The most exciting new releases can be older films. This is certainly the case with the work of the World Cinema Foundation, a Martin Scorsese-founded group whose mission is to preserve international classics. Beginning with Trances, a 1981 record of the Moroccan rock group Nass El Ghiwane, the WCF has restored 12 films ranging from the legendary (A Brighter Summer Day) to the obscure (Two Girls on the Street). Several of the films, like The Housemaid and Revenge, use interpersonal violence as a metaphor for greater societal tensions. But their main commonality is that they all look incredible.
For the next two weeks BAMcinématek will be showing the World Cinema Foundation’s restorations. After seeing half the titles, I can already conclude that this is the New York repertory series of the year. I spoke to film critic and WCF Executive Director Kent Jones about it.
How is the World Cinema Foundation different from other film preservation groups?
In a way, all “film preservation groups” or initiatives or archives are the same in that they’re united by a common goal: to save movies. That simple. Our particular foundation was formed in 2007 by Marty Scorsese, and it is in many ways an outgrowth of The Film Foundation, which is now celebrating its 20th anniversary and has contributed to the restorations of over 500 titles. And The Film Foundation grew out of Marty’s campaign for an improved color stock in the early ’80s, which in turn grew out of his attendance at a LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art] screening of a severely faded print of The Seven Year Itch back in the late ’70s, where the problem of color fading became dramatically apparent to him.
Marty has always been interested in seeing new work, something that can not be said of many other American filmmakers of his generation. He’s never not been interested in new approaches to cinema from hitherto unknown filmmakers from around the world, he’s never not been excited by new work. And he goes deep; at this point, he knows Korean cinema better than I do. At a certain point in the mid ’90s, I think it was, he saw Yeelen, and he was greatly impressed. That led to a friendship with Souleymane Cissé, and to increasing exposure to African cinema, and a growing consciousness that many films and filmmakers around the world needed extra help—with restoration, with preservation, and with dissemination. I do not mean Italy and France and China, but the African nations, Eastern Europe, the former republics of Central Asia, and so on. That’s where the World Cinema Foundation came into play.
How does the WCF choose what to save?
Different scenarios. Sometimes things just present themselves to us. Sometimes Marty has chosen a film, like Trances. Most of the choices have come from the advisory board.
Are there WCF films that you have particularly championed? If so, which and why?
No. They’re all equally worthy, I think.
I saw the gorgeous digital restoration of Limite. Why are some films restored on film, others on digital prints? How much of a difference does it make in the viewing experience?
Any restoration now is going to be done digitally, and then a film element is created. That particular restoration is still being completed; this is the digital presentation. [Editor’s note: A River Called Titas will also be shown in HDCam.]
How do you plan for audiences to see the films?
Our films screen regularly around the world, at festivals and cinematheques, art houses and assorted cultural institutions. We are working with Criterion on a box set. And some of the films are available on Mubi. In the future, we plan to expand the online opportunities.
How important is it that the restorations be seen in the films’ native countries? Are there plans in place to show them in their original countries, and if so, what are they?
Obviously, we want the films to be seen under the best conditions in their native countries, and in most cases that has happened. Al Momia has screened in Egypt, Revenge has screened in Kazakhstan, and so on.
You’ve said that all films are in immediate danger, and thus in need of restoration. Why so?
For a very simple reason: film is perishable. We all know that nitrate stock is extremely fragile, but so is all film, and so are digital files. If the upkeep isn’t constant, if the conditions aren’t optimal, movies can degrade and deteriorate. I think that there was, and to a certain extent still is, a sense that movies will sort of take care of themselves. Not the case, any more than it is with paintings. Cinema needs constant care, plain and simple. That’s our work.
The World Cinema Foundation series will run November 10 - 23. For more information, click here.