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Reprise or Reprieve for Altered Images

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A project aimed at preventing the destruction of key historical events on film.

Imagine future studies of twentieth-century history without the moving images of the Battle of the Somme, the Delhi Durbar, the Nurenberg rallies, or the early films of Charlie Chaplin. Too distressing a prospect to contemplate? You can breathe again since most of these events are now safely incorporated into modern film material. Yet much of the film that captured other key events of the last ninety years, particularly the details of everyday life invaluable to the social historian and especially most of the weekly Movietone newsreels seen at the cinemas, was shot on nitrate stock, highly flammable (hundreds of lives were lost in projection booth fires at cinemas in Paris and Chicago earlier in the century) and chemically dangerously unstable. This built-in self-destruct mechanism means that as you read this literally hundreds of feet of film in British film libraries and private collections are rotting away, their flexible transparent support turning into a gooey mass before finally crumbling to powder.

In an attempt to safeguard the first half of the twentieth century on film (all professional material made before 1952 was done with unstable stock) a campaign 'Nitrate Project 2000’ is under way, with the objective of transferring as much material as possible to non-flammable acetate film stock before the year 2000. Some public collections have already begun to do this from their own resources but in Britain the work has been severely hampered through lack of funding; it is estimated that at present funding levels, the Imperial War Museum could see up to a fifth of its collection disappear before the end of the century because of failure to transfer nitrate stock quickly enough. And commercial libraries and private collectors have generally not even been able to begin the limited 'race against time' that bodies like the Imperial War Museum and National Film Archive are now engaged in.


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