Over the past century, film has changed humankind. From the earliest fragments of captured movement, it has allowed us to watch, document, educate and depict ourselves in untold ways using just the mechanics of light, lenses and chemistry. It is one of our greatest inventions, the art form of the 20th century. Film is a beautiful, physical and robust medium that keeps the light within its fabric and holds in its emulsion the imprint of time. It is our cultural and historical memory: a place of imagination, poetry, art and life. It is the Rosetta Stone of our time.
Now we are on the point of losing it.
With the advent of digital, the medium of film is gravely threatened and might, unless action is taken, simply disappear. Its obsolescence will result in untold tragedy in all that we will no longer be able to see and experience, and also in what we will no longer be able to make, because we will have simply lost the technology to do so.
We cannot allow this to happen.
The debate around film versus digital has been the wrong debate. It has been discussed as one of technological determinism (where only one medium can survive) often for financial, rather than artistic reasons.
Film and digital are different mediums, in that they differ materially and methodologically in their artistic rather than technological use, and so make different cinema and different art. They have their own unique disciplines, image structures and visual qualities. Their co-existence is essential to keep diversity and richness in our moving-image vocabulary. The ascendance of one does not have to mean the capitulation of the other, unless we allow this to happen.
Most endangered of all, and nearly at the point of extinction, is the projection of film in cinemas. We must fight to keep the experience of watching a film, which was made on film, projected as film in at least one cinema or film museum in as many major cities and in as many countries as we can. We must act quickly to safeguard the future of the film print by supporting cinemas that choose to continue projecting 35mm film prints alongside digital projection and persuade distributors to permit delivery of prints when cinemas and audiences desire them.
There are many prominent people in the art, museum and conservation communities, alongside those in the cinema industry, who are reaching the consensus that such cultural irresponsibility cannot be allowed to take place in what is seen as a critical moment in film’s survival. The situation has become so grave, so rapidly, that we are coming together as a body to raise awareness at the highest international level in order to find a way to guard our ability to manufacture, shoot, process, print, make, preserve and project film.
It is now clear that film will not survive if it is left to rely solely on the market. Its commercial viability has been wholly undermined by an industry intent on replacing it. It is time to insist our national and international institutions recognise this fact, and the reality of film’s imminent death, by taking steps to subsidise and protect it. Recognition of this kind might give sufficient hope to those in the photochemical industry to stop the end of knowledge and embolden stock manufacturers and laboratories to persevere.
We are therefore calling on UNESCO to protect and safeguard the medium of film, the knowledge and practice of filmmaking and the projection of film print under their 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions or another convention should that become more appropriate. And in so doing, mandate signatory nation states to uphold their duty of care to safeguard film at both national and at an international level so that future generations will be able to experience the ingenuity and magnificence of film in the way we have done.