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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

9/17/2021 11:30:00 AM

Nina Menkes’ films—eight between 1981 and 2012 (+ a CD-ROM) and a new film in progress—are absolutely unclassifiable. They are achronological narratives that go to the limits of fragmentation, with deep roots in the avant garde, in psychodrama, in improvisation, in documentary, in political art, in immersive art, and in raw trauma. The films are entrancing and constantly jarring, mesmerizing the viewer and constantly throwing everything off kilter, prompting us to wake up and re-orient ourselves to another detail, another layer, another reiteration in film time and an echo in poetic time.

Her 1996 film The Bloody Child, recently restored by the Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation with funding from the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation, began life in 1982 when Nina traveled to Africa and shot footage of her sister and one-time key collaborator Tinka. Over a decade later, she came across a news item that stunned her: MPs at the Twenty Nine Palms Marine Base, on a routine patrol, happened to find a soldier digging a hole in the Mojave Desert in which he planned to dump the body of his wife, who he’d savagely murdered. Nina cast her sister as one of the MPs, worked closely with real Marines, and created what might be called a series of environments or organisms—the discovery of the grave, the wait by the highway for the authorities to arrive (during which the largely unseen murderer is pummeled and pushed at his wife’s corpse by one of the arresting officers), Marines aggressively picking up women at local bars, the afore-mentioned African footage—held in centrifugal force by the unseen murder itself. These events are matters of light and shadow, posture and behavior, and visual and sonic density. “The film doesn't offer a normal narrative,” said Nina to writer Sara Gilson. “If you go into the film expecting a story about a marine, you're not going to get it. It's like a swirling meditation, structurally… The film is structured so that if you get into it, you actually identify with all of the participants. You identify with the constellation rather than identify with one character or one actor within a constellation.”

The restored version of The Bloody Child will be screening at this year’s New York Film Festival and at different venues and festivals round the country. The term “independent film” now stands for a vague, hazy sort of affective quality or feeling, several hundred miles away from a truly independent film, on every level, like The Bloody Child.

- Kent Jones

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THE BLOODY CHILD (1996, d. Nina Menkes)
Restored by the Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation. Funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. 

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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

9/9/2021 1:30:00 PM

Sambizanga, newly and immaculately restored by the Cineteca di Bologna and The Film Foundation, is a movie that will probably be new to many people. For anyone who cares about the cinema, for anyone who wants to make cinema, it is as essential to know well as Sunrise or Vertigo or 2001. It is “noteworthy” because it is the very first African feature directed by a woman, Sarah Maldoror, and it is a touchstone in surveys of political and revolutionary cinema. But those are official historic and academic categories that are worlds away from the immediate experience of the film itself, which is totalizing: it comes at the viewer from all directions at once. It is grounded in life as lived, and every single scene develops with layer upon layer of intimate homebound gestural and visual detail—the preparation of food, the calming of a baby resisting sleep, the baiting of a fishhook all become living events. And the story of dueling searches for an Angolan freedom fighter during the very early days of the resistance who’s been seized from his home unfolds by way of constant cross-cutting that operates at the pace of the characters, who must walk everywhere to share news and messages: on the one hand, a lifelike tension is built; on the other hand, a portrait of a community at a particular moment in time is created. And the cross-cutting also becomes a matter of rhythm: like all great films, Sambizanga has a heartbeat. And it constantly pulses with beauty. It is an experience of colors and textures, visual and sonic. The wife’s long journey with her baby on her back is an event—visually, musically, dramatically—as is the often-cited scene where a tailor who works in the movement speaks a simple truth while he cuts fabric: “There are no whites, neither mulattos nor blacks. Only the rich and the poor. The rich are the poor’s enemies, they see to it that the poor stay poor.” The speech is extremely quotable and Maldoror would echo the sentiment in public (“The color of a person’s skin is of no interest to me,” she said in a 1991 interview, and added: “For me, there are only the exploiters and the exploited, that’s all”), but it only comes fully alive as part of the whole. The political, the dramatic and the aesthetic are not just interwoven in Sambizanga—they are one in the same.

A few words about Sarah Maldoror, a remarkable artist. She was born in France in 1929 with the family name Ducados, and she later named herself after the hero of the Comte de Lautréamont’s novel Les Chants de Maldoror. Like the Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, she began in theatre. When she was in her 20s she co-founded Les Griots, the first all-black theatre company in France. She was drawn to the cinema by her first viewing of Battleship Potemkin, and she studied film at VGIK in Moscow alongside Ousmane Sembène (they would be followed later by Souleymane Cissé and Abderrahmane Sissako). Maldoror went to live in Algeria during the crucial years after the eight-year war for independence, and she worked as an assistant to William Klein and Gillo Pontecorvo—on The Battle of Algiers—before embarking on her first short, Monangambeee, co-written by her husband Mário Coelho Pinto de Andrade, one of the key figures in the Angolan liberation movement. The first feature she actually shot, Guns for Banta, was financed by the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front), whose representatives seized the film from the editing room because Maldoror was driving the focus toward the women’s point of view—“In the end, wars only work when women take part—they don’t have to hold a bazooka but they have to be present” she later said as she reflected on the experience, which ended with her leaving Algeria. Sambizanga, an adaptation of José Luandino Vieira’s 1961 novel The Real Life of Domingos Xavier (also co-written by Andrade), was shot in forty days with a cast largely comprised of Angolan militants. It was impossible to work in Angola at the time, so the film was shot in the neighboring Congo. Sambizanga was released to considerable international acclaim (it was picked up for distribution here by New Yorker Films and favorably reviewed in the then all-powerful New York Times), but for all African and Africa-based filmmakers the international acclaim is bittersweet at best. Maldoror, like Sembène, like Cissé and Sissako, like Safi Faye and Mati Diop, made her films “first of all for Africans, for African people, those who know what Africa is and those who don’t know, although they think they do.” Making the films was only one step—getting them shown on a grand scale was another matter entirely.

“African women must be everywhere,” said Maldoror, who passed away in March of 2020 at the age of 90, from COVID. “They must be in the images, behind the camera, in the editing room and involved in every stage of the making of a film. They must be the ones to talk about their problems.” Like Agnès Varda, she had no patience for empty gestures or half-measures. She made 42 films in all, shorts and features and documentaries, films of all shapes and sizes and orientations. She made her last public appearance in May of 2019, at retrospectives of her work in Spain, and she said something so simple, direct and true that it takes my breath away: “Education doesn't begin with a book, but rather with an image. Children experience cinema and that makes them dream. To help them, we need to get back to poetry, theater and cinema…

Children must, from a very young age, go to the movies and read poetry, to build a better world.”

- Kent Jones

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SAMBIZANGA (Angola/France, 1972, d. Sarah Maldoror)
Restored by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and Cineteca di Bologna at L’Image Retrouvée in association with Éditions René Chateau and the family of Sarah Maldoror. Funding provided by Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. 

This restoration is part of the African Film Heritage Project, an initiative created by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers and UNESCO – in collaboration with Cineteca di Bologna – to help locate, restore, and disseminate African cinema.

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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

8/31/2021 6:15:00 PM

What are the differences between seeing a movie at home and seeing it projected on a big screen? Back in the 80s, when the film critic Serge Daney decided that a VHS was the equivalent of a photographed reproduction of a painting, the answer was clear. Now, not so much.

The first answer that comes to mind for many people is “community,” the feeling of sharing a viewing experience with strangers. Even before the pandemic, the tendency has been to skew the theatrical experience closer to the convenience and coziness of home viewing, and to skew home viewing further in the direction of sensorial richness. On the one hand, reserved stadium seating; on the other hand, bigger screens and more elaborate sound systems and higher and higher resolution.

And now, of course, it’s possible to see films at home while they’re still playing on big screens. Of course, this has been true of older films for a long time. For those of us lucky enough to live in cities with repertory houses, the majority of the programming can be duplicated at home.

But can it really be duplicated?

What is the difference creating a new HD master of a film and actually restoring it?

On the one hand, this is a technical matter. “Technically, there are significant differences in sound and picture processes,” writes Schawn Belston, my old friend and one of the real heroes of film restoration. “HD color space is different than Theatrical, so we usually work in the theatrical (P3) space and then create r709 (HD) after. Similarly, audio dynamics are different between Theatrical and Home, requiring mixes specifically creatively imagined for the different experiences.”

“HD remasters can be beautiful and are frequently made with great care and artistry,” he elaborates, “and they can even be used to create DCPs for distribution. The line between ‘HD master’ and ‘restoration’ has definitely gotten blurrier as technology and creative savvy have improved.” Anyone who has paid close attention to the extraordinary work done by Lee Kline at Criterion will agree with Schawn, although not everyone has Lee’s sensitivity or attention to detail.

We really need to understand that an HD transfer and a 4K restoration do not simply differ in terms of quality and information, but they serve completely different purposes,” writes the Cineteca di Bologna’s Cecilia Cenciarelli—another good friend, another true hero(ine).Restoration, in the way we intend it, draws from figurative art. In Europe the urge to ‘restore’ emerged in the mid-eighteenth century (although we know that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel was repaired as early as the sixteenth century due to water damage), but it was not before the 1930s that this field was fully theorized, assigning a new status to in-depth research and study.”

A proper restoration should have an eye to longevity as well as all types of viewing experiences,” says Schawn, “notably the original experience of seeing a film on a large screen in a theater.”

“Restoring entails researching the history of the piece of art (the film),” says Cecilia, “its color, texture, style, just as you would with an ancient fresco. The final objective is always two-fold: immediate accessibility (through home video release, which today means many different things, of course) and long-term preservation: creating film elements that can last and extend the film's life for 50-80 years.” It’s worth reiterating that film is still the only proven long-term preservation medium.

Another obvious but important point: the work of actual restoration costs money. It is labor-intensive and time-consuming, it is logistically complex, and it stands or falls on the presence of people with the knowledge and sensitivity of Schawn and Cecilia and their dedicated co-workers and peers.

Whenever I’ve written about any given title in this series of posts, it’s been with the underlying thought that whoever reads them will try their best to see those titles on a big screen, whenever possible. That goes for The Film Foundation’s two most recent restorations, funded by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation—All That Money Can Buy, otherwise known as The Devil and Daniel Webster (a collaborative effort undertaken by UCLA, with Janus Films, MoMA and the Library of Congress) and King Vidor’s Hallelujah (Library of Congress). When you watch the restorations of these two extraordinary films, think of the work that, to paraphrase Dickens, recalled them to life.

- Kent Jones

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ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY (1941, d. William Dieterle) 
Restored by UCLA Film and Television Archive and The Film Foundation in collaboration with Janus Films, The Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress. Restoration funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. 

HALLELUJAH (1929, d. King Vidor)
Restored by the Library of Congress and The Film Foundation. Funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. 

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NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

8/20/2021 3:00:00 PM

Il Bidone, recently restored by The Film Foundation and the Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata, in collaboration with Titanus, has always been considered one of Federico Fellini’s “minor” works. True enough, I guess. Just as Poor Folk is “minor” Dostoyevsky and Pericles “minor” Shakespeare: when you’re in territory that exalted, the word “minor” ceases to be of much use.

Il Bidone started life as a picaresque comedy about Italian swindlers in the key of Lubitsch, inspired by real con men. The picaresque part stayed intact, but the deeper that Fellini went with his research, the less potential for humor he saw. The con men he encountered were largely ruthless, pitiless and misanthropic, and I suppose that accounts for the film’s unusual tone, often balanced but sometimes wavering between farce and melodrama, as well as Fellini’s relative distance from the material. “After the playfulness of I Vitelloni and the vertiginous total commitment of La Strada,” writes Tullio Kezich in his Federico Fellini: His Life and Work, “[Fellini] feels oddly detached from Il Bidone.”

According to Kezich, the director had wanted Bogart for the lead but had to drop the idea because of the actor’s rapidly declining health; according to Charlotte Chandler’s I, Fellini, he never liked Bogart as an actor in the first place. Fellini thought of Frank Sinatra and Pierre Fresnay before he saw a poster of Broderick Crawford in All the King’s Men, and he had his Augusto.

The original 150-minute cut had a disastrous premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and the film was subsequently shaved down to successively shorter versions. The restored version preserves the 112 minute in-between cut, and it’s difficult to imagine the film needing more. It is true that the film becomes far more “prosaic” for much of its last third than anything in the total immersions that are La Strada or Nights of Cabiria, which came before and after. But the better part of Il Bidone is remarkable, a portrait of a man who is becoming spiritually and physically sickened by his own actions but who doesn’t know how to do anything else: his own forward motion is making him nauseous.

Il Bidone is an essential piece of Fellini’s collected body of work, one of our greatest treasures. We have to guard it with our lives.

- Kent Jones

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IL BIDONE (1955, d. Federico Fellini)
Restored by the Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory and The Film Foundation in collaboration with Titanus,
with funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

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