Translated from the Argentinean Spanish by César Albarrán-Torres
I believe that in part cinema’s future resides in its past. Nowadays everyone is talking about yet another irreversible crisis in the film industry being accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The arguments are more or less similar to what was being discussed when television came along, and then with home video formats, cable television and more recently with the advent of streaming platforms. Cinema emerged from all these crises alive but somewhat different. The outcome of this crisis will not be an exception. Undoubtedly, film exhibition is now gifted with more options than releasing a movie in theatres; this has been a healthy development and has allowed for the expansion and growth of a variety of creative cinematic processes that are simply not present in traditional film releases. For those of us who grew up “going to the movies”, nostalgia for large screens and the light emanating from the projector will always be a reason to reject change, but more likely than not those movie theatres will continue to exist. They will coexist with other ways of watching movies, formats that are here to stay.
For this reason, theatrical film exhibition has to look at itself in the mirror of the past, at the dawn of cinema, when film was a performative spectacle that closely resembled a live performance (narrators, music and even special effects, it was all delivered live); when narrative and technological strategies such as cinemascope and similar, glorious Technicolor, collectible film programs and live performances were used to compete against television; in the cinema that was released parallel to cable and home video, the cinema that used multichannel sound, 3D and 4D, and revelled in over-the-top special effects; but also the film-going practices of independent cinema, such as small boutique theatres with 35mm projections, bookshops and gourmet gastronomic experiences. Cinema has learnt to change and adapt to technological change. This time will be no different. COVID-19 sped up a transformation that had already begun. Drive-through cinemas are back as are open space screenings. Live sessions with filmmakers and technical professionals are now a thing on social media, as is at-home musicalisation. There are now many more ways of enjoying moving images, which opens avenues for connecting with audiences.
At museums and archives, we have had to adapt as well and rethink the ways in which we work. On 20th March, a small group of workers at the Museo del Cine Pablo Ducrós Hicken in Buenos Aires, which I have led since 2008, got ready to close down our two buildings, the exhibits and the archives for a lockdown that was due to last for two weeks. Seven months later we are still operating in a mostly remote model. A team of five archivists/conservators are still carrying out face-to-face tasks in four-hour shifts twice a week to make sure that film collections that need constant supervision do not deteriorate.
The permanent exhibition that journeys through Argentinian film history and the temporary exhibition that looks at the work of scriptwriter Aída Bortnik are closed, as is the movie theatre. Walking through those empty rooms is a perennial way to remember that what we do only makes sense when we are able to share our work and our passion.
No conference, course or book about disaster prevention could have prepared us for our current situation, as unimaginable as it was sudden. Our only frame of reference seems to be disaster and sci-fi films. There is a paradox, then, in discussing the death of cinema when our source of images and ideas to face a global pandemic, what we “had seen only in movies”, lies in film itself.
Anyhow, there is a lot that can be learnt from this unexpected situation. The pandemic provided us with a chance to rethink our objectives, and renew our commitment to history, memory and shared cultures, but it also allowed us to recognise that archivists have a role to play in the reconstruction of community ties during and after the days of social distancing.
The global film community is facing similar dilemmas and challenges and archivists are no exception: financial uncertainty, technical difficulties for communication, organising remote labour and personal fears and anxieties bring us together in the search for strategies to survive a situation that only seemed possible in science fiction. Those of us who live and work in developing countries have a small advantage: we are used to uncertainty, to limited resources. In a way, exceptionality is the rule so we have a greater capacity for adapting to change and obstacles.
As happened with everyone else, virtuality forced us to strengthen our strategies to provide access to our archives and to promote them. Digitisation became an essential ally. It’s true, archives have the responsibility of remembering at all times that digitalisation is just an access strategy and not a preservation method. We need to do this to counter the enthusiasm that the apparent easiness and convenience of mass digitisation provides. However, the current situation presents us with the need to remain relevant by sharing and showcasing our collections and approaching audiences in ways that are viable in this context. We need to get our creative juices flowing to expand our online images and resources. And so our social media (Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook @museo-delcineba) became our everyday tool to reaffirm our place in the world.
The pandemic also forced us to reconfigure roles and redefine tasks to acknowledge the new normal. But the pandemic also highlighted the vitality and urgency of archives and museums as institutions that make sure that moving images reach their audiences, that allow us to find meaning in this unique experience and to remind us that humanity is capable of creating beauty.