2021: the year in archive cinema

With some in-person archive festivals returning alongside a range of new online events, this was a year of cinematic rediscovery

Europa (1931)Themerson Estate

Good things come to those who wait – words to live by for aficionados of archive cinema. As the multiplexes enjoyed the long-delayed releases of some all-but-guaranteed hits this autumn, the archive film community had its own sweet moment of delayed gratification as the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures finally opened in Los Angeles in September. This long anticipated institution, with its gleaming architecture by Renzo Piano, began with an impressive standing collection, a roster of changing exhibitions and a diverse film programme overseen by chief artistic officer Jacqueline Stewart.

Hollywood was not the only place to be. Although some archive festivals had to sit this year out, flagship events in Bologna, Lyon and Pordenone all went ahead, with appropriate measures in place, and with grateful audiences enjoying the return to normality almost as much as the films.

Sambizanga (1972)

At Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, the varied international restorations on show included an especially gorgeous new print of Sarah Maldoror’s 1972 film Sambizanga (and there was a retrospective of her work at Indie Lisboa this year too), and crisp new visions of Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley (1947) and Slatan Dudow’s Kuhle Wampe (1932).

The Pordenone Silent Film Festival debuted restorations including comedian Max Linder’s final, frenetic feature King of the Circus (1924), using material from 11 archives in 11 countries, as well as the pan-European delights of Danish drama Jokeren (1928), featuring British stars (Henry Edwards, Miles Mander) and set among the casinos and dance halls of Nice in the Roaring Twenties.

The festival trail was especially fruitful for rediscoveries and restorations this year. Perhaps the most exciting examples of the latter debuted at the BFI London Film Festival: Stefan and Franciszka Themerson’s anti-fascist film poem Europa (1931), long assumed to have been destroyed by the Nazis but evidently intact, now thankfully restored and freshly scored. Another film thought to have been destroyed on ideological grounds, Dziga Vertov’s The History of the Civil War (1921), returned to the screen after a century, almost complete, at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. And poignantly, Melvin Van Peebles’s debut feature The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1967) toured the UK after a triumphant showing at Bristol’s Cinema Rediscovered event in the summer, just a couple of months before his death.

The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1967)

Travel was not for everyone this year, and 2021 offered a healthy harvest for the armchair fan of archive cinema as digitisation and online film curation combined to make rarely seen films available for the clicking. This was a welcome shot in the arm for accessibility. Online, the barriers to entry, and often the prices, are lower, so this year more of us could experience the decision-paralysis of a film buff living in the heart of a capital city wavering between retrospectives on a Saturday afternoon. That was its own problem in a way: while more films are available than ever before, curation by algorithm is no substitute for curation of the human kind. The vicissitudes of a film’s fleeting appearance on Amazon Prime or the semi-regular, unannounced deposits of archive films on Netflix are not to be relied on.

Archive curation is vital, even on virtual platforms. The popular cinephile streaming services such as Mubi, the Criterion Channel and BFI Player continued to provide riches for those of us who were locked down, isolating, or without a fully open cinema, let alone a rep house, nearby. We could add to them a raft of innovative online initiatives, including Another Gaze’s lavishly stocked Another Screen project, the return of the Europe-wide A Season of Classic Films programme (rather more esoteric than its title suggests) and, in the UK, the Independent Cinema Office’s The Cinema of Ideas platform. Accessibility continues to be the key word: the best of these platforms made sure to include multiple translations and subtitles as well. A special mention should go to the wonders of the Black Film Archive, all the work of Criterion employee Maya Cade: a comprehensive resource with links to Black films streaming worldwide.

Online, of course, is the best place to share joyful breaking news, even if it concerns vampire films from the mid-70s. And so, for example, cinematographer Michael Gornick was able to announce on Facebook towards the end of the year that George Romero scholar Kevin Kriess had tracked down a 16mm, black-and-white copy of the full three-and-a-half-hour director’s cut of Martin (1976), once considered irretrievably lost. And now, appropriately enough, it may return from the dead. After a mere 45 years.

The best films of 2021