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Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation World Cinema Project, UNESCO and FEPACI Explain Their Efforts to Restore African Film

Eric Kohn

6/9/2017 7:50:00 PM

The new initiative will support the restoration of 50 major African films.

Aboubakar Sanogo is a scholar of African cinema based out of Ottawa and works for the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI), but it took him years to see one of the major films from the continent: Med Hondo’s “Soleil O,” a 1969 portrait of a black immigrant in Paris, was long revered but widely unavailable; Sanogo didn’t see it until a print surfaced in Paris in 2006. “Even in Burkina, the capital city of African cinema, it wasn’t available,” Sanogo said in New York this week. “It’s a huge problem.”

Sanogo was addressing a broader challenge facing the preservation of African film history — and one that might be facing a brighter future. On June 7, FEPACI, UNESCO and Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation World Cinema Project signed a letter of agreement formalizing their partnership on the African Film Heritage Project, a joint initiative to preserve African cinema. But their work has already shown major results, with “Soleil O” screening in the Cannes Classics section last month.

The project  “will restore disseminate…in Africa and around the world, a collection of the films from Africa that are historically, artistically and culturally significant,” Scorsese said at the event. Later, he explained how his interest in African cinema grew out of his passion for Souleymane Cissé’s 1987 sorcerer drama “Yeelen,” which he saw on television. Eventually, he formed a relationship with Cissé and visited him in Mali. He was struck by a comment that Cissé made when they were both in Cannes for a different partnership in 2007. “He said, ‘If we don’t try and restore African cinema — made by Africans about Africans — then future generations will never know who they are,” Scorsese said. “Cinema is a perfect way to open up the mind, curiosity for other cultures.” (For more on Scorsese’s efforts to support the international film community, go here.)

For Sanogo, the new initiative opens up an opportunity to broaden awareness for African film history that has been marginalized for decades. With historical context, the older films can enjoy a new life in the classroom and repertory cinemas around the world. “In many ways, the auteurist tradition in Africa is an experimental cinema,” he said. “That is part of its problem — experimental cinema and audience appreciation don’t always go hand in hand. So we are trying to bring these images back, not only to filmmakers but Africans in general.”

He underscored a developing concern for educating film students in Africa about their heritage at a time in which film production has increased. “Filmmakers are making films in Africa every day,” Sanogo said. “The advent of digital has made the medium more accessible. I took my students to Burkina in 2012 to study Burkina cinema. They dreamed to one day hold a piece of celluloid film and shoot on it. In film school, they simply didn’t have celluloid to shoot on. But the energy and desire to make films has never been as high in Africa as it is today.”

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova also attended the signing and added a broader context to the discussion. “Cinema is about history and storytelling,” she said. “African films are a [form of] cultural expression. It’s also about trying to change the narrative of this history, so it’s not from the point of view of Europe or anywhere else but your own. It’s a discovery of your own identity. I think cinema is probably one of the best ways for this search to find your roots…technology has given us an incredible opportunity to preserve it. This project is a testimony to that.”

Watch the entire signing ceremony, with statements from Scorsese, Sanogo and Bokova, below: 

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CRITERION’S “WORLD CINEMA PROJECT, VOL. 2” OFFERS A FILM CLASS IN A BOX

Brian Tallerico

6/9/2017 12:00:00 AM

In 2007, Martin Scorsese created the World Cinema Foundation, a non-profit organization that exists to preserve and restore films from around the world that might not otherwise not only fail to find an audience but even survive the brutal passage of time. Scorsese is widely acknowledged as one of history’s most essential filmmakers, but he is also a champion for the form overall, more deeply involved in the international film scene than even his hardcore fans may realize. The World Cinema Foundation has restored almost three dozen films already from around the world and six of them have been compiled in a box set from the Criterion Collection called “World Cinema Project, Vol. 2,” just released in a Blu-ray/DVD combo set. These films, and their supplemental material, offer something akin to a film course at a major college, allowing you to experience and appreciate works that you not only might not have otherwise seen but might have been unseen by anyone were it not for the WCF. As with any box set this ambitious, the quality varies from film to film, but it’s the cumulative impact of the six-movie experience that’s so valuable, reminding us of the variability of the art form more than anything else. I do wish the next box set would include a film by a female director, but it’s also nice to see Criterion reaching out of their typically European film-view to offer works from other parts of the world.

While it’s almost certain that you haven’t heard of all six films in the set, there are at least two very familiar names: Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who would go on to helm the Palme d’Or-winning “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” and last year’s “Cemetery of Splendour,” and the incredible Chinese director Edward Yang, who helmed acknowledged modern classics “A Brighter Summer Day” and “Yi Yi (A One and a Two)”. They are joined in this set by films from Lino Brocka of the Philippines, Ermek Shirnabaev of Kazakhstan, Mário Peixoto of Brazil, and Lütfi Ö. Akad of Turkey. Again, Criterion has been accurately criticized for so heavily focusing their releases on Europe and North America, so it’s nice to see this set truly live up to the first word in its title: “World.” 

It’s also notable to consider the chronological diversity of this set. The Brazilian film, a stunning piece of lyrical silent filmmaking called “Limite,” was released, barely even, in 1931. Now recognized as arguably the best Brazilian film in history, it went virtually unseen for decades, even though Orson Welles claimed to have seen it near the time of its original release. The film was one of those works considered lost to history until it was restored by the WCP (although you should be warned that one of the reels is in such bad shape that it is still virtually unwatchable). It is a nearly-two-hour film that can best be described as dreamlike. Three people are on a boat, remembering their lives in poetic, evocative, black-and-white imagery. There is little plot or traditional dialogue cards one would see in a silent film. It is mesmerizing in its simplicity, as if you’re watching someone come up with their own language of cinema. 

On the other end of the geographical and cultural spectrum, there’s Lino Brocka’s incendiary “Insiang,” the first film from the Phillipines to play the Cannes Film Festival in 1976 and a fascinating blend of high melodrama and documentary-like detail. This character study takes place in the slums of Manila and is unsparing in its brutality, both in the documenting of the conditions there and the story of a young woman who takes bloody vengeance on her rapist. The restoration here is particularly remarkable, never revealing the film’s age or reportedly weak condition of source material. 

Of course, the two films from the recognized masters have notable value, even if they don’t quite hold up to their director’s best works. Weerasethakul’s “Mysterious Object at Noon” is a fascinating film experiment that blends documentary filmmaking and a classic storytelling game, the “exquisite corpse,” in which people continue the same story. It’s a surreal and strange film that works more as an experiment than a realized piece of cinema, but feels especially resonant given the works that its filmmaker would produce over the two decades since its release. Yang’s “Taipei Story,” made in collaboration with another Cannes favorite, Hou Hsiao-hsien, who stars in the film, is a characteristically detailed examination of a part of the world in flux, capturing Taiwan in the ‘80s in a way you haven’t really otherwise seen. 

The final two films in the set, the Turkish “Law of the Border” and Kazakh Revenge feel somewhat limited by their resources, especially the latter film, which seeks to tell generations of vengeance through one deeply philosophical story. Although its storytelling doesn’t quite work, it has some striking imagery, and I must admit to a lack of deep knowledge about films from this part of the world. In a sense, that’s what box sets like this are for.

The films themselves are the real draws for this box set but the special features are notable as well, particularly introductions from Scorsese himself that offer brief history and longer featurettes that provide more, such as when Walter Salles details the impact of “Limite” or Hou himself discusses “Taipei Story.” And the booklet is wonderful supplemental material, offering essays from critical luminaries like Kent Jones, Bilge Ebiri, and more. A full list is below: 

·  2K, 3K, or 4K digital restorations of all six films, presented courtesy of the World Cinema Project in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna, with uncompressed monaural or 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks on the Blu-rays

·  Remastered digital soundtrack for Limite, created from archival recordings

·  New introductions to the films by World Cinema Project founder Martin Scorsese

·  New interview programs featuring film historian Pierre Rissient (on "Insiang"), director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (on "Mysterious Object at Noon"), director Ermek Shinarbaev (on "Revenge"), filmmaker Walter Salles (on Limite), film producer Mevlüt Akkaya (on "Law of the Border"), and filmmakers Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edmond Wong in conversation (on "Taipei Story," which Hou cowrote and acted in)

·  Updated English subtitle translations

·  Three Blu-rays and six DVDs, with all content available in both formats

·  PLUS: A booklet featuring an introduction and essays on the films by Phillip Lopate, Dennis Lim, Kent Jones, Fábio Andrade, Bilge Ebiri, and Andrew Chan

To order your copy of Criterion's "World Cinema Project, Vol. 2," click here.

 

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Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project 2

Clayton Dillard

5/31/2017 12:00:00 AM

As the figurehead and master of ceremonies for the World Cinema Project (WCP), Martin Scorsese has cemented his bid to become the premier ambassador for both global film preservation and the sharing of cinema that such an endeavor entails. Scorsese has become nothing short of a Henri Langlois figure, whose Cinémathèque Française during the 1940s likely saved hundreds, even thousands of films from being permanently lost or destroyed. The WCP, in short, picks up where Langlois left off when he died in 1977 by focusing on securing and restoring films that by and large were produced outside the confines of North America and Western Europe.

As packaged through the Criterion Collection, the first six of the WCP’s restorations were released in December 2013. The films were eclectic and seemingly boxed together precisely because of their affiliation with WCP, which isn’t so much a problem as it is a curiosity. Criterion had released no other boxed set of multiple films—even on their now-defunct Eclipse line—that weren’t connected by either a director, star, studio, or country. The studio repeats the identical approach in their second volume, packaging together six films, ranging from Mário Peixoto’s 1931 silent Limite to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2000 feature-length debut Mysterious Object at Noon, that have no immediate relationship to one another aside from their WCP restorations. Thus, Criterion operates here more as a server than a curator of films, offering titles in a single packaging that would otherwise never be affiliated or compared in any immediate way. This approach, then, offers less of an historical overview of world cinema than a glimpse into the hive mind of the WCP’s approach to rescuing films from history’s unsparing iron fist.

Limite constructs a rhythmic approach to time and space that stands alongside the finest efforts of Abel Gance, Jean Epstein, and Sergei Eisenstein. After an opening sequence introducing two women and a man lost at sea, Peixoto uses flashbacks to explain the genesis of their predicament. Close-ups and canted framings govern nearly every scene, as does an unforgettable arrangement of music, featuring Igor Stravinsky and Erik Satie, among others. The recurring image of a woman bound by handcuffs and staring into the camera belongs among the greatest emblems in all of silent cinema.

Scorsese calls Lütfi Ö. Akad’s Law of the Border “a Turkish Western” in a brief introduction, but that conceptualization seems counterproductive since Akad’s 1966 film has more in common with the formal and thematic interests of neorealism. While the story, set along the Turkish-Syrian border, involves a gang of smuggles led by the death-driven Hidir (Yilmaz Güney), the focus is less on thematizing civilization and violent struggle than coming to grips with a nation’s development following a period of sustained oppression and restriction. As the film winds to its tragic end, Akad grapples with Hidir’s infinitesimal relation to governance and, perhaps, his own.

While Akad’s neorealist texture ultimately animates Hidir’s decline, Lino Brocka’s 1976 film Insiang entrenches itself firmly within the register of melodrama through an abusive love triangle set in the Philippines between the titular character (Hilda Koronel), her mother (Mona Lisa), and her mother’s lover (Ruel Vernal), whose rape of Insiang prompts a quietly conceived system of revenge by the abused. Released the same year as Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, Brocka’s film maintains a similarly unsparing focus on sexual violence and the simultaneously physical and psychological prison it creates for its victims. If Insiang is dubiously feminist in any strict sense, its persistent focus on Insiang’s eye line suggests a passageway into her mind and experience that more common rape-revenge thrillers wholly omit.

The crown jewel of the collection is Taipei Story, arguably Edward Yang’s finest achievement. Co-written with Hou Hsiao-hsien, who also stars, the 1985 film performs an autopsy on a handful of relationships, all of them unfolding against a neo-lit Taipei, which seems by turns inviting and ruinous. After Lung (Hou) returns from a trip to Los Angeles, he explains its “just like Taipei,” and spends much of the remainder of the film contemplating a move to the States with Chin (Tsai Chin), a woman who’s lost the ability to articulate her feelings of discontent. As a character bleeds out in a Taipei gutter near the film’s conclusion, an American corporation is setting up shop just a few blocks away, thus completing the other half of the tautology: Taipei is just like L.A.

Ermek Shinbarbaev’s 1989 film Revenge makes remarkable use of high-key lighting to stage a violent series of events that spans hundreds of years. Kazakhstani writer Anatoli Kim builds to an examination of post-WWII central Asia, where a Korean youth is hell-bent on avenging a murdered, unknown half sister, but the script begins in the 17th century in the kingdom of Joseon, where the seeds of violence are initially sewn. Shinbarbaev’s camera often remains still, using floods of light and splashes of color as a counterpoint to the ugliness of nearly every character’s actions and intent. The result is thoroughly unsettling in its contrasts and, like Akira Kurosawa’s similarly vibrant Ran made just a few years prior, requires a significant amount of historical context in order to fully grasp it implications.

Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon dispenses with color entirely, but that shouldn’t suggest a downward step in visual detail; the director’s 16mm black-and-white long takes linger on screen for minutes at a time before cutting to the next shot, asking us to encounter them in all of their shape and depth. A documentary-fiction hybrid, the film collects stories—some real, some fabricated—from various Thai citizens, who recount in talking-head fashion their personal experiences. And the result, especially when the stories and images appear to merge, is transfixing. In one memorable shot, a washed-out exterior just outside a doctor’s office appears to have been lit to eliminate all but the faintest shadow. Whether or not the image is “real”—that is, captured naturally—seems precisely Weerasethakul’s point: The line between fact and fiction always dissolves when filtered through the lens of a camera.

Image/Sound

The World Cinema Project makes unwavering strides to restore films to the best of their abilities. In the case of films like Limite and Law of the Border, where extant materials are either incomplete or irrevocably damaged, the restoration efforts don't overcompensate with digital manipulation; the films are simply presented in accordance with the technology that produced them. When negatives and existing prints are in immaculate condition, as is the case with Taipei Story and Revenge, the result is a revelation: These 2K and 4K transfers are flawlessly assembled and color timed, with 's image detail especially of note for its depth of field and sharpness. The 4K transfer of Insiang and the 3K transfer of Mysterious Object at Noon are largely free of defect, with the colors of the former popping from the frame like the quick bursts of violence that structure its climax. Sound is flawless across the transfers; the 5.1 DTS-HD mix of Mysterious Object at Noon is especially delightful and reveals Apichatpong Weerasethakul's intricate sound design in ways previously unheard on home disc.

Extras

It's difficult, given the importance of these restorations, not to be at least a little disappointed with the slim supplements. Each film is gifted an introduction from Martin Scorsese and an accompanying interview with either a historian, producer, or filmmaker enthusiasts. Scorsese's introductions each clock in at less than two minutes and provide the primary details about production origins and the restoration efforts. The interviews are much weightier. Walter Salles explains his affinity for Limite by comparing it to The Passion of Joan of Arc. Producer Mevlüt Akkaya explains how Law of the Borderhelped begin an era of realistic filmmaking in Turkey, which focused on directors and their visions. Film historian Pierre Rissient explains how he helped bring Insiang to Cannes and how he tried to help Lino Brocka make the film visible to audiences beyond the Philippines. Hou Hsioa-hsien and filmmaker Edmond Wong chat about Hou's role in Taipei Story and the film's statements about the transformation of Taipei. Ermek Shinarbaev explains how he and writer Anatoli Kim wanted Revenge to be a mixture of Korean history, poem, legend, and fairy tale. Finally, Apichatpong Weerasethakul discusses the origins of Mysterious Object at Noon, which was conceptualized after seeing several films by Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The box set also comes with a 60-page booklet featuring essays from critics Phillip Lopate, Dennis Lim, Kent Jones, Fábio Andrade, Bilge Ebiri, and Andrew Chan.

Overall

At once indispensible and flawed, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project 2 is best viewed as another fine product from the hopefully ongoing collaboration between Criterion and the WCP, even if the grouping of films remains, as with the first set, little more than incidental.

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Gaumont, La Cinematheque Francaise And The Film Foundation Partner To Restore L'ATALANTE By Jean Vigo

5/3/2017 12:00:00 AM

Gaumont, La Cinematheque Francaise, and Martin Scorsese’s non-profit organization, The Film Foundation, have collaborated for the first time to restore Jean Vigo’s masterpiece, L'ATALANTE. For this ambitious project, the partners enlisted scholar Bernard Eisenschitz, who had previously worked on two earlier restorations of L'ATALANTE. The director’s daughter, Luce Vigo, also provided invaluable assistance.

This is the first 4K digital restoration of the film and the goal was to stay true to the director’s original work, referencing vintage prints, earlier photochemical restorations and negatives. The restoration was carried out by L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna and Paris.

Thanks to the collaboration of numerous cinematheques (La Cinematheque Francaise, Cineteca Italiana in Milan, BFI National Film Archive, Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique) that loaned their prints, a frame-by-frame comparison from several different versions was completed to note scene variations. Using the edge codes, the film stocks were dated to choose the earliest and best version for the 4K scan.

The same workflow was utilized for the sound restoration; comparison of all the elements to obtain the best audio quality. It was especially important to respect the integrity of the original score by Maurice Jaubert.

With this restoration, Gaumont, Luce Vigo, who passed away on February 12th, and Bernard Eisenschitz, completed many years of research on the existing film material, writings, documents, and testimonies, always staying faithful to the intentions of Jean Vigo.

The restored version of L'ATALANTE, will be screened as part of this year’s Cannes Classics. In addition, Gaumont and The Film Foundation are joining forces to restore three other Vigo titles (ZERO DE CONDUITE, A PROPOS DE NICE, TARIS).

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