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The Star: Saving the classics
Monday, March 15, 2010

Today’s audiences can enjoy the beauty of old masterpieces, thanks to technology.

THE Criterion Collection label recently released AK100, a huge box-set celebrating the 100th anniversary of Japanese master director Akira Kurosawa’s birth. The set features 25 of his films, including some of his early pre-war work. Kurosawa is so revered in the film world that all his major works have been preserved, even digitally remastered. The original negative of Seven Samurai, probably his best-known film, had long been lost, but effort was made to create a new high-definition transfer from a new negative made from a fine-grain master positive.

Such painstaking restoration, remastering and preservation attest to the great respect that Kurosawa’s awe-inspiring talent garners and deserves. Most recently, a version of Fritz Lang’s seminal 1927 silent film Metropolis, believed to be the original cut, was discovered, and work began on restoring the print. Other works by renowned filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, F.W. Murnau, Carl Theodor Dryer and D.W. Griffith have long been restored and preserved, both for film students to pore over and for the general public to enjoy and admire. So are the Chinese classics from the vaults of Cathay and Shaw Bros, which, incidentally, have been showing on Malaysian TV.

The question that begs to be asked is, what about our own classic films? Are they being restored or at least, preserved? The old films we see on TV look increasingly deteriorated as the years go by.

Over the decades, film has been elevated from superficiality as a mere medium of entertainment into the realm of art. Now its social, historical and cultural value and heritage can no longer be denied. Even works like Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films are regarded as historically important.

When you speak to any local filmmaker about the archiving and preservation of local films, you would mostly be met with disgruntlement and complaints.

One story goes that a filmmaker submitted a film to an organisation for safekeeping. But later, when it was time to look for the film, it seemed to have gone missing, until someone found the prints, of all places, under a clerk’s desk.

Such stories are disheartening, and there has long been resentment and disappointment over how our local films are being treated. P. Ramlee’s classics, for example, can only be commercially found on badly transferred VCDs.

Then there’s the case of Shuhaimi Baba’s films. Asked how she keeps her films, she replied: “Oh, nature took care of that already.” About 10 years ago, her Pesona Pictures office was gutted by fire, and some of her films such as Layar Lara, Ringgit Kasorrga and Selubung were destroyed. What was most heartbreaking was that all her early short films also went up in flames.

Is it even logical to hope and dream that someday in the future, we might have our own “P. Ramlee 100” DVD box-set to commemorate the greatest local artiste of our country? Perhaps, as preservation and archiving work has already begun, or are in the planning stages, both in Malaysia and Singapore.

The National Archives (Arkib Negara) has constructed a building for storing audio-visual materials, including feature films. According to its director-general Datuk Sidek Jamil, it will hopefully be ready sometime this year. While the function of the National Archives is to store official government records, it also recognises the need for safeguarding and preserving the film heritage of the country.

“All films produced by private individuals and private companies are not under the jurisdiction of Arkib Negara,” said Sidek. “However, about five to 10 years ago, we came to realise that if we don’t archive these films, then nobody will. So that’s why we proposed to the Government to have Arkib Negara as the centre to preserve all heritage materials that are in audio-visual form.”

The new building, located on the grounds of the National Archives, will have special storage, proper shelves, and security – and, of course, safeguards against fires. There will be a film acclimatisation area, where a film has to be placed for some time before it is taken out. Equipment is being purchased for those purposes. There are also plans to go digital.

“The security copies will be analogue, but the research copies will be digital,” said Sidek. “So we need to purchase the equipment and technology for compressing the materials. The film producers have no place to keep their films, and some are kept in their offices. With the archive, the environment is controlled, and the films will go through a process of cleaning, upgrading and enhancement.”

Currently, the majority of films kept in the National Archives are documentaries from Filem Negara Malaysia and RTM. The Archives did try to get the films of P. Ramlee after the Pustaka Peringatan P. Ramlee (P. Ramlee Memorial) was established.

Sidek said the plan is for the new building to be a national repository for all things audio-visual. He said there will be meetings with producers to work out the details, including conditions they would want to impose, as well as legal issues such as copyright. However, Sidek emphasised that copyright of the films will remain with the filmmakers. He likened the film archive to a free storage service.

“We want to meet (with the producers and filmmakers) to get their opinion because we don’t want to end up with complaints after we have transferred the materials to the archive. Also, these films have commercial value, and we don’t want to be seen as trying to profit from their hard work.”

He said the cost of the technology to preserve films should not be an issue because it is important to invest now for the future. “Otherwise the value lost through the destruction of the materials will be a bigger cost to us,” he said. “Once the films are gone, they are gone forever. You cannot replace them with any amount of money.”
Meanwhile, across the Causeway, a non-governmental, non-profit organisation called the Asian Film Archives (AFA) has been carrying out efforts to preserve films of the South-East Asian region for the past five years. The genesis of the organisation is as simple as it gets – it simply grew out of pure love and passion for films.

Founder and executive director Tan Bee Thiam had always wondered what happened to the films he saw at film festivals, because not all of them get distribution deals or are released on DVD. How would people get to see them again?

“After I graduated from university, I talked to filmmakers about where they kept these films and how a cinephile like me could get hold of them,” Tan explained. “Some of the films had won awards at festivals, such as Batang West Side by (Filipino director) Lav Diaz. So I wanted to know, outside of the festival platform, how these films are preserved and made accessible to people for generations to come.”

After looking at organisations in Europe and the United States, and also those in Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan, Tan realised that there were not many film archives in South-East Asia, and those that exist are national archives that keep only films from their respective countries.

“That was when I conceptualised a non-governmental, independent organisation that keeps Asian works, with a transnational outlook,” said Tan. “We don’t keep any and every work that comes out (in Singapore), which the National Film Archive does. We have acquisition guidelines to make sure that critically acclaimed works by independent filmmakers get preserved. After that we find different ways to promote this collection, so that it adds cultural value to these works. And not necessarily filmmakers from the past, but also contemporary ones.”

Cathay Organisation has already donated its huge collection of classic Cathay-Keris films (on 16mm and 35mm, and also the digital masters) to AFA, including titles such as Laila Majnun, Sultan Mahmood Mangkat Dijulang, Bawang Merah Bawang Puteh, Tun Fatimah, and Serangan Orang Minyak, and films by L. Krishnan, M. Amin and Hussain Haniff. (Laila Majnun is largely recognised as the first feature film to be made in Malaya, traced to circa 1933.)

In 2007, AFA was accepted into the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), the youngest organisation to become an affiliate of FIAF, whose members include the prestigious British Film Institute and Cinematheque Francaise. AFA works hand-in-hand with other organisations such as the National Archives and the National Library of Singapore. Instead of duplicating what already exists, AFA complements it, said Tan.
Thus as a partner, the National Archives provides the storage space needed. AFA also carries out workshops and other activities, some of them aimed at educating and training the younger generation in archiving and film programming. It also holds screenings, and coming up soon is a charity screening of Moon Over Malaya, a 1957 film shot in Singapore and Malaysia (by Chor Yuen and Chun Kim) and starring Patrick Tse, Nam Hung and Patsy Kar Ling. The print that AFA received is the only one left in the world.

Everyone works on a voluntary basis, donating time, money or expertise, and volunteers come from all walks of life. Funding comes from corporate sponsorship, government projects, earned income from conducting workshops, and publishing and selling DVDs. AFA also has trained archivists and an international board of advisors, including Ray Edmonson, founding chairman of the South-East Asia Pacific Audio Visual Archives Association, and Howard Besser who started the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program at New York University.

“When we set it up, we also looked at what this organisation would do for the next 100 years, ” said Tan.

By Allan Koay



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