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- This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Sight and Sound.
Throughout the on-and-off lockdowns of the pandemic, our family has been watching movies from the early history of cinema together. We try to choose films that none of us has seen before. Our twins are nine: too young to be vaccinated. During early isolation and through ongoing uncertainty, movies have become our shared portal to other worlds.
When I was my kids’ age, my older brother was already deep into what would become his lifetime love of collecting fossils. I was trying to figure out how I could be like him when it suddenly occurred to me: I could collect images. I would have an Image Warehouse. It was the 1970s and the internet didn’t exist yet, so I felt I had really come up with an original idea. I imagined a giant sunny space filled with endless boxes. The images in the boxes would be easy to flip through. You could touch all of them – pages ripped from magazines, photographs, postcards, drawings, engravings… all grouped by categories of what was depicted in them, or maybe, in the case of artists or photographers, who had made them. I imagined the pleasure of leafing through box after box. I would let people borrow the images, taking as many as they wanted, in any combination, with no demand to explain themselves. Coming from the perspective of the restrictive religious world in which I was being raised, such was the liberty I hoped for myself. I didn’t imagine making money from my Image Warehouse. It just seemed like an incredibly enjoyable way to spend a life.
This summer, when I heard the news about the fire at the Cinemateca Brasileira in São Paulo, I felt the magnified force of childhood hopes and adult awareness collapsing into each other like oxygen being sucked up by fire. A warehouse of impossible-to-replicate moving images and documents exploded into flames. That artists, activists, scientists, curators and filmmakers have been sounding the alarm in Brazil and around the world and no one has listened creates great pain. What this fire ominously signals is the contempt and cynicism of those in positions of power who know that silent neglect functions both as active repression and violent aggression. Films are the bodies of many. As any filmmaker knows, it is a fight to get one made. And a film itself embodies the people who struggled to make it, the places that no longer exist, the vision that shone through against the odds. Not all films are heroic acts of resistance, but as time passes they all become evidence of who we have been. And as our family has experienced throughout the pandemic, films are portals through which all future generations can see the past as the present.
As a kid, I couldn’t imagine a government that would seek to destroy the evidence of its own history or rob its own children of their access to what the world was before them in order that a more simplistic, more corrosive narrative of history might take hold. I simply knew that images mattered to me and I liked to see things beyond my own experience and imagination. I had a childhood hunch about the human love of visual stimulation. I didn’t yet grasp that the planet could be a place of great pain and chaos, although I did catch glimpses of battles over representation in the missionary slideshows projected in our church basement. I didn’t know how many people it took to make a movie. I couldn’t come close to imagining the crafts of cinematography or editing. Even though I could envision my Image Warehouse, I definitely didn’t imagine that future humans would each have collections of tens of thousands of images warehoused in smooth, luminous glass and metal cases that we would stroke to life with our fingertips and keep on or near our bodies at all times.
Most humans don’t see the future coming. I sure didn’t. My family raised me within the Seventh-Day Adventist religion and I was taught that a fiery apocalypse would be coming; most of the time, I believed it. We were instructed to look forward to it because all believers would be resurrected. I wasn’t convinced, because I liked my life on Earth. I never imagined that today I would think of the losses of the future posed to children as we find ourselves facing existential threats from the microscopic and algorithmic to the climatic. And it certainly didn’t occur to me that the proliferation of imagery would be such an essential part of the conundrums we face. When I was a kid, I drew and I painted pictures. And once I touched a camera, I held on for dear life. When I saw Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), I realised that images were made of and by humans with bodies. I began to think of films as graveyards full of people who never die. That was part of how cinema helped me face loss. But with the destruction in Brazil, I am vividly reminded again that there are those who will destroy the bodies of other humans, in films or life, in service of their own power. It is against this, in all its forms, worldwide, that we must fight.
It was my childhood dream to touch images with my hands. As an adult filmmaker, I now think of movies and bodies as forever intertwined. What can cinema do for us now, in our time of need? This is what I ask myself, feeling relief that it is not just my question, but is shared and carried by so many. I urgently crave the images and films to come, that speak from the bodies that have been/will be crushed if the powerful keep refusing to see and honour them. It is clear to any cinephile that too few perspectives have been allowed the chance to express the meaning of their existence in film. We are beginning to understand how much must change. Cinema signals to us paths that are ours to find. And in this complexity, there are other people, and we are not alone: bravery is evident and courage necessary.
More on archives
Brazil’s film archive is facing wipeout
Indifference and hostility from successive governments have left the Cinemateca Brasileira, one of Latin America’s great film institutions, close to collapse. Director Walter Salles and other Brazilian film industry figures explain how this came about and what’s at stake.