Conservation & Preservation

MoMA celebrates film preservation

Artists such as Kara Walker to introduce newly restored works by Kubrick and others

New York

The contemporary artist Kara Walker is among the special guests set to introduce a film this month at New York’s Museum of Modern Art annual International Festival of Film Preservation. Now in its seventh year, the three-week long festival “To Save and Protect”, which opened at the end of October and runs until 15 November, presents preserved and restored films from archives and collections around the world.

As the largest institutional collection of its kind in the US, MoMA’s film department maintains more than 22,000 films and millions of stills. Though the majority of its archive is now held in Pennsylvania, at the purpose-built Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, MoMA hosts regular screenings and has a lending library of films and video art in Manhattan. Launched in 2003, this annual festival recognises the work of film conservators and has presented more than 400 works, many of them new prints from restored negatives and on public view in New York for the first time. “Each year, we try to create a festival that is international in scope and diverse in its range of styles and genres; we hope that by celebrating film preservation, we are celebrating the history of cinema itself,” says Josh Siegel, associate curator of film, and one of the event’s three curators.

Artist Kara Walker will introduce a new restoration of Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), which, according to the museum, is considered one of the earliest surviving animated films. Siegel says that the museum has been waiting for the opportunity to invite Walker to present one of Reiniger’s works since MoMA premiered her short film Testimony at the reopening of its midtown building in 2004. “Anyone who saw that film, with its allusions to silent cinema, would identify traces of Lotte Reiniger’s style and technique of silhouette animation in Walker’s own work,” he explains.

MoMA is also taking the opportunity to show two newly restored works from its own collection. The first, Robert Flaherty’s silent Nanook of the North (1922), is often identified as the first feature-length documentary, although it offers a somewhat romantic vision of Inuit life while the director staged several of the scenes and events in the film. This new version restores the colour tinting and returns the film to the original silent release, with later optical and sound effects removed.

MoMA is also presenting its rare copy of Stanley Kubrick’s first colour film, made when he was only twenty-five years old. The Seafarers (1953) is a short documentary commissioned by the Seafarers International Union to encourage young men to join the union. “What makes this restoration so important is that it may be derived from the only surviving material in the world,” says Anne Morra, another of the festival’s co-curators. “In 1982, when a donor deposited a 16mm print in MoMA’s collection, Kubrick responded to a request for any other print or pre-print material by replying: ‘I’ve got nothing at all and don’t have a clue who would’.” The film has been restored to 35mm with funds from The Film Foundation and The Franco American Cultural Fund; it is being shown for the first time during the festival on 4 and 5 November.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 207 November 2009