I’ve always been impressed with New Zealand. First off, their country is beautiful and they seem to recognize how precious that is. Many countries don’t. The majority of people there also seem to be good-natured human beings and full of pride for their country. Community seems to actually still exist there and so do values. Gosh, be darn-if they weren’t so far away, I’d consider moving there. Maybe someday.
I’ll never forget my trip to South Pacific Pictures in Auckland– the only studio I know of that has a worm farm on the lot. There’s some environmental consciousness for you. So it came as no surprise when I read in The Los Angeles Times the other day that the New Zealand Film Archive is forming a partnership with the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) here in the U.S. to make a collection of 75 rare silent films available once again.
Many of these American-made films were thought to have been lost forever. Sometimes though, for a variety of reasons, old prints reappear in the most unexpected places. “Upstream,” a silent film by “Grapes Of Wrath” helmer John Ford is one such film found safely tucked away in New Zealand. Brian Meacham, who is a short film preservationist at the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, according to the Times article, happened to be on vacation when he visited the New Zealand archive. Once he started a conversation asking about the films that archive held, he made the surprising discovery that many “lost” American films were unknowingly housed in the New Zealand Archive.
Through this partnership, NFPF and the New Zealand Film Archive are demonstrating what is becoming known as “film repatriation,” whereas discovered films are returned to their country of origin. This is an effort I absolutely applaud. Although, the average moviegoer doesn’t think about it, films are very much a part of our national heritage.
During the silent era, the base of most film stock consisted of highly volatile cellulous nitrate. Nitrate is known to spontaneously combust and decay to such a degree that the emulsion bearing the image is destroyed. After about 1951, the nitrate base was replaced with cellulose acetate and sometimes, odd as it sounds, polyester. Both of these bases are considered safety film–more stable and less flammable than nitrate, yet they are not exempt from decay.
In the silent era, no one was thinking about preservation. Once a film had its theatrical run, it was done. The print was supposed to be destroyed or returned to the studio. There were times when it wasn’t worth the cost or the studio never asked for the print back. It wasn’t until the 1930s that film archives were created to preserve films for the future.
We have no way of knowing just how many silent films existed but the number is generally estimated to be at least 150,000-if not more. Only about half of the films before 1950 still exist. Even with the films archived internationally, it is difficult to catalogue them all, much less attempt to preserve them. Cost and resources are often prohibitive, but partnerships like this one, will help tremendously. And, as the New Zealand Film Archive proves-you never know what film might be hiding out just waiting to be rediscovered.
Resources: The Los Angeles Times, “Trove of silent-era films spurs cross-Pacific rally” by Susan King, The Oxford History Of World Cinema, edited by Goeffrey Nowell-Smith.
For more information go to www.filmpreservation.org and www.filmarchive.org.nz