican gothic Dos monjes posed the typical practical and ethical challenges of silent cinema—in having to integrate two or more incomplete sources without causing what we internally call the “Frankenstein effect,” we prioritized photographic quality and fluidity over 100 percent completeness. Each decision was tested, discussed, and shared with our colleagues at the Filmoteca de la UNAM in Mexico City. Work on Pixote involved three film elements produced by the two existing versions of the film: the original Brazilian and the subsequent U.S. releases, the latter including a prologue added for U.S. distribution (presented on this release as a supplement) and with several cuts made to some explicit scenes. Conversely, all that was left of Downpour (1972) was a single 35 mm print with embedded English subtitles, as all other elements, including the original negative, had been either impounded or destroyed by the Iranian government. There’s a unique sense of responsibility and reward in working on a film that is on the verge of disappearing forever, and it was an extreme privilege to do so under the guidance of the film’s director, Persian master Bahram Beyzaie.

In our experience restoring acclaimed works by major African filmmakers such as the Senegalese Ousmane Sembène and Djibril Diop Mambéty, it became clear that film restoration could become a powerful tool for Africa to reclaim its own images and representation, and that The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project needed a strong African partner to lead the way by identifying films, filmmakers, regions, and countries that needed special attention. We found that with FEPACI, an organization created in 1970 by filmmaking pioneers and industry advocates including Sembène, Beninese‑Senegalese filmmaker Paulin Soumanou Vieyra, and Tunisian critic Tahar Cheriaa. FEPACI’s aim has been promoting African film industries in terms of production, distribution, and exhibition, as well as advancing this cinema as a transformational tool for achieving political, cultural, and ideological freedom. With filmmakers from all over Africa and the diaspora, FEPACI was the ideal partner to join forces with the World Cinema Project and UNESCO to create the African Film Heritage Project, a program devoted exclusively to African cinema. The first film to be restored under its flag was Med Hondo’s Soleil Ô (1970), a work too long overlooked, like all of Hondo’s work, in part because the Mauritanian cinéaste would never compromise by handing over his films to an unfair distribution system. Sadly, Hondo passed away not long after the restoration of Soleil Ô was completed, but he did live to see it exhibited and acclaimed worldwide—and to be celebrated himself.

Humberto Solás’s Lucía (1968) is the project that perhaps best exemplifies the nature and extent of our challenges. The title had been suggested for restoration during my second visit to Havana, in December 2016, to introduce our restoration of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (also 1968) at the legendary Cine Charles Chaplin on Calle 23—to a boisterous audience of twelve hundred. As with Memories of Underdevelopment—the first Cuban film to be fully preserved and restored according to the modern practices—receiving all the elements for Lucía was not without its challenges. After several failed attempts to arrange a diplomatic pouch via both Italy and France, and making deals for truck delivery with a variety of import-export companies, we resorted to personally retrieving the forty-five reels (film and sound negatives and a third-generation duplicate positive) from the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC). After inspection, we realized that the state of conservation of the negative was more critical than we had thought, with advanced vinegar syndrome causing the melting, warping, and buckling of large portions of eight reels, resulting in the image losing focus throughout the film. Despite its undergoing several weeks of drying and softening treatments, it was soon clear that the negative could not be entirely used, and that a new search for film elements was imperative.

We proceeded to launch another call for elements through all the FIAF members and affiliates; at the same time, we pored over nearly a hundred articles, reviews, and interviews that had appeared in the Cuban and European press between 1968 and 1969, looking for anything indicating foreign distribution of Lucía or a screening outside of Havana. One article confirmed what the German film leaders on the third-generation duplicate had already suggested to us: that the film had been shown in East Germany. Our search ended at the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv in Berlin, which, having inherited some of the East German holdings following the reunification with West Germany in 1990, had a second-generation duplicate of Lucía. Then, just when we thought that our Don Quixote–esque journey was finally over and our head colorist at L’Immagine Ritrovata was getting ready to begin the grading process, we received a never-before-screened vintage print that the BBC had deposited with the BFI National Archive in London in 1981. To our surprise, in that print the first episode of the film, “1895,” was heavily overexposed, the white areas of the image almost “burned,” with a visible loss of details that existed in the negative. Before forcing overexposure and contrast, we dove into watching everything we could by Lucía’s cinematographer, Jorge Herrera, one of Cuba’s most influential and distinctive. This viewing, especially of Manuel Octavio Gómez’s 1969 war film The First Charge of the Machete, and explicit references to Herrera’s unusual and heavily contrasted black-and-white photography—coupled with his use of handheld camera work and extreme, distorting close-ups—in several reviews in the Cuban film magazine Cine cubano, confirmed our guess that the overexposure and overall style of that episode were intentional. Within a week of receiving the BFI print, and with the strenuous help of our Cuban partners, we were able to locate and talk extensively with two living monuments of Cuban cinema: the editor of Lucía, Nelson Rodríguez, who had worked with all the greatest Cuban filmmakers, and legendary director of photography Raúl Rodríguez Cabrera, who had known Herrera and his work very well.

The day before finalizing the grading on Lucía, we received a once-in-a-lifetime call from Carlos Béquet, part of the team that had actually processed Lucía and worked side by side with Solás at the ICAIC laboratories in 1968. Using almost exactly Rodríguez’s words, he confirmed that Solás had employed two different film stocks—ORWO and Ilford—and asked Herrera to use a distinctive photographic treatment for each of the three episodes of Lucía: highly contrasted in the first, as the 1895 episode unravels, to achieve an effect of stark violence; much more sustained and nuanced, with a wider palette of blacks and whites, in the second, closer to the look of the work of American masters of the fifties and sixties such as Elia Kazan; and extremely bright, with the “light of the revolution,” in the third, the camera moving closer to the characters, framing Lucía’s smiles and skin more intimately, the texture of the film grainier.

Solás’s ability to fluidly integrate diverse cinematic styles led critics to stress his European influences, especially the auteur and progressive cinema of the sixties. But what Lucía and all the other films in this collection clearly reveal is that these influences were only a point of departure for elaborating and developing a point of view that pertained directly to the filmmakers’ cultures and experiences: “Because elitist culture and this ersatz popular culture were so intimately tied, because petty bourgeois consciousness and influences from Europe and North America were so dominant, our general cultural panorama at the time of the revolution was in fact a pretty desolate one,” Solás said in an interview published in Jump Cut in 1978. “This was during the sixties, when the most important film movement was the French New Wave . . . These influences alienated us from our indigenous cultural forms and from a more serious search for a kind of cultural expression consistent with national life, with the explosive dynamism of the revolution. Yet this was also a path we clearly had to travel.”

Like a reverse angle, Lucía, After the Curfew, Pixote, Dos monjes, Soleil Ô, and Downpour take us down the path invoked by Solás, to recognize where they came from and appreciate where they have brought us, their frailties and their strengths. We are moved to see these films finally back in the world, no longer in our care but in yours.

With deepest thanks to the incredible team at The Film Foundation: Margaret Bodde, Jennifer Ahn, Kristen Merola, and Rebecca Wingle; Gian Luca Farinelli, a formidable and generous mentor; Davide Pozzi, restoration wizard and longtime travel companion; and Elena Tammaccaro, who never says never.

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