Academy Film Archivist visits the Cuban Film Archives
Formed shortly after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC), is the official film institute of the Cuban government, and centralizes all of Cuba's major film production and preservation efforts. Touring ICAIC's archives and laboratory, preservation officer Josef Lindner of the Academy Film Archive was surprised by what he found – and by what he couldn't.
"The Archive was struggling with the things all archivists struggle with: keeping things stable. Film preservation is an issue all over the world, but especially in climates where you have heat and humidity," Lindner said. "[But] because it's a centralized bureaucracy, all of the film is there – compared to say, India or Mexico or even the United States where… you don't even know where to look for the material."
The vaults had once been production facilities. Lindner was pleasantly surprised to find how much had been invested in their conversion and upkeep. "They even told me that the whole facility had a backup generator in case of hurricanes," he said.
The laboratory was also surprisingly up-to-date, but for Lindner, this proved to be a hollow victory. "They had very nice equipment, as modern as any Hollywood lab. Unfortunately, they had not been able to do any lab work in four years. They had come to the end of their ability to get raw stock and processing chemicals," Lindner said, citing Cuba's difficulties trading with the rest of the Western hemisphere due to economic sanctions that include the United States's long-standing trade embargo.
"What they were doing is conservation – keeping things from getting worse, getting lost, so they can transfer it later. But as much as they love 35mm, they were faced with the economic reality. They love film, they can show film, they just need more access to film [stock]. That's where I think we can help."
Lindner added that much of what his Cuban colleagues lack are smaller, more specialized items that are commonplace in the United States. "Perforation tape, good gloves, industrial Sharpies whose ink doesn't come off in the chemicals you use to clean the film," he said. "Just a couple of good pairs of scissors can be hard to come by."
Also difficult to locate are films made prior to 1959. "I wondered if that would be a problem politically, but the archivists were interested in the cinematic heritage of Cuba and made no distinction between the pre-revolution and the post-revolution," said Lindner. "We talked about doing an outreach study, creating a Ten Most Wanted list of lost Cuban cinema and seeking out those films in Latin America, North America, and Europe. Two young students who were interviewing me said there might be even more interest in pre-revolutionary cinema since it represents a Cuba they've never known."
These students interviewed Lindner following his master class presentation at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. The hotel, which served as the Havana Film Festival's headquarters, also housed the Academy delegation. "It's one of those grand hotels where gangsters and Hollywood celebrities supposedly stayed," he said. For his master class, Lindner presented three Academy preservation projects. With the first, he showed scans of films made in obscure formats, such as Edison 22mm. With the second, he showed stills, title cards and supporting documentation used for the reconstruction of "Her Wild Oat," a 1927 film starring Colleen Moore, which came into the Academy's possession after being found at the National Film Archive in the Czech Republic.
Lindner devoted the third part of his presentation to showing scans and photographs of film elements that had been subjected to nontraditional treatment by experimental creators such as Stan Brakhage and Robert Nelson. Lindner described for his audience the challenges of being a preservationist and curator of films whose makers have deliberately scratched the film, painted it, scraped off its soundtrack with a razor blade and taped to it bits of dead plant matter.
The audience, comprising fifty or so film fans, students and representatives of ICAIC's archive, was highly engaged. Indeed, throughout the trip, Lindner was struck by the Cuban people's knowledge of, and passion for, movies. At the festival, Lindner screened a new Academy print of "Cita en la frontera" ("It showed up in our vaults for some reason," he said) and was impressed by the turnout. "I was surprised that many people showed up at 10 a.m. on a Sunday for an Argentinean movie from 1940."
This was not the only evidence Lindner found of Cuban cinephilia. "All the theaters had the same marquee – not with any titles, just announcing the festival," he noted. "And all had people lining up. People take the time to see the movies."