The Price of Anti-Establishment Protest: or how my films nearly perished forever last summer

One of the pluses and minuses of living in New Zealand (temporarily or permanently) is that – despite Internet and mobile phones – certain pieces of news (especially personal news) pass you by. Or, perhaps, you are considered too far away to have them passed on to you, so that it is not so much a question of them not passing you by, but more one of them never reaching you in the depths of down-under. Whatever the case, it was only recently I heard of the disturbing fact that a considerable number of DVD box sets of my films – lodged by their distributor, the British Film Institute, at the Sony warehouse in Enfield, north London – had been destroyed in a fire during last summer’s ‘riots’; I use inverted commas for the word, since, if such events had taken place in the Middle East (or even China) they would no doubt have been called ‘protests’ or ‘uprisings’.

But this is not a political blog, more a reflection on how devastated I would have been, had the ‘master’ (inverted commas again) discs been destroyed as well. I may have held sympathy for the protesters, and might not have minded endless copies of inane blockbusters being destroyed, but expect anti-establishment ‘rioters’ to recognize the work of a fellow anti-establishment artist (albeit from another time) and to put such work to one side before laying waste to Sony’s citadel or other symbols of consumerism.

Why so devastated? Well, the process of collecting, collating, cataloguing, digitising and restoring my films was a long one and took more than two years to complete. Some films, such as Brothers and Sisters, were safely stored in the National Film Archive with negative, inter-negative, inter-positive and master soundtrack all in excellent condition, but others – such as Girl from the South and Waiting for Alan – had all but disappeared.

As the use of film has declined, so the number of laboratories dealing with and storing previously processed prints and negatives has decreased to a handful. This was the case with the laboratory in Leeds that originally processed, printed and negative-cut Girl from the South. Starting life as an independent operation in the Filmatic family, the lab was taken over by Ranks in the ’70s and then subsumed into the orbit of Yorkshire TV, which increasingly became its sole means of survival. When YTV stopped all but a few dramas on film, the need for a local laboratory disappeared and with the demise of YTV itself the lab was closed and its archive dispersed or (if an owner could not be found for remaining material) destroyed.

As was the case with the negative of Girl from the South and, had there not been a print discovered in a dusty cupboards belonging to a film festival in Finland, the film might have been lost forever. Waiting for Alan was a similar case, though this time – after much searching – the laboratory in London found the negative hiding in an attic above its reception office and Channel Four returned another print in good condition to the National Film Archive. Early experimental films such as Drinnen und Draussen and Illusive Crime were slowly decomposing in rusting film cans in collectors’ cellars or catalogued as phantom entries with organisations such as the London Film-makers Co-op or Concorde Films (former distribution arm of the Arts Council). But with the TLC and expertise of workers at the Yorkshire Film Archive all the early work (including student films not on the DVDs) was rescued, decontaminated, resuscitated, cleaned and put out to pasture in the climate controlled paradise of YFA’s HQ at York St John University.

Then, one by one, they were taken out of storage and sent down to the digital magicians at Primefocus in London. First to be digitised and then, once in digital format, to have their scrapes and scratches, blotches and blobs and other unsightly blemishes removed – sometimes singly, sometimes on the run. In one case, the Berlin-based film Kniephofstrasse, some of the scratching remains because it was felt to be part and parcel of a work which is experimental in nature and very much concerned with the act of viewing celluloid. Other films, such as Telling Tales – whose negative had also disappeared  – were carefully restored from existing prints with particular attention being paid to the colour sections. Sometimes decisions on what to restore and what to leave raw were difficult as ‘restoring’ in the digital age can also mean changing out of all recognition in relation to the original. Re-framing, re-colouring, re-focusing – anything is possible as anyone who has watched a ‘colourized’ Hollywood classic will know.

I hope that what was done to my films in the production of the box set, An Unflinching Eye, can provide viewers with an authentic, but aesthetically and technically acceptable experience. Certainly the films have been brought back to life from a point close to death and made accessible to those who wish to view them. Had they – and their respective ‘masters’ – perished in the overheated flames of last summer’s protests, a great deal of effort would have been in vain, even if their demise was in the cause of ‘us’ against ‘them’. As it was the ‘masters’ (and a number of descendant box-sets) were stored elsewhere and all was not lost. In fact, there is a bonus: later this summer the BFI is to replace lost copies with a re-issue.

May 2012