Festival at Gene Siskel showcases rare films

By Brian Dukerschein

Chicago cinephiles have the rare opportunity to view 14 classic films nearly lost to history with the return of the University of California at Los Angeles’ Festival of Preservation at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

The festival showcases the work of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s preservation and restoration program, which has been restoring worn and damaged films since 1977. The archive launched the biannual Festival of Preservation in 1988 in order to screen its films for the public. The festival began touring the U.S. in 2009 and will make stops in eight cities across North America this year.

Films being screened in Chicago include Alan Schneider’s 1961 television adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” Douglas Sirk’s film noir “Sleep, My Love” and two silent Rex Ingram pictures featuring live musical


According to Marty Rubin, associate director of programming for the Gene Siskel Film Center, each venue is allowed to choose which films it will show from a list provided by UCLA. He said his selection for Chicago was based on the quality, rarity and historical importance of each film.

Historical importance is just one of the factors in determining which films undergo restoration, said Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the Film & Television Archive. The physical quality of the film stock, requests from donors and academicians, and curatorial discretion all play a role in deciding if a film will be restored.

Experts in the film industry believe nearly 90 percent of all silent films and 50 percent of sound films produced prior to 1950 have been lost. This is because studios were not concerned about protecting the films of the past until recently, according to Zoran Samardzija, assistant professor of Cinema Studies at Columbia.

“The thing to remember is—especially in the silent days [of film production] and even up through the modern sound era—studios weren’t too serious about archiving their films. There are all kinds of crazy horror stories,” Samardzija said, and cited the case of Orson Welles’ second film, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” in which footage left on the editing room floor was burned.

According to Horak, another reason for the disappearance of classic films is the fragility of the material they were printed on. He said most films made before 1950 were shot on nitrate-based film stock that degrades easily if not kept in proper environmental conditions. A large part of the restoration process is transferring the nitrate prints to a polyester film stock that can last up to 1,000 years if stored properly, he said.

Horak said the archive’s goal is to restore a damaged or deteriorated print to its original condition without changing the filmmaker’s vision.

“We’re trying to be historically accurate, to preserve the historical object as much as possible,” Horak said. “We’re doing better work simply because we have better film stocks. Having said that, you don’t want to over-restore to the point that the technology completely changes [the film].”

The archive already holds more than 220,000 titles, second to the Library of Congress, but Horak said it also owns more than 90 million feet of nitrate film that still need to be transferred to polyester stock. As a nonprofit organization, the archive is reliant upon donations from public and private sponsors. Preservation is an expensive process. “Wanda,” one of the films playing in Chicago, cost $125,000 to restore, Horak said.

Although many of the films, directors and actors spotlighted at the festival might only be recognizable to the most scholarly cinema lovers, Samardzija said the films’ importance transcends commercial appeal.

“Preservation of film history is also an archive of history at large,” Samardzija said. “We can’t just let history be understood by marketing. These films, whether people know them artistically or not, are going to be of great sociological and historical value.”

The Festival of Preservation runs from Sept. 3–Oct. 5 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. For a complete list of films and showtimes, visit SiskelFilmCenter.org. Tickets are $11 for general admission and $7 for students with valid ID.