In a star-studded night in Washington, the American Film Institute and the Library of Congress celebrated 50 years of partnership in film preservation. Actor Morgan Freeman, American Film Institute founder George Stevens and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi were among the celebrities honoring half a century of partnership between the AFI and the Library of Congress.
“I think the AFI is important to all of us because its number one goal is the preservation of American film,” said Academy Award winner Freeman. He attended the event as a representative of the American Film Institute.
When the AFI began its preservation process in 1967, less than 1/10th of the American films made in the early 20th century had survived, says George Stevens, the Institute’s founder. “Working with the Library of Congress, we did a great search and rescue operation and recovered films. The Library has reproduced them in safety film stock, so now, there are 37,000 motion pictures in the AFI Collection here at the Library of Congress,” he said proudly.
Stevens started his painstaking film preservation process when he was in Washington, D.C., working at the U.S. Information Agency, VOA’s parent agency at the time. He worked under U.S. broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow. “I ran the motion picture division and worked with my colleague John Chancellor and Henry Loomis, who ran the Voice of America. So, I am a former part of your family,“ he said with a smile.
Apart from the AFI Collection, hundreds of thousands of other old films are stored at the Library of Congress facility in Culpeper, Virginia. This is an ongoing preservation process, says the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, the first woman to hold the post in 60 years.
“Early films and some that are rare and really in terrible physical shape are preserved for posterity, and so our Packard campus in Culpeper, Virginia, has special vaults to preserve films.”
Two hours away from Washington, at the Library’s large film preservation facility, nitrate film vault manager George Willeman explains the challenges involved in saving older nitrate films from destruction. “The nitric acid that makes up the film begins to break down the film after so many years, especially if there is something wrong with it, such as if it wasn’t processed right, it was badly produced or it was in bad storage conditions. Like very humid or very hot. And the film will begin to liquefy. It looks like a coffee cake after a while.”
Nitrate films are highly flammable and especially unstable when they deteriorate. So, it is important they are kept in the cool environment of an underground place that was originally built as a storage facility for the Federal Reserve Bank and as a Cold War nuclear bunker “in case Russia were to drop the bomb on Washington, D.C.,” Willeman says. “They also had a dormitory here where it could run into place for two years while the radiation was outside.”
After the end of the Cold War, the space was sold to the Library of Congress. With the help of philanthropist David Packard, the Library enhanced the underground space and built the Packard Campus to accommodate its ever-increasing film collection.
At the facility, technicians make prints of the damaged nitrate films and transfer them onto a sturdier polyester-type film material, which if stored properly can last for centuries. And then there is the digital conversion which, as Morgan Freeman notes, reaches wider audiences on a multi-platform basis, including streaming. “Not only are they archiving these movies, they are also circulating to television channels, television stations. Movies are movies. The only big difference between when you were growing up and I was growing up and now is you don’t have to go into the movie theater to see it.”
But George Willeman says digital preservation may be an oxymoron.
“How do you save digital material? ‘Cause digital as a rule is very iffy. You have only a couple of different ways you can store it, you can store it magnetically or optically or on a card, but none of those are permanent. Something can disrupt them and the stuff is gone.”
Whether stored in their original format or restored on newer film or digitally, the important thing is that these films are kept for posterity, says filmmaker Lesli Linka Glatter. “Film is a huge part of our history. And, if we don’t cherish it and preserve it, it will not be with us. So, we have to do that,” she stresses. “The fact that AFI has been so dedicated to that is essential and extraordinary.”