Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Fragile Heritage and Promising Outlook: Asian Film Archives Look Ahead While Looking Back

Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Fragile Heritage and Promising Outlook: Asian Film Archives Look Ahead While Looking Back

Article excerpt

"I had the chance to shake the hands of many great directors," says Okajima Hisashi. "It was exciting, but not as exciting as touching the original print of a Lumière Brothers film."

Okajima, Curator of Film at the National Film Center of Tokyo's National Museum of Modern Art, is at a dinner of Asian archivists, who are in town for the official opening of the Hong Kong Film Archive and to attend a symposium held on January 8. Film archivists are a special breed. As Ray Edmondson, President of South East Asia/Pacific Audio Visual Archive Association, observes in the symposium, they love film. This must be the case or else they wouldn't have put up with their always demanding work. But they also have to exercise their passion with control. That's why Okajima is careful to point out that despite his excitement at touching the vintage celluloid, he didn't leave any fingerprints.

Challenges in the Archiving Journey

Film archivists must express their love for film with control because they are at the front line of the battle to preserve the heritage of films. Cinema may have a glorious history, but its physical heritage is a fragile one. Since the introduction of projection cinema by the Lumière Brothers in 1895, the world has been playing a catch-up game with the deterioration of the stock on which images - and, later, sound too - are recorded.

Initially though, the game was not of catch-up but of ridicule. Edmondson quotes a 1897 British newspaper report that raged against the inclusion of such early film treasures as The Prince's Derby and The Beach at Brighton in the hallowed halls of the British Museum: "Seriously, does not the collection of rubbish become a trifle absurd?" Edmondson goes on to wittily characterize the emergence of film archives in Europe and North America three decades later as establishing "proper home(s)... for the rubbish bin."

The heritage of film in Asia is particularly fragile. For a long while, the garbage bins of Asian cinema were a homeless bunch, not so much because of snobbish rejection of a new and popular medium but simply due to indifference. While the West waited three decades before establishing archives, it took a lot longer for Asia to get going. The first film archives in the continent are the ones in Iran, China and India, launched respectively in 1949, 1958 and 1964. Japan, perhaps the best among Asian nations in protecting its cultural heritage, did not start preserving films systematically until the 1970s, under the banner of the National Film Center.

Here in Hong Kong, one of the most prolific film centers of the world, the call for a film archive wasn't even made until the late 1970s. Not that the people of Hong Kong didn't care about film - we did, in a big way, and still do - but we had more pressing matters on our mind than preservation. When the Hong Kong Film Archive was established in 1993 in the form of a Planning Office, it faced an uphill battle in playing catch-up.

Belina Capul, Staff Director at the Motion Pictures Division of the Philippine Information Agency, tells the symposium audience that the Philippines does not even have a full-fledged film archive despite its long history of filmmaking. A national archive was indeed established in 1982 by the Marcos government, but after only three years, with the collapse of the despotic regime imminent, it was unceremoniously absorbed into the censorship department, the mandate of which is, of course, not preservation. The role of archiving is now left to the small and under-funded Society of Film Archivists (SOFIA) which is a coalition of concerned individuals. The Society, however, has no resources to carry out preservation tasks, serving mainly as a networking body and clearing house for activities.

Political upheavals such as the overthrow of Marcos are commonplace in Asia. In fact, the long and magnificent history of film in Asia also coincides with a punishing history of turbulence in Asia. …

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