skip navigationLibrary of Congress >> A/V Conservation >> National Film Preservation Board
NFPB logo National Film Preservation Board
About the Board - Members of the Board - Preservation Research - National Film Registry
National Film Preservation Foundation - Other Film Resources - Moving Image Archives

The Repatriation of Motion Picture Films

by David Francis, June 2010

Repatriation is based on the Latin word ‘patria’. It is the act of bringing something back to the homeland. That something can be a person or an object. On this occasion it is the repatriation of motion picture films. Repatriation is not an ideal word because there is within it an implication that the country or organization engaging in repatriation has a legal right to the objects being repatriated – a situation that is not always the case- but it is the one we have been using for many years. Nobody has come up with another simple way of describing the activity and a change in terminology now could cause confusion. I will therefore continue to use the word in this paper.

To understand the concept of repatriation as it applies to motion picture films, one needs to spend a little time looking at the history of film archives and film archiving. When the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) was founded in 1938, it had only four Members; from Germany, France the United Kingdom and the USA. Even so one of the Federation’s first actions was to draw up a series of Rules to regulate relations between Members. Although the archives were nominally national, they were not in fact interested in collecting just films produced in their own countries. In fact the reverse was true; they wanted to acquire copies of the films that were at that time acknowledged to be the most creative examples of this relatively new art form. In short they all wanted the same films. The Rules then were designed to give the archives a right to film materials already in their own country but to prevent them from acquiring materials that already existed in other Member countries without permission.

In the late 1930s the four Member film archives were interested for the most part in classic fiction films. Now almost every country has its own film archive and some countries have many. They are not just collecting feature films but fiction films of all kinds, cartoons, newsreels, documentaries, amateur films etc. More importantly they now recognize that one of their primary aims is to collect material produced in their own countries.

As one can make numerous virtually identical copies of a film, it is not surprising that prints have ended up in every corner of the globe particularly titles from the silent era when language was not a barrier to understanding and enjoyment, and even more particularly from the period when prints were sold outright and not returned to film distributors after use or when rights expired. Also prints tended to move away from their country of origin in concentric circles eventually ending up in the poorest or geographically most distant countries. By this time the prints were either worn or their commercial value was almost non-existent. The copyright owners were not prepared to spend the money necessary to bring them home and were often unable to ensure that destruction orders were acted on. They therefore survived.

Young film archives whose main mission was to preserve and make available films produced in their own country were happy to acquire these prints because the more material they had in their vaults, the more seriously they were taken as cultural and archival organizations in their own country. Anyway, curators did not like to select the films acquired even if their archive had a clear mission statement to collect national production because it has always been difficult to justify the destruction of an existing cultural artifact to one’s film archivist colleagues.

However although large numbers of film prints were produced and a few found their way into archives in other countries, the most were destroyed for one reason or another. Producers and distributors disposed of silent short films when the feature film became the norm, of silent titles when the sound film was introduced and of black and white films when most new titles were made in color. Also the nitrate base in use until the early 1950’s contained a significant amount of silver that was worth reclaiming.

Today in the United States, according to a graph contained in ‘Film Preservation 1993: A Study on the Current State of American Film Preservation prepared by the Library of Congress only 10-15% of fiction films produced in the teen years of the twentieth century still exist and overall 50% of titles produced in the silent era have been lost. The situation with documentary material of all sorts is far more dramatic and in other countries an even lower percentage of early films survive.

Archives have always exchanged individual titles. The right to exchange is one of the most cherished rights that a Member of FIAF enjoys. However exchange involves swapping one title for another of equal cultural value or length. Repatriation is more nebulous. If a country with a mission statement requiring it to preserve and make available films produced in its own country or involving its nationals, finds itself in financial difficulties, one possibility is to see if it can get other archives to take responsibility for titles in its collection that do not meet these criteria. This was the motivation behind Jonathan Dennis, the curator of the New Zealand Film Archive, when he prepared a list of American films on a nitrate base in his collection and sent it to Eileen Bowser, the Curator of the Museum of Modern Art Film Department. She immediately realized that a number of the titles would be potentially interesting to her American archival colleagues.

The list was restricted to films on a nitrate base because they were flammable and would therefore need to be duplicated – an expensive process- at some time in the future. Films on a safety base, it was thought at the time, could be retained indefinitely as long as they were stored in vaults with the appropriate levels of temperature and humidity. The titles offered tended to be those that were out of copyright or were considered orphans because the original producers had disappeared. The archive of origin and particularly the recipient archives which were in the same country as some of the world’s most powerful producers, did not want the copyright owners involved.

This repatriation in 1988 raised many important issues. There were at least four “nitrate’ archives in the United States. Jonathan sensibly did not want to have to decide which one received which title. He therefore approached the American Film Institute (AFI) and persuaded staff member Susan Dalton to act as coordinator. The AFI paid for the importation of the titles from the annual grant it distributed to the American ‘nitrate’ archives on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEH). The Archives already met with the AFI annually to present their preservation grant applications and at the annual Film Archives Advisory Committee (FAAC) meeting so there was an existing opportunity to decide which archive should take responsibility for which title. After the decisions were made the archives dealt directly with the New Zealand Archive.

Jonathan did not want a print of every title preserved but he needed to show his funding partners that he had got something out of the deal. Anyway the titles he was offering had been seen in New Zealand and were therefore important to the country’s cultural life. He therefore asked for one safety reel for every two nitrate reels selected.

The main problem with this original American repatriation proposal and the others involving New Zealand, Australia, Holland and France that followed was that no time line was agreed. The archives offering the material wanted to get rid of the nitrate as soon as possible, the archives being offered the material wanted it, but knew that it would take a long time for them to find the resources to make 35mm preservation masters and two prints of some titles. The issue was not discussed because both parties knew it would likely lead to a breakdown in negotiations. This was fine while the parties to the deal were still in their respective archives but led to arguments and bad feelings between later generations of film archivists. In fact if the Library of Congress, the only American archive that received a government grant that could be used to preserve orphan titles, had not agreed to take titles that the other American archives did not want, I doubt if any of these repatriation deals would have taken place. However, as none of the titles selected for repatriation existed in American archives in complete versions, it was reasonable for the nation’s largest archive to make this decision. On the other hand a title, like Alias Jimmy Valentine, was wanted by every archive because of its cultural importance and because it was a missing film with a reputation that could be used to attract private funding for its preservation.

We have learnt a lot from these repatriation projects and we have been further aided by changes in technology. Previously the only information about the films on offer was that provided by the archive offering material; based on their own records. When the films arrived they were often incomplete, in very poor condition or not even the title expected. The number of titles in each proposal was so large that local inspection, even funded by the recipient archives, was not practical, nor was it economically or technically viable to make a digital copy of the nitrate original and post it on the internet for selection purposes.

Certainly the ‘Film Connection’ project devised by the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) learnt a lot from these earlier repatriation projects. It does not accept films in bulk. Instead it allows for the selection of a few titles from the lists offered which means that it is financially viable to pay for someone to inspect the nitrate material in the country of origin before the final decision to select and preserve is made. The originals are then sent direct to a laboratory and digital copies are made at various stages in the preservation process and posted on the Internet so that archivists can comment on the actions taken or proposed. This, of course, means that one has to trust the laboratory to prepare the material satisfactorily before preservation, something archivists have not agreed to in the past, but it does do away with the need to first send the material to the archive for preparation, then to the laboratory and then send the answer print back to the archive for approval. The only quarrel I have with the project is the decision to leave the selection of titles to a group dominated by academics. While I have always wanted the academic community to become more involved, as significant end-users, in the preservation process, film curators are the people who have responsibility for collections development and must therefore have the final say in what is acquired.

I am not sure what happens in this project to the nitrate originals. I hope they are retained in the appropriate storage conditions by the archive receiving the preservation masters. One of the problems associated with earlier repatriation programs was the cost and difficulty of returning nitrate originals after duplication. This may have been necessary because of agreements the archive signed by the archives when they first acquired the material but as one of the benefits was extra space in their nitrate vaults, the desire to have the nitrate materials back seems to be self-defeating.

However this group of projects from the 1980’s and 1990’s is not the only kind of repatriation that has taken place in the past. It is interesting to consider other different kinds of projects in case we can learn something from them as well. For instance,after the Second World War, German, Italian and Japanese films were deposited in the archives of the victorious nations. The National Film Archive in London and the Library of Congress in Washington received a huge amount of material in the form of 35mm nitrate prints. Later in the 1970s there was an agreement with Germany, Italy and Japan that these films, confiscated by the Allies, be returned to their countries of origin.

At the National Film Archive we decided that it was important that we retained copies of the titles before they were returned. We therefore made master material and a reference print of each at our expense. The Library of Congress also wished to retain some of the material and negotiated with the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz a deal whereby 16mm acetate prints were made for the Library at their expense. A similar arrangement was made with Italy and, I believe, Japan. In each case the Library met the costs of returning the nitrate originals. Luckily, the Library stored the films at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base from where there were regular flights to every country in the world that had a United States base. The Air Force was persuaded to return, what to commercial carriers would be considered a dangerous cargo, at their expense. The archives in Germany, Italy and Japan paid for the return transport of nitrate film held by the National Film Archive in Britain.

I suppose the exercise engaged in by the National Film Archive before the 1978 Brighton FIAF Congress was also a kind of repatriation. For the Symposium on films produced between 1900 and 1906, the Archive approached all FIAF Member archives throughout the world and asked them if they would be prepared to send nitrate material on any film produced during this period, regardless of country of origin, to London. It return the Archive would undertake to preserve the films, make master material and a viewing print for it’s own collection, provide the donor archive with a 35mm print if required and agree to return the nitrate originals if desired. Although this was not an example of returning material to the country of origin, it was an example of gathering all the material of a particular period in an Archive that had agreed to preserve, catalogue and make available the material at home and abroad. This action can only really be understood if only realizes that in 1978, there was hardly an archive in the world that preserved and made available for research and enjoyment films from the period 1900-1906 or even for the period 1895 to the arrival of the silent feature. This project was undertaken to ensure that a period of cinema already decimated by wholesale destruction and regarded as important by the National Film Archive and the Museum of Modern Art – Eileen Bowser held to organize the Brighton Symposium, was preserved and made available for study.

Eileen engaged in a similar exercise to save American slapstick comedy. She arranged the repatriation of large numbers of titles from the Czech Film Archive and elsewhere. The Czech Archive had acquired a significant collection of early American films because one of the staff, Myrtil Frieda, had been interested in early American film all his life. In this case Eileen was bringing back American films so this project fits the repatriation concept better than the Brighton operation. However I have included it because I would like to see the idea of repatriation expanded to include the movement of moving pictures to countries where they would be preserved and made available.

This ideal is further illustrated with the acquisition of the Josef Joye collection by the National Film Archive. It was stored in Switzerland but was owned by the Vatican. Abbe Josef Joye believed that both fiction and non-fiction film were valuable assets in the teaching of history. The films were left behind when Joye’s seminary in Basle was closed. When I first heard of the existence of the collection, I notified the Swiss archive thinking that they would be interested in acquiring the collection. As mentioned before one of the most cherished rights of FIAF Membership was the right to acquire material in your own country regardless of origin. However the curator of the Swiss archive was not interested in this period of film history so I decided to acquire it for the National Film Archive. The Archive had by that time the largest collection of early fiction films from all over the world, if one excludes the Library of Congress Paper Print collection and it made sense for us to add this material to our collection. We were also interested in ensuring that the collection was kept together because one could only research further Abbe Joye’s pioneering use of film if the films themselves could be consulted.

The Nederlands Filmmuseum acquisition of the whole of the Desmet collection was done for similar reasons. Although the titles came from all over the world, they had been distributed in the Netherlands and seen by audiences there. In the silent era film was truly international and it was often difficult to identify the country of origin if the inter-titles were in your own language. This collection was therefore preserved and made available because it was a record of the films seen in the Netherlands. The collection was also important because it included all the associated press material and distribution records. The Library of Congress retained the Kleine collection in its entirety because it represented the type of international productions seen in the States. This collection also included significant related materials and business records.

Not all repatriations were the result of cooperation. The Bundesarchiv acquired two stock shot libraries in London without asking the permission of the National Film Archive because they contained mainly British newsreels of the First World War. As the government archive in Germany, they were understandably interested in how the war was visually reported in Britain. If they had asked the NFA, we would have suggested that we acquire the collections and then provide them with copies of the material that interested them on an exchange basis or at cost. Unfortunately the collections also contained early films by British producers such as Hepworth. We negotiated for the return of this unique material (either as originals or copies) but this had still not happened by the time I left the Archive in 1990.

Another action which certainly could not be considered as repatriation in any shape or form but which led to the preservation and availability of important material was the decision by the Museum of Modern Art to divide the preservation of Fairbanks films between the Museum, the Cinematheque Francaise and the National Film Archive. As a result the NFA preserved and made available the Black Pirate – the restoration amazingly funded by Raymond Rohauer. This project would fit into the wider concept of repatriation for which I would like to find a new word. As preservation time is running out because of the potential unavailability of master duplicating stock and perhaps even print stock and the deteriorating financial situation in the film archive world, we need to encourage any movement of film between archives that will ensure it’s preservation and availability. I hope that those who are in position to plan future projects will consider this broader vision of repatriation.

>> Top of page


Library of Congress >> A/V Conservation >> National Film Preservation Board
( April 1, 2014 )
Legal | External Link Disclaimer