The American Moving Image Diaspora: The Archeology of US Movies in International Archives

Article excerpt

In February 2004 the program of the "Pelikula at Lipunan" film festival in Manila, Philippines included the premiere of the restored 35mm version of Zamboanga, an American independent feature film originally produced on location in Mindanao in 1936 and featuring an all Filipino cast led by Fernando Poe and Rosa Del Rosario. The story of how Zamboanga came to be re-discovered, preserved and publicly screened in Manila for the first time in more than 50 years is a case study that illustrates the ongoing international effort by motion picture archivists to recover, preserve and repatriate America's film heritage of the 20th century.

It is common for film archivists to think of their work as a kind of cultural archeology, especially in relation to motion pictures produced prior to the mid-20th century. Every nation has lost significant percentages of the movies produced within its borders over the past century. For American film archivists the task is particularly difficult because of the vastly greater number of commercial and non-commercial films that originated in the U.S., compared to any other country, and the high loss rates that American productions of all genres are known to have suffered. A study published by the Library of Congress in 1993 estimated that more than fifty percent of all American movies produced between 1893 and 1951, the so-called "nitrate era," have either been lost forever or survive only in poor quality copies. (1) And the loss rate for films of the silent era (1893-1929) is even greater with an estimated 80 percent of the total output considered completely deteriorated or destroyed. But the bad news doesn't end with the close of the nitrate era. The introduction of safety film in 1951 eliminated the disastrous fires which consumed so many nitrate collections but it did nothing to end the shrinkage, color fading, brittleness and other effects of physical deterioration that adversely affect all acetate based film materials of the modern era that are not stored in optimal environmental conditions. In fact, some films produced as late as the 1990s are already showing signs of deterioration because the original negatives, sound tracks and other production elements have not been stored in facilities with proper temperature and humidity control.

The reasons why so many American movies have been lost are complex. They include a combination of neglect by an industry ever-focused on the release of "new product," the considerable economic incentive to recycle old movies to recover the pure silver that formed an image recording layer on the film stock, and the great expense and expertise required by modern film archives to produce high quality 35mm restored versions from damaged or deteriorated original film elements. It must also be acknowledged that many films have been lost because of the cumulative neglect attributable to the bias ingrained throughout most of the last century in the majority of America's libraries, museums, universities, archives and other institutions charged with collecting culturally important materials that consigned movies to the low status of popular culture, and thus deemed undeserving of long term conservation for posterity. It's not just the Hollywood feature films that have faded away. America's film heritage always embraced a far more diverse array of production genres than those that came to be recognized as the canon of Hollywood cinema, and it is those lesser genres that have often suffered most. The losses reported by the Library of Congress in 1993 are largely concentrated among the newsreel libraries, independent and avant garde productions, educational and industrial films, short comedies, home movies, and other orphan genres that eluded cultural recognition and the consequent protection of institutional and private collectors during the post WWII years.

And let's briefly digress to consider "home movies," a category of American filmmaking that has been long overlooked and derided as one of the lowest forms of moving image popular culture. …