Rescuing Movies from Annihilation

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Creativity is about thinking ahead and looking forward — but it's also about acknowledging a history of work that existed before your own time. This is part of the reason we're celebrating projects whose focus is on the preservation and restoration of something otherwise lost, forgotten, or ignored. We collected a list of projects that fit the bill: restorations, preservations, and archives of all sorts right here

In the world of film, this can mean anything from rescuing a lost work to completing a filmmaker's canon. It's part technical, part philosophical, and part curatorial — and it involves some informed decision-making as well. As Jake Perlin of Cinema Conservancy put it: "Restoration is the work that’s done to bring a film back to the closest approximation of what the work looked like initially." We asked five project creators to talk about what it means to restore something, and why they were moved to do so with these particular projects. 

Pioneers of African-American Cinema

"Some of the films we’re working on have been out in other versions. We’re trying to create the definitive version. We find the best existing material and give it the best possible treatment so it looks as good as it’s going to look, short of having a 35mm print projected onto the screen. It’s an art form — you can go way overboard and change the film. We try to maintain the integrity of the film so it looks close to how it should have looked, without looking enhanced.”

- Bret Wood, producer

"If you think about the rise of American mass media, African American culture was the basis. These kinds of films were sidelined by the rise of Hollywood. To exist outside of that, you had to have your own narrative and your own circuit and your own distribution methods. They are profound examples of independent cinema altogether."

- Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, executive producer

Bloody Friday

"It means a lot of things to restore a film. First and foremost, it means preserving something for the future. This movie was made in the early '70s, and there wasn’t any thought in the market beyond next year: if it served next year’s purpose, it served its purpose. But so much has happened since then — people want to learn about the past and see the movies and extract something from them. A lot of those movies are gone or will never be seen. When you think of how most German silent films are missing, gone, completely destroyed, lost in World War 2 — that’s sad. To restore something is to preserve history. People like us step in to make sure that history is preserved. 

This film has never been released in America uncut. It’s possible it never had a proper theatrical run. There was an English dub, but that’s all. But good movies deserve to be seen, and we could just tell that there was a North American audience waiting to discover this movie. It’s too wild, it’s too good to not be seen."

- Elijah Drenner, Subkultur

River of Grass

"Restoring a film means different things to different organizations, distributors, people, filmmakers, fans. There are a lot of film prints and digital mediums, but basically for us, it means this: we’re going to restore River of Grass, and do a 2k scan so we can have a DCP of it. We’ll also make it available to digital platforms, because that’s incredibly important right now.

There’s definitely a curatorial and philosophical element to it, but we want to stay true to what the filmmaker wants as much as possible. You do have to be careful, because film has a beautiful grain element to it, it has its own color timing and blacks and whites. You don’t want to over-restore a film and make it too pristine."

- Debra McClutchy, Oscilloscope

Living Los Sures

"Restoration is a huge site of opportunity, and there’s so much potential in the archive for new stories to come out and new ways to interact with those stories. This film from 1984 opened up a window into the history that’s hard to find. It’s been a way for creating connections between people in the community, and organizations that have been there for a long time, and also to understand the history of the people who lived in the Brooklyn neighborhood called Los Sures for well over 30 years. The microhistories of New York are often very difficult to find.

Union Docs is a center for documentary, so we show films all the time. In 2007 some filmmakers asked if we’d seen a film that was made in the neighborhood in 1984. It blew us away. We thought the film would have been preserved in some way, but the reality with so many of these projects is there’s nobody out there who’s tasked with taking care of these films. But because of our energy, the New York Public Library became interested in it. They had the only surviving print that was of any value, so we were really lucky to do the work when we did it. It would have been very easy for it to be totally lost."

- Christopher Allen, Union Docs

Jungle Trap 

"Restoration means rescuing a movie from annihilation. Everything’s going to fall into obscurity eventually, but for a movie to not even have a chance to make a mark is unfortunate. You have to be judicious, and try to restore and rescue the movies that have cultural weight or value, but the entire point of it is to make sure that anything that can improve somebody’s life in some way has the opportunity to be seen. Even if that just means entertaining people on a gut level.

Jungle Trap is made by a guy named James Bryan, who is one of the pioneering exploitation filmmakers of the '70s. He was so motivated that he jumped into filmmaking with no money or experience. He did it with a drive and energy that’s really contagious, so when you watch even his earliest and most poorly made films, you really feel it.

In the trunk of a used car that my friend had bought was a VHS tape for a movie called Run Coyote Run, which was considered lost. We watched it, and it was incredible. We contacted James Bryan, who turned out to live in Texas where I live, and said we’d like to release Run Coyote Run. He said he only ever made ten copies of that movie for the crew. Then we went to his house, and he said “Too bad no one's ever going to put out the movie I made after that.” He'd shot an entire film, but the market had fallen apart.

So we realized that this guy who has this incredible story and is really deeply rooted in the history of drive-in cinema and exploitation had an additional feature that was never going to be seen. This isn’t just a matter of finding a completed project and sharing it with the world — we’re actually going to work with him to do the edit, to make a soundtrack, to make the movie as he wanted it to be in 1990. This will be his final project."

- Zack Carlson, Bleeding Skull

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