Way back in the day, when Jacques Derrida was alive and pioneering postmodernism, he developed a pet theory concerning archival maintenance, mal d’archive: the fever of the archive. In English, we list this as the theory of Archival doubt. Essentially, while the manifest for an archive may list and enumerate many holdings, it’s a moment of doubt whether you can actually find the items the archive claims to hold. This theory affected me in 2011 when it was discovered that half the educational psychology videos Charles Evans Inniss claimed to possess were not in the collection. Somebody discarded them and failed to remove said titles from the catalog, thus encouraging the theory of archival doubt.
In writer-director Inés Toharia Terán’s Film: The Living Record of Our Memory, archival doubt is an issue film archivists run afoul of. Within the context of this deeply meaningful documentary, we learn that we have lost at least 25 years of silent films. There were all sorts of experimental and wondrous work that no longer exists. Why was this allowed to happen? As we learn from this wonderful film, it could be one of three reasons.
First, the reel could have been cannibalized for its silver. Most film archives are not profitable endeavors. And to make matters worse, they tend to be costly. The archivist needs to find a way to offset various costs. You do this by reducing the film reel to its elements. There’s a lot of silver in the pre-1950s lm reels. So you boil it down and remove that precious mineral, and you have the capital to keep yourself going. Conversely, if you’re a film studio and you don’t have a mission to preserve your past work, the scrapping of the material for silver is the wisest economic decision you can make.
“…archival doubt is an issue film archivists run afoul of…”
The second problem is that film degrades. If it’s not provided continuous maintenance and stored at a target temperature, generally 50 Fahrenheit, the celluloid will degrade and become unwatchable. It was really neat of the filmmakers to remember the crusade Martin Scorsese undertook to make meaningful film archives that actively maintained and preserved their collections. The final issue is that reels could burn. Early reels contained a highly flammable chemical compound that would destroy whole archives of footage if someone chose to foolishly light a cigarette in the archive. This happened much more often than one would be comfortable contemplating.
I love that filmmaker Inés Toharia Terán received access to so many luminaries of film archiving and history throughout Film: The Living Record of Our Memory. Personalities like Peter Bagrov, Margaret Bodde, and Ann Adachi-Tasch provide knowing interviews running through their strategies on how to rescue film reels. The great, sadly departed Laure Adler is shown in archive footage performing rehabilitative work on the reels when they were found in terrible condition. Every year a festival in Spain happens wherein they bring forth newly recovered silent films. It’s simply miraculous that they continue to find and present 20 – 30 films annually.
Film: The Living Record of Our Memory is an essential documentary for anyone interested in cinema. This film unflinchingly and brilliantly recounts the effort to save film and cinematic history. It is an absolutely wondrous work, and I encourage everyone to watch it.
"…an essential documentary..."