Australian road warrior movie Mad Max is almost impossible to obtain on film because of the cost of investing in movie heritage.

Richard Sowada, head of film programs at the Australian Centre for Moving Image (ACMI), said that since the early 2000s obtaining a running copy of Mad Max was near impossible. Other classic Australian films such as Frog Dreaming, Country Town, Number 96, High Rolling and Stone were also hard to come by, he said.

Sowada said he had seen “walls of filmdestroyed after commercial release because of the high cost of finding adequate storage.

“It is disappointing we let economics dictate film history and there is no other reason than economics for which prints are destroyed.”

Buildings for film storage must be moisture- and vermin-free, fire-proof and have suitable climate-control technology.

Before and after commercial release prints were sent to a film exchange, a depot from which they are distributed and destroyed.  Some may be retained, but most were scheduled for destruction, Sowada said.

The destruction he had witnessed included seeing several prints circular sawed to make them unusable.

However, by law at least one print of Australian-produced films must be lodged with the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) for preservation. It restores and preserves films and audio recordings, and has more than 1.6 million items in its collection.  There are 442,000 moving image works, 5000 of which are Australian.

The NFSA’s collection policy requires it to preserve a film in its original form for as long as the technology of that form can be supported.

The collection is stored in climate-controlled faults in Canberra, but many old Australian films have degraded, and the NFSA undertakes the delicate restoration process.

Julie Heffernan, manager of the audiovisual conservation NFSA laboratory, said this was the art of “compensating for the degradation of an artefact” in order to return it to its original condition.

“The value is successfully transferring original and at risk material to a more stable base,” she said.  This ensured “the material is accessible for all to interpret, share and enjoy”.

The NFSA worked with nitrate, acetate and polyester-based film, nitrate and acetate being the most at risk and volatile. Long exposure to nitrate-based film could cause health issues such as eye, skin and respiratory irritation.

Therefore film restoration could be painstaking.  Strict occupation, health and safety standards were adhered to, with fume cabinets with strong extraction fans used for safety, Heffernan said.

The drive to film restoration and preservation is global.  The British Film Institute is undertaking the restoration of director Alfred Hitchcock’s nine surviving silent films, which date from the 1920s.

The BFI, which has 200,000 film reels stored at its archive,  wants to revive the fragile nitrate Hitchcock films  in digital form, aiming to fund the project from donations.

Meanwhile, ACMI’s annual report for the past financial year recorded its contribution,  noting the range of restored prints it had screened.

Sowada said the development of new technologies meant many restorations were being done straight to digital, not film.  But many purist filmmakers considered the kind of film used as important as the actors chosen.

“With film, it is an artefact and as such if you want to see it you want to see the real thing,” he said.

Restored prints screened by ACMI this year were: Easy Rider (US), The Red Shoes (UK) , Two Lane Blacktop (US), Dark Age (AUS) Five Easy Pieces, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, the Japanese silent film The Water Magician and The Holy Mountain.There was also a retrospective of nine fully restored titles from Hong Kong’s Linda Lin Dai.

ACMI is screening a retrospective of 17 films by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci on new 35mm prints until November 8.

Peter Fray

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