Crowdsourcing for film heritage

BEIRUT: The Metropolis Association and its partners have launched a crowdsourcing drive, one that’s not looking for financial donations or investment, but stories.

It’s part of the Cinematheque Beirut project, whose goals are to promote the country’s cinema.

This means documenting and cataloguing Lebanon’s cinema history, and the preservation and restoration of the films that comprise that history so they can be conserved, seen and studied.

It’s a major challenge. Professionals will tell you it’s all but impossible to find intact film prints shot before the 1990s. The want of a comprehensive archive or documentation facilities means the few extant prints are in a sad state of repair.

“We are acutely aware that this project may be too ambitious for an association like ours,” said Hania Mroue, the founder of Metropolis Art Cinema and its attendant association, “knowing the resources we have and the amount of work that needs doing.”

Lebanon’s state institutions largely ceased to function during the 1975-90 Civil War. In fact, the Lebanese state was a minimalist affair since its inception, so archiving Lebanese film production was fitful at best. The country’s cultural production wasn’t a priority for the reconstruction regime.

At this stage, Mroue said, the best estimate for the surviving corpus is 2000 titles. “We’re not talking about fiction films alone but documentaries, shorts, student films,” she said. “Maybe later on we should include amateur films, TV productions and web series.

“Maybe by the end of year we’ll have a better sense of what we have and what we lost and what could be restored. It’s really a long process that will take years and years.

“We’ve taken this first step but there’s no pretentions that we’ve accomplished anything yet.

“We want as much as possible to collaborate and coordinate with other initiatives, whoever is interested in working with us.”

Cinematheque Beirut is not the first project of its name in Lebanon.

There is a “National Cinematheque of Lebanon” quartered in UNESCO Palace. Its Culture Ministry website proclaims the NCL is “a center of culture and documentation devoted to the seventh art. It was created in 1999 to safeguard the film heritage, raise public awareness of important documentaries on Arab and foreign cinema, and preserve a large number of reels belonging to the Culture Ministry.”

As Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige demonstrated in their 2002 documentary “Al-Film al-Mafkoud” (“The Lost Film”) the NCL has not quite lived up to its charter.

“They don’t have much,” Mroue acknowledged. “Actually they stopped acquiring a long time ago. ... It’s not clear what they have and what they don’t have.

“On the other hand, [Notre Dame University’s work in] digitizing and indexing the Culture Ministry archives ... is very important.

“This contributes to the research we’re doing. Fondation Liban Cinema has worked a lot on trying to restore and screen some Lebanese films, especially during the European Film Festival. They also worked on the archives of TeleLiban.”

Other significant bodies active in Lebanon’s film heritage are UMAM Documentation and Research, which has collected some archives from the historic Studio Baalbek, and Nadi Lekol Nas, which has projected Lebanese films in screening cycles and released significant Civil War-era and postwar titles on DVD.

“[The independent film association] Beirut DC don’t pretend to be a cinematheque, but the archive of [their biennial Arab film festival] Ayyam Beirut al-Cinemaiyya is precious,” Mroue said. “They have films, and a lot of information about the films. We realized that information about the films is as absent as the films themselves.”

The Metropolis Association’s board members see the cinematheque to be a natural complement to what the cinema has been doing since its founding in 2006.

“Part of what we do is program [international] contemporary films,” Mroue said. “Another part is educational – working with schools, with kids, NGOs etc. A third is oriented toward industry – filmmaker training, master classes etc., and we have MC Distribution.

“The cinematheque is our fourth activity. ... It’s the kind of cinematheque that is the closest to what we believe is urgent, not what a cinematheque would do ideally."

Cinematheque Beirut will proceed in two phases, the first being research. “We keep saying, ‘It’s a disaster. We are losing films’ etc., but what exactly are we talking about? How many films? Where are they? What copies do we still have? What condition are they in? [We first need to know] how much work needs to be done and then what are the priorities?

“We’ll start with a database, so why not put it online – – and make it available for everybody, a tool that researchers, programmers, filmmakers, students, anyone from the industry could use.”

The “information crowdsourcing” aspect of Cinematheque Beirut’s opening phase stems from an effort to use oral history to compensate for the country’s paucity of cinema documentation.

“There are filmmakers – and programmers, critics, people who started cineclubs in the ’50s, collectors – whose memories are sometimes as important as documentation.

“So we began doing long interviews with these figures, filming them telling their stories. It’s an important documentation that we can create because of the lack of documentation. We’ve done five interviews so far and plan to make as many as we can.”

Cinematheque Beirut’s more conventional work – acquiring a physical space with facilities for collecting and archiving film reels (and other media), raising the funds for cleaning and restoration – will be the focus of phase two.

“Where to start,” she said. “It’s an important question, because if you have funding to restore 10 films, which ones do you pick? For us it was obvious that we don’t necessarily want to start with really old prints, but films that were produced in the ’90s or early 2000s. Those films too need attention. Some are on digital beta, some on DV CAM, all those formats will become obsolete very soon.”

Mroue hopes that the database’s design – which reflects that of the vastly popular in allowing researchers to search by title, director, actor, writer, technician, etc. – will itself lure filmmakers to contribute information about projects in which they’ve been involved.

“If you’re a filmmaker, you don’t need to make a website for your film. You can put all the information you need – the trailer, the photos, whatever – on this database. It’s a give and take that will save everybody a lot of money and time.”

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 28, 2018, on page 16.




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