There is a story told of the Baal Shem Tov, with which Elie Wiesel prefaced his novel The Gates of the Forest. Whenever there was trouble coming for the Jewish people, the great Rabbi would go to a particular part of the forest to meditate, light a fire, and say a special prayer that would avert looming disaster. After the Rabbi was gone, his disciple saw trouble coming again. He knew the place in the forest, he knew the prayer, but he’d forgotten how to light the fire, but his prayer was answered. Another interval of time, the disciple of the previous disciple, more trouble on the horizon: he’d forgotten the prayer, he didn’t know how to light the fire, but he knew the place in the forest, and disaster was again averted. And still later, his disciple saw looming disaster once again: he didn’t know how to light the fire, he didn’t know the prayer, and he didn’t know where the place in the forest was…but he knew the story. And that was enough to avert disaster once again.

I thought of this story when I was reflecting on the situation in which we now find ourselves with film exhibition. It’s a long, long road from the first Lumière screenings to where we are now, and there are many more generations and levels of forgetting than in the Baal Shem Tov story. The experience of going to the movies when I was young is to a millennial watching something—anything—on a streaming platform as the duck-billed platypus is to a plant-based sausage: you know that there’s some kind of relationship but you can’t articulate exactly what it is.

As cinema has been altered again and again by one business-driven decision after another, each of those decisions resulting in changes that have been deemed “inevitable,” every corner of cinema, from the quality of projection to the standards of film festivals to the level of discourse to the very idea of the art of cinema itself, has been affected by coarsening agents, and every new technological tool has been almost instantaneously packaged, sold and milked for every last penny. And as the years have gone by and the legal rights to film libraries have been passed from the control of one entity after another, each one governed by people further and further removed from any sense of cinema at all, the titles comprising those libraries have in turn been milked dry, and in turn “devalued,” to use Marty Scorsese’s term. Those of us who love the art form feel like followers of a faith seeing their sacred objects ransacked and sold for parts, like the young man in Shadi Abdel Salam’s Al Momia who discovers that his family has been looting the sarcophagi in a nearby tomb and selling the treasures on the black market.

This post is not about any one of the many titles in whose restoration The Film Foundation played a part. It’s about all of them, each restoration undertaken with care and love, each one receiving the kind of attention that the very art of cinema now needs from those who love it. There is not “they” to automatically swoop in and protect it. When films are unavailable, we all have to cry out until they’re made available again. When they’re presented in substandard or compromised conditions, we have to hammer away at it until they’re presented correctly. When theatres shut down, we have to let everyone know that we want them to re-open and then to go back when they do. Now, we’re the ones who have to keep the cinema alive. We have to remember, every day, the place in the forest, the prayer, and how to light the fire. Because I’m not sure if the story will be enough.

- Kent Jones

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AL MOMIA (Egypt, 1969, d. Shadi Abdel Salam)
Restored in 2009 by Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, in association with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, and the Egyptian Film Center. Restoration funded by Armani, Cartier, Qatar Airways, Qatar Museum Authority and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.

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