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Saving Film History One Frame at a Time: A Preview of Restored & Rediscovered Series at the Jacob Burns Film Center

I hadn't heard of the movie before, but couldn’t take my eyes off it. I was immersed in the counterculture heyday of San Francisco. A Black Nigerian student played by Paul Eyam Nzie Okpokam explores the strange landscape, the far-out characters, and his feelings of homesickness and culture shock in this brief but vital Cassavetes-style docu-fiction. It’s a journey of self-discovery, but just as our main character finds himself, the movie stops like a record scratch. The character we’ve followed throughout “Bushman” is gone, and in his place is the director, David Schickele, somberly breaking the news that Okpokam was arrested on his college campus and eventually deported, forever altering the movie’s trajectory.

“Bushman” was one revelation out of many. I felt excited over and over again as I found new gems to program for the Jacob Burns Film Center’s first festival celebrating film preservation and restoration, Restored & Rediscovered. Screening from May 13-23, the festival will highlight the important work of saving and restoring films so that new generations of audiences can discover them. Like many other art houses, we regularly program restorations alongside new releases, but what makes those special? What was the reason for showing restorations of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Nostalghia” or Jean-Pierre Melville's stylish neo-noir "Le Samouraï?" Could I show lesser-known films from outside the canon to show the scope of film restoration work from organizations like The Film Foundation, Academy Film Archive, Museum of Modern Art, George Eastman Museum, Milestone Films, IndieCollect, Women’s Film Preservation Fund, Vinegar Syndrome, Janus Films, Rialto Pictures, Kino Lorber, and others?

I believe many of us get our first lesson in the importance of preservation the hard way. For my fifteenth birthday, my aunt gave me my first digital camera, and I did what most teenagers do with their first camera. I photographed my friends, our parties, school trips, my family vacations, celebrations, and so on. I backed those memories onto a hard drive for safekeeping before I went away to college. My parents moved, but the hard drive did not. Sometimes, when I visit home, I still look in vain in my dad’s office, our storage closets, or in the garage, hoping maybe, just maybe, those snapshots of my former life are still out there. Thanks to time and Florida humidity, they are likely gone for good.

It's from that loss that I started taking an interest in saving not just my own memories but, as Martin Scorsese calls it, “our common cultural heritage.” From his talks on behalf of The Film Foundation and various documentaries on the subject, I learned about the herculean task of fighting against time and the elements to save what movies we do have and the Indiana Jones-esque efforts of scholars and archivists to track copies of forgotten films around the world in the hopes of rescuing it from obscurity before it’s too late.

Sometimes, the stories behind the restoration are just as impressive as the movie itself. Restored & Rediscovered will open with Nancy Savoca’s heartwarming multigenerational drama “Household Saints,” a movie much admired in 1993 (including by Roger Ebert) but was essentially lost just a few decades later when the filmmakers’ 35mm prints were no longer in playable condition. The rights had fallen to a producer who had passed away. As Savoca and her husband and producer Rich Guay shared, they were lucky to rescue their film from the Missing Movie list and restore it in just a few years. This work can take much longer and cost many more thousands of dollars, which is why it’s not uncommon to see multiple partners on a given restoration.

This inaugural edition of Restored & Rediscovered will show the breadth of work in the preservation and restoration field, from silent film restorations from the 1910s by MoMA, Eastman Museum, and silent film accompanist Ben Model to the off-kilter musical “The Rare Blue Apes of Cannibal Isle” from Vinegar Syndrome, the long unavailable Black cowboy musical “Harlem on the Prairie” from the Academy Film Archives, and international classics like “The Runner,” “Lumumba: The Death of a Prophet,” “Mahjong,” and “Death of a Bureaucrat.” It's a chance to highlight the challenges facing archives and preservationists around the world, and the problems facing independent filmmakers who may not have the studio-sized resources to store their film in pristine vaults. Audiences can discover the newly restored dramas “The Stronger” and “Tell Me a Riddle” from Lee Grant, one of our oldest living filmmakers, hear from curators and archivists throughout the week, take a free workshop from New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation department, or learn from Thelma Schoonmaker about the restoration of her husband Michael Powell’s film, “Peeping Tom.”

The discovery label also applies to the shorts programs from IndieCollect and the Women’s Film Preservation Fund. Although most of them come from the 1970s and 80s, several of them feel just as relevant today as they did then, like Amalie R. Rothschild’s “It Happens to Us,” a direct-to-camera confessional made by women for women to discuss abortion before it was legalized. Then there’s Nancy Schreiber’s charming “Possum Living,” an early look at sustainable living; filmmakers Jan Oxenberg and Christine Vachon explore queer identity in imaginative shorts like “A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts” and “The Way of the Wicked,” Meredith Monk’s poetic approach to the history of immigration to New York City in “Ellis Island,” forays into experimental work with Storm de Hirsch’s “Charlotte Moorman’s Avant Garde Festival #9” and Elaine Summers’ “Windows in the Kitchen,” and celebrates independent women living on their own terms with Rothschild’s “Woo Who? May Wilson” and Mirra Bank’s “Yudie,” which will also celebrate the East Coast premiere of its restoration at the JBFC.

There’s more awareness about the issue of film preservation and restoration than when Scorsese founded The Film Foundation and Doros and Heller began Milestone Films in their New York apartment 34 years ago. But there are still so many more movies waiting to be restored and rediscovered by scholars and audiences alike. It feels like our work at the theater is only just beginning. Still, what an exciting beginning to focus on the behind-the-scenes work to save our collective past, our cultural heritage, and our artistic treasures for future audiences.

Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo is a critic, journalist, programmer, and curator based in New York City. She is the Senior Film Programmer at the Jacob Burns Film Center and a contributor to

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