Transparent Grains of Sand: A Correspondence with Janneke van Dalen
Yesterday, I overhead a conversation in a locker room. Two men were talking about what they called “dirty films”. I know it’s a bit stupid, but I can’t help myself from thinking about archival work when I hear this term. It’s not because I think of the dust so often metaphorically put on your field of work, nor because I suspect any ‘dirty’ business going on between the shelves or under the cans, but because of the actual question of hygiene around the treatment of film. Can you tell me something about this? How do you keep a film clean? How do you protect it?
It’s curious to me how ideas of hygiene and self-care have invaded our perception of bodies, those we call our own and those of others, while at the same time the industries producing all these smells and shiny effects are poisoning us and the very planet we livie on. Are methods of keeping dirt from films ‘cleaner’? Are they more sustainable (to use a buzzword) than most shower gels?
It is no wonder you thought about archival work when you heard those two men talking about dirty films. We, film archivists, talk about dirty films too. And when we do, we can mean several things: film reels that have collected dust and projector oil in projection, a film infested by mould because it was stored in a humid basement, a film that has deteriorated up to the point of smelling like unwashed feet and oozing with sticky, yellow-brown residue, or a reel covered in pigeon poop because it has been kept unprotected in an attic.
In trying to preserve film, we are very concerned with dirt, dust, and, in more general terms, with damage and deterioration. Film might seem tough (some images from the early days of the medium are in good condition and still look very beautiful), but it is also very sensitive. Film is in danger of being lost when not cared for properly. Both the base and the emulsion of analogue film material are prone to damage and deterioration. As a result of handling and projecting film, the emulsion can get scratched, the film can attract dust (which can cause even more damage), and the perforated holes on each side of the film strip for transportation [through the projector] can get worn and torn. Nitrate cellulose and acetate cellulose, the materials that a large part of film history was produced and remains preserved on, degrade with time. This means that the images will fade eventually, and the material will become sticky, brittle, and, in the case of nitrate film, turn into brown powder in the last stage of its life. Unstable pigments in colour films will also fade. Biological infestations such as fungi can damage the film emulsion – and there are more examples.
We’re trying to prevent all of this. We try to handle and store films in ways that don’t worsen their condition or endanger their physical well-being. This so-called ‘passive preservation’ is complemented by handling film elements with care when inspecting, viewing, and projecting. Films are stored in clean film cans without rust or any other type of matter that can stimulate a chemical reaction in the film. But the most important intervention is storing film in a cool and dry environment. For most analogue film materials, storing at sub-zero temperature is the best since it prolongs its life drastically. As maintaining sub-zero temperatures are not practicable or (financially) reachable for all film archives, most of us opt for cool and dry storage.
Sorry Patrick, I’ve veered away a little bit from your original questions, which were about dirt and how to keep film clean… but I would say that all of these efforts do come into play when trying to prevent films from getting ‘dirty’ in all possible ways. And yes, we do handle film with clean or gloved hands and always using dust-free equipment. To dust off a film strip, we pass it gently through a velvet cloth on a winding bench. When deeper cleaning is desired, for example before printing or digitising a film, we use detergents that are effective but don’t damage the photographic emulsion. Coming back to your questions about sustainability: I am afraid that effective usually means good for the film but bad for the environment.
I realised that I’ve only talked about analogue film – because to speak of dirt regarding anything digital seems unnatural, illogical. But of course, we also clean digital images when we are restoring a film, after its analogue elements have been scanned. We remove any scratches, dust or dirt that were not originally part of the film. Restorations are sometimes praised for their cleanliness; how they look ‘as new’. But as film archivists we question this cleanliness. The automatic tools used for digital cleaning can produce artefacts [imperfections] or result in the effacement of a restored film’s original analogue appearance.
Ps. I’ve noticed that I get a certain pleasure out of telling you about the specifics of dirty film. I wonder why. Actually, most film archivists, although they’re trying to prevent all this, seem to love to share and collect examples of exceptional dirt, damage, and deterioration. The tunnels dug in the emulsion by a fungus or the deterioration that created flowery patterns within the image can be beautiful. The images might start to fade or even become invisible, but they are replaced by a liveliness that can be wild. Perhaps it fascinates us archivists because it shows us that there’s only so much we can do to prevent images from dying – or perhaps because it gives us a sense of urgency that’s necessary for doing the work.
Thank you for sharing all these ‘dirty’ examples. I wonder about the pleasure you describe. Encountering the materiality of a film as its projected has often given me a sort-of sensual pleasure. Scratches and particles of dirt or dust blurring what I can see, sudden disruptive sounds, fading colours, all of it has always helped me to understand that a film is a physical thing, and whenever that’s made evident during a screening I feel somewhat alive. In these rare moments, I feel the weight of a film, the exceptional chemical magic that makes it become light and movement. I understand then that a moving image is not something we can take for granted, which is easily forgotten in our age.
And yet, this idea has become a bit of a cliché in recent years, and those fighting for analogue film have done so with a sort of fetish connected to actual dirty pictures and an idea of cinema as a spectacle. I have nothing against that, but I would like to ask a couple of questions related to the work of a film archivist… For one, I’d like to know which you are trying to preserve and restore: the medium or its message? Let me phrase that more clearly: In my understanding, in addition to helping images and sounds survive, one of the most important aspects of your work is to protect a certain understanding of the medium – for example, that a film shot on 35mm can only be really understood on 35mm. Or am I mistaken? And two: I know that institutions have their policies and rules, but I would like to know, in your professional and personal point of view, given that you can only collect and restore a certain amount of films in your life, how do you choose them? How do you decide which film will soon turn to dust and which one can survive a bit longer?
In my mind, your work could be compared to the task a young man is given by his master in an Arabian story I once read. This boy has to go to the desert in order to return with the three grains of sand he finds most beautiful. He naively and enthusiastically begins to inspect every grain – he goes on for decades and it’s only in old age he realises the impossibility of his task. He decides to just take three grains from right in front of him and returns to the old master – who, of course, died years ago. However, the master has left a note for him, which says: “You should have looked more closely.” Honestly, I always tremble thinking about this. The master knew that the young man would return only if he failed to complete his task, for there was no way he could return successfully. I just wonder what he should have done. Should he have chosen the pleasures of a better life by accepting the impossibility of succeeding, or should he have pursued a somewhat Don Quixotesque grace in failing until he dies?
I like how you describe your experience of getting a sense of film as a real thing. Film is all about the illusion of movement and the inventions of photography and projection support this illusion. The film strip, the projector, the cinema; they are designed in such a way that the viewer does not get distracted by the fact that a piece of plastic is running through a machine. But actually, when the materiality of film nonetheless shimmers through and reveals itself, it gives a sensation that does not necessarily distract or undo the magic.
You are right, film archives are trying to preserve both the content and the medium. It is hard to see them separately and impossible to treat them as two things, because there really is no message without the medium it has been captured by and through which it is presented. What film history we have exists we have taken care of this medium. The fact that we don’t have access to a large part of film history is precisely because the medium was neglected, not understood, or not cared for enough. Perhaps in a digital world we sometimes forget about materiality. But digital media have a materiality too. Compared to analogue film, the relationship with matter is more complex – but, in the end, these ones and zeros are stored on servers, or preserved on magnetic tapes in film archives.
The medium is so important because it influences the way a film looks and sounds. The amount of detail, the movement, the colour palette of a filmstock; they all determine what comes out in the end. The material is part of the work. Within preserving moving images, we use techniques like duplication through printing, from one film to another, or digitisation. Yet with each step of duplication, the image and sound quality slightly decreases. One of the main principles of film archiving is to respect and preserve the original materials. We duplicate to preserve, we digitise to open up the possibilities for access or for restoration purposes, but the duplicatie is not a replacement of the source element.
Because we are dealing with digitisation more and more, and nowadays we access films mostly through our own screens or in digital projections, I want to go into this topic in a bit more detail. In digitising our film collections, and as technology develops, we keep asking ourselves the same questions: How to translate the characteristics of a film work? How to represent its original qualities most faithfully in a medium that is so fundamentally different? I think ‘translation’ is really the most appropriate term here because we are talking about about interpreting the specific image and sound qualities that determine a given work. Think of the colours, the slight instability of the analogue image, and the traces of projection and use. A digitised film inevitably fails to represent the exact same work, but still we try to refer to, talk about, or indirectly mention the original medium and its material characteristics.
Whether a film shot on 35mm can only be really understood on 35mm is difficult to answer, because I think so much depends on an individual’s experience, perhaps also on their powers of observation or imagination, and of course on the particular film. I can talk from my own experience: For example, I remember watching a 35mm print of Aira Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths projected. The impact this film had on me was in part because of the image quality, the strong contrast, detail, and depth of the print. I am sure this would have been different with a digital projection, because thathas limitations – in representing black, for example. Another example: last year, we digitisd Untitled, a 16mm film made by Thomas Korschil in which an escalator is filmed from up close, diagonally, in black and white. Due to the movement of the escalator and the little ridges in the escalator stairs, digital projection causes interference and creates colours and strange forms. Ha, such a simple proof (that everybody can see!) of the limits of digital technology. So yes, some films can definitely only be understood when screened in their originally intended format. But of course, this is not always be possible. Many films cannot be screened in their original format: Sometimes the material has faded or it’s too fragile to show, and the only option is a digital copy. Plus, there are fewer and fewer cinemas that project on film.
Your question as how to choose which films to save is difficult too. I like to take a step back and think about the main task as being to take care of everything that enters the collection; to not let anything turn to dust. There are different stages of care, different levels: the basic care for the material itself – the passive preservation I talked about before can allow film to last for decades or even hundreds of years. And then there are extra steps, being active preservation and restoration. Which films deserves this extra care is based on a combination of factors including the state of the material and the quality and importance of the work. The state of the material can of course be objectively identified, but the quality and importance of the work is much more difficult to decide upon. And of course, these choices are always defined by the money, time, and resources we have available. But generally, when it is about preserving single titles, it is not something we (should) decide alone. The curators and archivists, but also the users or potential viewers, should have a say.
The story of the boy send into the desert with an impossible task is an interesting comparison. I think our task is very possible so long as you don’t want to pick out or highlight only the most beautiful ones, nor to preserve absolutely everything. Film preservation is also about opening up opportunities for others, theoretically everybody, to access and in a way activate the collections. Because every time a film is screened for an audience, viewed by a researcher, referred to within a paper or re-used within a new work of art, it proves the relevance of its existence. As archivists we make choices about what is preserved and what is not, what is restored and what is not, but at the same time, we try to keep in mind that everything could potentially be interesting and that it’s not only up to us to decide or judge that interest.
What is your image of film archives? Do they seem inviting to you?
In your last letter you asked an interesting question: Do film archives appear inviting to me? I’m afraid I have to give you a very unsatisfying, somewhat torn answer. My simple response would be: No. Yet I’m not sure I’d want them to be inviting in the sense of displaying the prevailing kind of openness of many cultural fields today. I don’t want them to pay more attention to the way they appear to the public than to their actual work. In my opinion, it’s fine to deal with the aura of an ivory tower when entering a film archive – it even adds to the mysterious seriousness of such a place. I’m afraid steps to make it more inviting would change work ethics, collection principals and so on. But I am not sure. Maybe such a change might be needed?
Whenever I’ve entered a film archive, I’ve felt there to be a different sense of time at work than in presenting a film program or writing about films. The objects and the work of archives aim for a deeper time, one that exceeds the hustle of everyday life and even the imagination (can you really imagine what film projection will be like in 100 years?). In recent years there have been hundreds of mostly boring symposiums and texts on the topic of the future of cinema, but very, very few of them addressed archives, being the actual places charged with preparing for that future, as uncertain as it may be. Of course, the past is also very much at work there. I think most of us experience the present as a torrent whereas in the archive – at least looking at it from the outside – can be understood as a kind of bridge over that torrent; a bridge between past and future.
However, transparency is important, and I wish there were more of it around film archives – about collection policies, for example. I imagine there’s a lot of hidden treasure to be found in any archive, and important work to be done with them – important not only in relation to the archive itself but regarding our very existence on this planet, the way we live and lived as collectors, the way we remember and forget. There is also so much beauty in a film archive, not only in the films themselves but also in the editing tables and film cans and posters, and I would like for more people outside of academia to discover the value of these objects – and, in the sense of being broadly accessible, I can say with certainty that archives don’t seem very inviting to me. The first things I encounter there are always bureaucratic matters such as rights and credits and then technical specifics that are almost impossible for laymen such as myself to properly understand.
Let me try to be more precise: whenever I enter a film archive, I feel stupid. Stupid in both a good and bad sense. The good kind of stupidity relates to all the knowledge around me that makes me feel small and humble. It creates curiosity in me, moves me. The bad kind, however, makes me feel as if I’m unwanted there, and is communicated to me through the architecture and the contracts as well as a lack of dialogue, the subtext of which, to an unknowing visitor, might seem to be, ‘Leave us in peace!’ I think archives are places of imagination and knowledge and these truly exciting aspects get hidden in a world obsessed with power and ownership. Strangely, the inspiring aspects of archives only become apparent when objects travel outside of it. How do you feel about that? Do you have ideas of how film archives could expand into more public spaces?
I think there are many ways in which film archives can become more inviting spaces and more open to the public. You mentioned one already, and I think it might be one of the most important things to do in this respect: to create curiosity. In the end, I think it’s really about interaction with collection objects, and archives should somehow make encounters with films and the film-related materials possible. They therefore need to create curiosity and invite people in. It is important for us to realise that curiosity can come from many different angles, and that different perspectives and interests cannot always be predicted or foreseen – so it’s probably a lot about giving up control as well.
The film archive opened up for me during my studies, when I attended a course in which we were asked to help document a largely unexplored collection of advertisement and industrial films. We were brought to the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, and this first encounter revealed many things to me at once: that there are large repositories of audiovisual materials in the first place, that these archives and collections include much more than just feature films or television productions, and that the preservation of all these materials is not a given but the result of a system. What I learned is that, in order to create access to these collections, they need to be known and documented in the first place.
Many collections, like the ephemeral films our class worked on, might be physically preserved and documented on a basic level, but can hardly be considered accessible because so little is known about them. To get to know these collections and potentially do something with them, you need to be on-site, so as to access the materials and the people working with them. You have to interact with archivists, perhaps the filmmakers too, ask questions, and be curious in learning about the materials and willing to find out how to use them. When you want to enter the space of an archive to study the materials themselves – which is often the only possible way – it is and should be an active engagement. So, coming back to my perspective as a film archivist, I think archives should, first of all, focus on documenting collections and try to provide information about their contents, but also their technical characteristics, conservation status, origin, and ownership situation – because all of this information creates pathways for people to collections. This information needs to be made accessible and searchable in way that is not unnecessarily complicated.
We should also allow others to work with, and possibly help to unlock, archives through research, curation, publications, or art. These ‘others’ can be students, researchers, or artists from different disciplines, or indeed anyone else who is willing to actively engage. My colleagues in other departments make collections available and known through film programs, publications, and educational programs. Archivists are generally less extroverted, in their work and oftentimes personally too, yet they are the ones who can invite people in. I don’t have any radical ideas about this, but small things can accomplish a lot. For example, inviting people to tour the building, showing them what archival work looks like, what film materials look like, what collection storage looks like. We find ways to allow people to work with the collections, by engaging interns and researchers, for example, and teaching them to handle and view materials. Then there are others who come with specific requests and are able use the collections without necessarily being on-site, such as filmmakers, or curators from other cinematheques, film festivals, or cinemas.
It’s more difficult to open the archives up for those without specific requests. I know that some collecting institutions work with volunteers who help process collections, for example by documenting content. I like this idea of inviting others to literally pick up an object and engage with it in an investigative way a lot – not because it’s a way that others could do our work, but because of the simple but very valuable interaction with an object it facilitates. The act of trying to describe and therefore understand an object from the past is by definition meaningful.
You mentioned transparency and I agree that this is a very important concern for collecting institutions. We should be transparent and try to communicate what and why we collect, and we should be clear in how collections can be accessed and used.
It’s hard for me to imagine the film archive from the perspective of an outsider, but it is a very useful exercise. Probably this is something film archivists should do every once in a while, so as to not fixate on the beautiful grains of sand they get to work with.
Janneke van Dalen has been working as a film projectionist and film archivist in the Netherlands before moving to Vienna in 2016. She now works at the Austrian Film Museum as co-manager of the film collection, organizing the conservation, restoration, digitization, and access to collections. She is very happy with her work as a film archivist because the archival, technical, historical, and theoretical aspects all come together, and the collections are an endless source of discovery.
Patrick Holzapfel works as a writer, film critic and curator. His articles and stories are regularly published in numerous publications in German and English language. Currently he is working on his debut novel and a translation of stories told to him by a stone.