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Harvard Film Archive Restores Collection of 9,000 Titles

By Risheng Xu, Contributing Writer

The Harvard Film Archive (HFA), one of New England’s largest depositories of independent, international and silent films, is in the midst of a massive restoration project of its 9,000 titles.

“There was clearly a need to systematically care for a very valuable film collection. It’s the difference between providing good storage...and going the extra mile in cleaning, repairing, and really maintaining good records on film,” curator Bruce Jenkins said.

Of the 9,000 films, 6,000 are prints and 3,000 are videotape masters, DVDs and other video formats. Most have never been looked at, said conservator Julie A. Buck. In some cases, there has been severe deterioration of the film.

“Previously, when we loaned to other archives, there was never a formal inspection. The data base only had the title and director but not the condition it was in,” Buck said.

“The short term goal is to examine and determine the conservation status of every film in our collection. We’ll have an overview of all the films we own, what amount of danger they are in and what amount of preservation work still needs to be done,” archive manager Brian Meacham said.

The HFA owns a wide variety of films, many of which it lends to universities, museums and other archives throughout the world.

“We have not only the masterpieces of international cinema, but also prints from the golden age of Hollywood. We have experimental films, as our collection began with documentaries,” he said.

According to Jenkins, one of the rarest prints—a documentary from the 1950s by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker found only in America—is held by HFA.

“It’s one of the gems of our collection,” Jenkins said.

To check the condition of a film, the print is unwound across a “rewind bench.”

“You check for sprocket damage—it won’t play if there is damage,” Buck said.

Other things to look out for are image quality—if the image has faded—and physical damage.

Buck said that some prints are ripped down the center. If this is the case, the film can be digitally restored, or patched using film tape.

“You’ll see a line, but it’s still playable,” she said.

Sometimes, the film physically shrinks, and it won’t play in the projector.

“Once a film has shrunken, you can send it out to a lab, and they can print the film frame by frame to resurrect it,” Buck said.

Unfortunately, sound problems usually cannot be fixed, especially if the film is an old one, as the soundtracks are printed on film.

Eventually, all films go through the “vinegar syndrome”—a condition where the film starts to decompose and the outside layer will fade and flake off.

To combat this decaying process, the prints are put in cold storage and monitored for acidity and dryness.

The HFA has created an “adopt a film program” to pay for restoration, which costs $30 per film.

It is still unclear how many films will have to be restored.

Donors are encouraged to give $3,000 dollars to a film of their choice from the student film list—a list of 100 films in the HFA collection.

One $3000 donation will pay for the upkeep of a film for 100 years, Buck said.

“Once we get the collection that we have in very good shape, I hope we will be able to expand the collection, and develop a niche where Harvard will be known as the great collection for nonfiction, or personal cinema, or experimental cinema, while still maintaining European art films,” Jenkins said.

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