Film Heritage Foundation struggles to preserve film material in lockdown with limited physical access, drying funds

Unlike most, film archivists don’t have the option of work from home. The process of restoring and repairing film is an often laborious and expensive job that entails physical access to fragile material.

Manasi Chandu September 19, 2020 14:03:46 IST
Film Heritage Foundation struggles to preserve film material in lockdown with limited physical access, drying funds

When the entire world is looking for ways to go online, there are some things that just cannot be experienced on the Internet.

“Films are not a singular experience. While creating cinema, humans established it as a form of group activity, with shared experiences. How can you negate that experience to something online?” says Mumbai-based filmmaker and archivist Shivendra Singh Dungarpur.

In March, when Dungarpur had to shut down his organisation — Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) — overnight, he had little idea about how long the lockdown announced by the government would last. “Running an archive is like taking care of your child. And when that’s suddenly taken away from you, and you have no means of taking care of your baby, you don’t know what to do”, says Dungarpur.

The main concern for the archive was the condition of all the film material in storage, which required preservation in temperature-controlled vaults and dehumidifiers with routine cleaning and checks to keep them from getting exposed. The archive currently has over 50,000 photographs, 500 films, and other film material including song booklets, lobby cards and posters.

Unable to keep away from his ‘child’, Dungarpur decided to quietly walk down from his house in Breach Candy to the archive in Tardeo to open it up four weeks after the lockdown was announced. His paranoia wasn’t unfounded — since the humidifiers and air conditioner were turned off for a month, some of the film material had crumbled to dust, with a few nitrate reels decomposing, thanks to Mumbai’s humidity.

But there wasn’t any time to fret. Dungarpur took it upon himself to clean up the office, and made it a point to visit his workplace regularly to run the air conditioner and dehumidifiers in order to save the film material.

Unlike most, film archivists don’t have the option of work from home. The process of restoring and repairing film is an often laborious and expensive job that entails physical access to fragile material. With budget cuts, film conservators are now forced to either use existing material or localise their material, finding local vendors.

Film Heritage Foundation struggles to preserve film material in lockdown with limited physical access drying funds

Funding, which has always been an issue in this field, has taken a worse hit with donors disappearing as the pandemic struck.

In Brazil, Cinemateca Brasileira, one of Latin America’s oldest film institutions, is staring at a collapse. According to the British Film Institute's publication Sight and Sound, the famous state-funded archive, which had rapidly eroded under Jair Bolsonaro, has taken a further hit due to the pandemic. An employee of the Brasileira told BFI that despite not being paid, some technicians dealing with the collection and building maintenance continued to monitor the holdings in a relay system during the lockdown.

But Dungarpur is willing to do “whatever it takes” for his seven-year-old organisation to survive.

One of the major changes that he hopes to see on the global front is that there will be more collaboration among archives, a thought echoed by Christophe Dupin, a senior administrator at the International Federation of Film Archivists (FIAF). FHF is already collaborating with other international archives and conducting workshops online.

“In my position as administrator of FIAF, I am the contact point for colleagues at 169 institutions around the world,” Dupin said in an interview. “I thought it would be great to offer a platform so my colleagues could feel a little less isolated — so they could share their concerns and also their thoughts on how we can get out of this situation and what the new world will look like for our sector.”

Another issue that needs addressing is a new business model to survive in the future, by making archives more accessible. The Mumbai-based film conservator believes that if the audience can be charged for viewing films, the costs of repairing and digitising films can be recovered.

Preservation is an expensive affair. The process is labour intensive and uses material that is usually imported.

Film Heritage Foundation struggles to preserve film material in lockdown with limited physical access drying funds

“Preserving material is the main goal for a film archive but it is equally important that the material being archived is eventually accessible to the public in some form or the other,” says Gautami Khanvilkar, a film conservator at FHF.

The 28-year-old, who has previously worked with National Film Archive of India (NFAI), believes that the need of the hour is to make film material accessible to the public on online platforms. Echoing a similar thought as Dungarpur, Khanvilkar too thinks that by monetising the viewing of films, archives can sustain themselves.

However, there is a silver lining here — following the coronavirus-induced lockdown, people found free time to rummage through their collections, and new, invaluable material was found and donated to restore in film archives all over the world.

“Iconic filmmaker, Satyajit Ray’s son, Sandip, found a treasure trove of 100 negatives of photographs taken by his father and over 1,000 unseen negatives of unseen shoot stills during the lockdown,” informs Dungarpur.

Keeping a positive outlook towards the future, the optimistic founder of the FHF believes that there is an opportunity for things to be better. “The only way to fight this pandemic is to work. Keep your mind occupied so that one doesn’t have time to think about the virus and work: it’s the only way. Work!”

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