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BFI Film on Film: A Different Type of Film Festival

The inaugural Film on Film Festival at BFI Southbank kicks off this Thursday, featuring a wide range of film screenings, all with one thing in common: celebrating the celluloid medium. STRAND spoke to William Fowler, curator at the BFI National Archives and a programmer for the festival, about why this festival is different from previous seasons at the BFI, and what the medium means in today’s digital world.

Image Courtesy of BFI + Neil Massey

Fowler was very quick to address the fact that this ‘celebration’ of the film medium isn’t a showcase of its advantages over digital, but a demonstration of how the differences in media have created differences in practice. “Digital cinema is predicated on standardisation,” Fowler explains, “nitrate is different to 16mm, which is different to 3D, and so on–something we were keen to illustrate. Each gauge differs in the physical procedures that enable their projection.”

Equally, being material objects, celluloid films have a finite life that digital films do not: “prints travel all over and screen to different people while retaining their own individual physical integrity.” The “standardisation” that digital projection is predicated on masks the age and distribution of the film (apart, perhaps, from some telling SFX choices in the early days of digital). Celluloid, in being a physical object, comes with its very own tally counter in the form of physical decay, allowing the viewer to not only enjoy a film for what it is but also in the context of how many times it has been screened.

Image Courtesy of BFI + Neil Massey

So, Film on Film Festival is like a museum exhibition. The films are presented to us as a reflection of our time, as they bring a bygone era into the present day. Indeed, Fowler claimed that “we should increasingly think about prints as museum objects, again with the stories of their lives attached to them and with the intention that they should be handled appropriately.”

This is of course evident in films like Dial M For Murder (1954), presented in its originally intended, dual strip “3D” format, or Mildred Pierce (1945), opening the festival with a screening on its gloriously vivid but also volatile original nitrate print. But no more is the strength of temporality visible than in Charles Shackleton’s The Afterlight (2021), an experimental supercut of deceased film stars presented at BFI Southbank on the only 35mm print in existence. Shackleton claims The Afterlight is a film ‘designed to be lost’, the single print travelling across the globe, stretching and fading with every screening.

Part of what makes classical artworks like Venus de Milo or Mona Lisa interesting as museum works is that the history behind the art that is evident in the art itself (in the former case, the story of the missing arms, in the latter, the fact that many believe the painting remains unfinished). Similarly, The Afterlight questions the eternality of film stars that comes with digitisation, grounding our understanding of the wide reach of film by putting a price on every screening. Whereas most film festivals operate on the eternality attributed to, say, an art gallery, Fowler points out that “cinema retains its economic system, even when screening very old films”.

Image Courtesy of BFI + Neil Massey

Of course, the reason for this, as famously uttered by Roland Barthes, is that celluloid photography ‘mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.’ Like the Venus de Milo, the Joan Crawford we will see on this nitrate screening of Mildred Pierce is the same Crawford that Michael Curtiz saw in 1945, not only because the original material strip has been preserved but also because she was imprinted onto the strip by the disruption of light instead of being transcoded into 0s and 1s. It is this indexicality of aging that Film on Film Festival is here to celebrate—as head curator Robin Baker put it, ‘they wear their scars with pride’. So, it is perhaps in the acknowledgement of aging that we see eternality, the celebration being in the endurance of these prints over many years of use.

The same cannot perhaps be said for the host of experimental 16mm films that the festival will also be screening. In this case, says Fowler, “we wanted to show that by taking control of an industrially produced medium, artists reconfigure the assumptions about how moving images should be made and shown.” Whereas the museum-quality of much of the programme involves seeing a film’s history through its physical decay, these 16mm shorts connect us to their time by the “rawness and strength of [their] ideas”, according to Fowler, “and if anything, feels more strange and curious with the passing of time.” Communal ideas are more important than medium context with 16mm films because of the falsehood of its democratisation of film production:

“16mm was beyond most people's finances, even though it was intended to be a democratic form, and it’s interesting that by working in cooperatives and sharing resources and by obtaining public financial support, artists and amateur film societies were able to connect with a form that might otherwise be beyond them.”

So, BFI Film on Film Festival is not like other festivals. Whereas other festivals would have us marvel at the content of a film, FoF is concerned more with what these emanations of the past in the form of celluloid film mean in their continued existence today. The festival also includes many workshops and classes on attitudes towards and the handling of film, the point of which are “thinking about how industrial procedures, ultimately overseen by larger economic structures and power relations, interface with different individual and collective visions and ideas.” This is still something we face today, post-digitisation. So, it isn’t so much that the festival is telling us we should necessarily go back to celluloid filmmaking; it is more a celebration of what humankind can do—feats that one can only hope are carried on to the next generation of filmmakers and programmers.

BFI Film on Film Festival will be running from 8th-11th June—check out the programme here!


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