FEATURE/Taiwan film preservationists face battle against time & space
By Teng Pei-ju, CNA staff reporter
"This is a reel of film that is deteriorated and brittle. It will never be brought back to life."
At the Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute (TFAI), Tony Lan (藍祖蔚), the institute's chair, holds a canister from a collection of over 18,000 Taiwanese movies aloft, to let visiting lawmakers grasp the race against time faced to find a new home for the institute's film archive center.
Lan and his staff have for years been collecting and preserving copies of films made by Taiwanese directors from around the world to hold in their archives.
But with the institute's hotchpotch of storage spaces already reaching capacity, there is a pressing need for a proposed purpose-built facility in New Taipei to come to fruition.
Many films were in very poor condition when they were sent to TFAI's Film Archive Center because most people had no idea how to properly preserve them, according to Tsai Meng-chun (蔡孟均), the head of the center's Film Digital Restoration section.
At the archive center, films are permanently kept in temperature-controlled rooms at either 5 or 18 degrees Celsius with humidity at 40-50 percent.
If a film is kept in a very warm and humid environment, cellulose acetate, a material used as a support of the film, will absorb moisture in the air and release acetic acid. These chemical reactions will cause the film to shrink and warp, thus giving rise to the brittle and deteriorated reel shown to the lawmakers by the TFAI chairman.
An acidic-like smell of vinegar permeates the storage rooms, proof that many of the film archives have deteriorated.
Tsai said it is similar to human beings growing old and getting wrinkles, adding that a moving picture on a deteriorated film would discolor and contain scratches.
A pressing need for more space
While the deterioration of film archives remains a problem, the biggest challenge facing the TFAI in its efforts to preserve films is a lack of space.
Since 1989, the TFAI has collected over 18,000 copies of films. These films, together with hundreds and thousands of movie posters, costumes, and props, are currently stored at what TFAI Director Wang Chun-chi (王君琦) called a "stopgap" archive center located in an industrial cluster in New Taipei City's Shulin District.
The center refers to 16 offices -- each measuring roughly 330 square meters -- dispersed in an area packed with factories producing products ranging from wooden furniture to home appliances.
This arrangement is only temporary as all but three of the offices are rented, Wang said. "We have nowhere else to go."
Before moving to its current location in Shulin, the film archive center was in another industrial cluster in Xindian District. The TFAI was forced to relocate the center because the property owner had decided to take back the spaces, said Tsai, who began working on film archives at the TFAI in 2015.
The same concern continues to loom. "Every year we are worried about the property owners taking back their spaces. If they do not want to renew our leases, what are we going to do?"
At the same time, the TFAI has expanded in accordance with the government's policy. After decades of focusing on the preservation of Taiwan's films, the TFAI is now also tasked with collecting and handling the archives from the television and radio industries.
All the offices at the archive center are almost filled to capacity, Tsai said, and insufficient space has been problematic. "Without enough space, I cannot fetch films even if I know there are many out there."
In 2020, Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) pledged to pour in over NT$5 billion (US$171.08 million) to build the country's first cinema museum near the TFAI building in Xinzhuang District. The proposed museum will include a new permanent film archive center that the institute has pitched.
"We really hope to have a permanent base designed and built for the film archives," the TFAI director said.
A permanent base will enable the TFAI to better preserve film archives, and it will also allow the institute to bring in more manpower and equipment to expedite the digitization and restoration of films, Wang added.
Two years later, however, there has been little progress on the proposed project. The central government and the New Taipei City government have even exchanged words over the issue, blaming one another for stalling the plan.
At a TFAI press conference in January, New Taipei Mayor Ho Yu-ih (侯友宜) urged the Cabinet to soon approve the Ministry of Culture's proposal to build the museum, while Su responded by saying the city government had not committed to providing the land needed for the proposed construction.
The Ministry of Culture told CNA this week that it had recently reached a deal with the New Taipei City Government to collaborate on the planned museum.
Nevertheless, the ministry said that the proposal was still being reviewed by the Cabinet and that the plan, after being given the go-ahead, would take an estimated seven years to come to fruition.
The current TFAI office, which was officially inaugurated in January, began its construction in 2018. Before that, talks about moving the TFAI from a mixed-used building in Taipei City to its current base had lasted approximately a decade.
Digital preservation of film archives
The problem with a lack of space has also hampered the institute's efforts to bring in more staff and equipment. The section that Tsai is in charge of began working on film digitization and digital restoration in 2013. To date, however, it has only digitized about 300 films and restored less than 100.
Both digitization and digital restoration are "manual work," Tsai said. Before putting a roll of film into a scanner, his team must check it inch by inch to make sure that dust is removed and broken parts are repaired. This process takes about two weeks to one month for a 90-minute movie depending on its preservation condition, according to Tsai.
Restoration is even more time-consuming, as one staffer is only capable of processing 10 minutes of a film on a monthly basis, Tsai said.
"Lawmakers and the public often ask why we cannot do more, as we have more than 18,000 films at the archive center," Tsai said. His 17-strong team has aimed to digitize 60 films and restore at least nine movies in 2022.
"With our current manpower and equipment, we are not going to finish that in 100 years."
Although the TFAI began converting its archives into digitals in 2013, it remains dedicated to preserving films, Tsai noted.
Films as a medium of storing movies can stand the test of time, Tsai said. The films produced by the Lumière brothers in their time can still be screened today, he said, referring to Auguste and Louis Lumière, whose "Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory" in 1895 is considered the first motion picture in the world.
On the other hand, a digital cinema package (DCP) disk, a common tool in the industry to store films in a digital format, may not be read in 5 or 10 years if it is not preserved properly, he added.
Preserving history through film
In addition, these films are not just works of art, they presented Taiwan's film industry, Tsai said. They reveal valuable information about Taiwan's history and the country's social and cultural transformation, he said.
Some 55.5 percent of the film archives at the TFAI are dramas, and the rest include documentaries, footage of historical events, as well as government publicity.
One of its earliest archives is black-and-white footage about flocks of people with luggage pouring to a port in Keelung in 1946 and waiting to board a ship bound for Japan.
That film about the repatriation of Japanese people from Taiwan after WWII documents a very important moment in the history of Taiwan that texts alone cannot accurately capture, Tsai said.
These films should be preserved so that people in future generations will be able to know what has happened in Taiwan, he said. "To preserve these films is to preserve history."
Wang, the TFAI director, said film archives were part of the collective memory of Taiwanese society. People face a serious existential crisis if the society they live in is deprived of shared memory, Wang said.
Under this situation, whatever they picture for their future will be mismatched and disconnected from their identity, she added.
Amnesia is a popular theme for melodramas, in which a protagonist experiences chaos and struggles with their life due to memory loss, Wang said.
"If you don't know why you have come to your current state because you don't remember or know the past, you will not know where you should go next."
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