What COVID-19 Means for Moving Image Archiving

“One of the most remarkable ripple effects of the 2020 COVID-19 crisis is the blurring in the public perception of the distinction between natural and human-made disasters,” and this has implications for film preservation.

So writes Paolo Cherchi Usai in a keynote article of a special issue of FIAF’s Journal of Film Preservation on COVID-19’s effect on moving image archiving. (The article draws from his opening presentation to the 2020 FIAF Online International Symposium on 28 October 2020.)

Cherchi Usai argues that the crisis should alert moving image archivists and institutions to the gathering force of disasters and raise in their minds a fundamental question: “What are we willing to give up for the sake of a cleaner world? Are we ready to renounce part of our goals and ambitions as cultural agents in the interests of a safer, more equal treament of the natural resources at our disposal?”

”Like filmmaking, moving image preservation is a highly polluting business,” he notes.

Introducing the issue, editor Elaine Burrows sets the tone for Cherchi Usai’s blunt challenge when she writes that “the new normal” is anything but.

She suggests that the pandemic provides an opportunity “to reassess everything we do and how we do it” and “to underline the historical and cultural value of the material of which we are custodians,” but also “to contribute to the construction of a better future.”

She says Cherchi Usai asks “do we really need to do what we do as we’ve previously done it?”

Moving image archivists cannot, contends Cherchi Usai, director of the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome.

He suggests that, among other things, the pandemic can serve as a provocation to reconsider the environmental effect of film preservation.

First he takes stock of some of the effects of the crisis:

  • Film production has slowed and in many countries almost ceased.
  • 200,000 screens “went abruptly dark in most of the planet’s exhibition venues.”
  • Film festivals struggled to cope with the “new normal.”
  • Film museums and archives also were affected – e.g. the 76th annual Congress and General Assembly of the International Federal of Film Archives, scheduled for 20-24 April in Mexico City was postponed until 2023.

Ironically, the Congress’s theme was Preventing and Managing Natural and Human-Made Disasters in Film Archives – COVID-19 may well have been both.

How, then, Cherchi Usai asks, should moving image archives and other cultural institutions such as museums avoid contributing to climate change?

The congress’s intended theme demonstrates “film curators’ and archivists’ growing concern” over “catastrophic events threatening the life and permanent availability of moving image collections,” he writes. They have that in common with guardians of all kinds of cultural collections.

Planning has advanced little on the effects climate change will have on collecting institutions — on how it will challenge museums, Cherchi Usai writes: “Persuaded as they are that the artefacts entrusted to their responsibility are well protected within the material boundaries of their institutions, they ask, ‘The issue of climate change is so large… what could any individual conservator really do about it?”

Moving image archivists need to do something, and they can, he argues. They need to take stock, for example, of what it means that audivisual works differ from many other kinds of collected artefacts in their “manifold connections between the works themselves and their modes of production, consumption, and conservation.”

He laments “the much-lamented indifference” within moving image archiving to “the nature of the physical carriers of photochemical images.”

He writes: “Film conservation vaults can and should be powered by renewable sources of energy. The use of harmful materials can and should be reduced in the pursuit of film-preservation projects.”

He cautions against thinking that rapidly expanding digitization of film collections either ensures “the permanence of audiovisual content” or should induce complacency about climate change and other human-made or other disasters. He suggests that it induces a false belief that “the price to pay for natural or human-made disasters affecting film museums or archives is relatively modest, insofar as the “content” is safe.”

The growing faith placed in digitization — in the audiovisual heritage as “an immaterial entity” — is inducing governments and media outlets to ignore appeals for the conservation of actual physical film collections, let alone “calls for a more responsible approach to the clear and present danger of irreversible climate change” and the role that film archives can play in minimizing it.

Similarly, the organizers of film festivals should take stock of what the COVID crisis implies for them, Cherchi Usai contends. He asks: What will be the purpose of the events, in an age of easy online distribution and previewing?

He writes: “One could ask…the rationale for flying across continents in order to see a film that will be distributed all around the world within days, if not hours, for the consumption by a single Hollywood production of enough electric power to meet the needs of a sub-Saharan country for a whole year, for releasing large amounts of CO2, in order to keep film prints and negatives cool, and for contributing to the use of non-recyclable plastic, chemicals, and metallic ores for the photo-chemical or digital preservation of a cinematic work.”

The time has well and truly comes for at least imagining alternatives, he says. “Doing nothing about it was always questionable; it is now, to put it plainly, unacceptable.”

Peter Monaghan

Categories: FeaturesOf Special Interest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Moving Image Archive News