20 December, 2023

Film Preservation – Looking Back, Looking Forward

A look back at the Trusts support for film preservation workshops conducted by Film Heritage Foundation, and a glimpse of what lies next for film preservation in India

As part of the conservation strategy of the arts & culture portfolio, the Tata Trusts have been supporting the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) in film preservation through workshops. Notably, the Tata Trusts is the only foundation supporting film preservation substantially, while the Film Heritage Foundation is the only non-profit working in film preservation.

“When Film Heritage Foundation was established in 2014, there were no trained film archivists or training programmes or degrees in film preservation. To address this issue, FHF in association with the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) began conducting intensive week-long film preservation workshops around the country from 2015 that was open to applicants from India as well as our neighbouring countries.” – Teesha Cherian, Director, FHF.

The awareness that film is a fragile medium, and the uncertainties associated with rapidly changing digital technology which pose challenges for preservation, has yet to fully permeate the film industry, the general public, and funders. Support was necessary, as film-makers, stakeholders and custodians of archives, often lacked a comprehensive understanding of what it takes to preserve a film as the art form it was created to be.  India has lost up to 70% of its film heritage, if not more.

The Tata Trusts stepped in with support for five film preservation workshops – through infrastructure and fellowships – in three regional film centres (2017-2019) and in Mumbai (2022) and Delhi (2023). Till date 101 fellowships have been supported by the Trusts. Teesha Cherian expands on the impact of the workshops and fellowships, “Many of the Tata Trusts scholarship recipients are now working at the National Film Archive of India and other government archives around the country and several are pursuing higher studies in the field, overseas.”

One such is Aparna Subramaniam, a Tata Trusts fellow and workshop alumnus, who received a Fulbright scholarship to study moving image archiving and preservation at the NYU Tisch School of Arts. Addressing the gaps in the Indian education system that hinder the development of expertise in film preservation, Ms Subramaniam said, “The higher education system, especially in film studies in India, looks at the archive as a noun, from an access point of view and does not contribute to generating resources that will work in the film preservation sector.”

Film preservation in the Film Heritage Foundation
A session on Film Handling and Repair during the 8th Film Preservation and Restoration workshop, 2023, by Film Heritage Foundation

Another, Johnson Rajkumar, an academic and Tata Trusts fellow who participated in FHF workshops, was instrumental in setting up a government film archive with the Manipur State Film Development Society. His efforts also led to a larger collaboration with the Manipur State Government and the Film Heritage Foundation for the restoration of their film heritage.  This collaboration resulted in the successful restoration of "Ishanou," a 1990 film by Aribam Syam Sharma that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2023.   “These regional repositories will play a crucial role in safeguarding micro-histories embedded within the country, thereby preserving localised collective memories that often remain overlooked in the broader narrative of 'national' cinema preservation. A critical aspect of this initiative is the recognition of the pressing need for well-trained personnel capable of effectively managing these regional film archives”, Mr Rajkumar said.

After implementing the workshop model nationwide, raising awareness, and establishing an initial layer of capacity, the imperative to establish a permanent teaching lab becomes evident. Recognising this need, a practical approach is essential to ensure sustained contributions to the sector. “As Film Heritage Foundation marks its 10th anniversary on January 6, 2024” Teesha Cherian hopes “that the Tata Trusts will once again be the wind beneath our wings that will finally see us realise our vision to build India’s first Centre of the Moving Image that will train future film archivists as well as preserve and showcase India’s film heritage”.

It is hoped that 2024 will witness the establishment of such a centre – a film preservation lab and training centre in Mumbai – that will help reduce set-up costs for workshops and allow for a greater number of candidates to be trained, faculty to be developed locally and a curriculum to be structured.