Reeling in the years

Belgians are an insecure bunch, often needing approval from abroad before recognising their own trumps. This is true for many artists – Jacques Brel first had to be hailed in Paris before gaining acceptance in Brussels – but it also seems to be the case with the Royal Film Archive of Belgium.

Though the archive has been around since the 1930s, many Belgians only seemed to realise its importance when Martin Scorsese called it “one of the most important film collections in the world.” The strength of the collection is that it is – unlike the German Bundesarchiv/Filmarchiv or the British Film Institute – extremely diverse. Up to 80 percent of the films are foreign and the collection contains material that can’t be found anywhere else. “Basically, we keep on discovering new stuff every week,” curator Nicola Mazzanti says enthusiastically. Though the original negative of Citizen Kane – often called the best movie of all time – has been lost, the version closest to the original can be found here in Brussels. The film archive also boasts a large collection of silent movies, including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which was restored here.

The collection – containing 67, 000 titles besides prints, negatives and other items amounting to a total of 160, 000 elements – is stored in two industrial warehouses in Ixelles/Elsene with a surface area of 12,000 m2. While the general public can check out films at the city’s Cinematek cinema, the archives are meant for specialists like researchers and festival organisers. Employees working in the deposits are in charge of receiving new arrivals, shipping films to various festivals all over the world, managing the collection, etc.

“This is the technology of an industry that was almost like steam power back in the day. Now it is still around, but in 10 years, it will really be archaeology.”

Restoration – an important part of the institution’s activities, making it one of the leading restoration laboratories in the world – happens in a laboratory close to Brussels’ Midi station. The long corridors of deposits, shopping carts with bobbins and employees carefully cutting strips all add to the bygone atmosphere. Though working conditions might seem archaic, this is no dusty old bureaucratic department, and the staff – in charge of the 3,000 or so items the institution receives every year – won’t be found asleep at their desks. The deposit’s sanctuary is two rooms with low temperature vaults where old bobbins are stored at a temperature of 5°C and 35° humidity, evoking comparisons with the way Italian cheese makers devotedly stock their parmesan. While Mazzanti shows us around, he muses laconically: “This is the technology of an industry that was almost like steam power back in the day. Now it is still around, but in 10 years, it will really be archaeology.”

The archive recently made the shift to digital, though it was not an easy transition: “The buildings, the machines, the know-how we have been developing the last 70 years… Now everything has to be invented for digital technology.” So how does Mazzanti see these changes? “That is a tricky question. I grew up with 35 mm films and have been a film restorer for more than 20 years, working with film, repairing perforations, etc. Emotionally, it is difficult for my generation to move away from film. On the other hand, I also know how imperfect film restoration sometimes was. An analogue copy is always worse than the original, but with digital technology you can do so many things that you actually distort the film. It is all a matter of respect.”