Lending a Helping Hand
(By: Robert Williamson)
Despite the popular notion that old films are outdated, irrelevant or just plain boring, there is a wealth of historical and cultural detail to be found in old film footage, without which our understanding of national heritage would be so much weaker. However, like most countries in Asia, Thailand’s cinematic legacy is in rather poor condition. The hot, wet climate, lack of money and resources, and a lack of understanding of the preciousness and fragility of film have meant that much of the country’s movie output has been lost, burnt, thrown away or left to rot. In some respects the situation is improving: Thailand’s film repository, the National Film Archive of Thailand (NFAT), under the stewardship of veteran film historian Dome Sukvong, has now been operating for over twenty years. But in others it is not: even though the NFAT is part of the Fine Arts Department, the government has persistently failed to provide enough financial support to enable the archive to do an effective job. The under-staffed, under-resourced archive has often been treated as a dumping ground for old film, much of which has to be painstakingly identified and repaired. It’s a time-consuming process and at any one time Dome will have hundreds, if not thousands, of cans of film piling up waiting to be evaluated and patched up. But this is largely an issue of time, and donations of time by volunteers can help. Other areas, however, cannot be resolved so conveniently. In particular, the restoration of frail, decomposing film has been all but impossible as the archive has never had the money to purchase the relevant equipment and local commercial labs have had neither the technology nor the expertise. Without restoration projects to save the archive’s crumbling treasures and return them to the public eye, the archive’s work goes unappreciated and its difficulties remain behind closed doors. But with a total annual budget of only three million baht (around US$70,000) and only three staff working on restoration, Dome doesn’t have the resources to carry out these potentially very expensive projects.
Happily, a degree of help is now at hand. In 2004, renowned Hollywood film laboratory Technicolor, now owned by French company Thomsen, took over Bangkok’s Cinecolor lab and installed American film preservationist Paul Stambaugh as its Managing Director. During his thirty-five year career Stambaugh has been involved in restoring numerous classic Hollywood titles including The Tall T, The Dirty Dozen, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Concerned by the plight of the NFAT, Stambaugh recently proposed a collaborative project between his lab and the archive in which Technicolor has agreed to donate the time and money to fully restore two films from the archive. This is an offer the type of which Dome has never received before.
“Film preservation has always been dear to my heart, so I wanted to find out what was being done here in Thailand through the National Archive,” Stambaugh explains. “I was really surprised at what a nice operation they have out there. My feeling was: how can we play a part? I know getting funds is difficult here, so I asked the head of Technicolor whether we could help. He gave me his support to restore two films, and I’d like to see that continue each year.”
It’s a generous offer, but to select only two films from the archive’s vaults poses tricky questions. Although there are films in the NFAT in desperately advanced stages of deterioration, nobody wants to risk alienating their benefactor by imposing the most complex, demanding jobs on them immediately. And of course it should be in the back of any archivist’s mind to provide access to material that people will actually want to see. Therefore, in making his selection of the two films to be restored, Dome has kept one eye on the archive’s needs and the other on his potential audience’s desires. The first is a drama produced in 1962 entitled The Boathouse. The film, directed by Prince Phanuphan Yukol for the Asuwin Film Production company owned by the uncle of Legend of Suriothai director Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol, concerns three men who rent a boathouse together. All have different backgrounds and aspirations – one to be a policeman, one a Thai boxer, one a singer – but their fates are linked by their love for the daughter of the boathouse owner. Dome explains that “the original negative has been lost to decomposition, but we have a positive print in which the colour is still good. But for preservation purposes we would like Technicolor to produce a new negative and strike a new print from that.” Of course, archives always prefer to preserve films as negatives because these will not fade as colour prints inevitably do.
Dome’s second choice is a true landmark in Thai cinema. Prajao Changpeuk (The King of the White Elephants) was produced by Governor-General Pridi Banomyong – the representative of the young King Ananda – in 1940 in response to the growing pressure on Thailand to enter into the Second World War. The original negative of the film was destroyed during the war, but, as Chalida Uabumrungjit of the Thai Film Foundation explains, a print of the film was required to be kept at the Library of Congress in Washington DC because Pridi had taken the unusual step of registering the copyright of the film in the United States. “He was a lawyer, so he knew how to do these things,” she laughs. However, the print, now kept at the NFAT, is hardly ideal. The Library of Congress’s original 35mm print perished, only having been transferred to 16mm at an advanced stage of decay. Although the picture quality remains good, the separate soundtrack reel is not in good shape. Indeed this is Dome’s second attempt to restore the film – the only pre-1945 Thai film that still exists in its entirety. The first attempt, undertaken five years ago to coincide with the film’s sixtieth anniversary, failed to produce a satisfactory composite print: the local lab could not generate a clear soundtrack. With luck, Technicolor will have the technology and Stambaugh the expertise to do a better job.
The uniqueness of the project means that nobody knows quite how much it might cost. For this reason, the budget for the project is flexible. Stambaugh will assess each film individually and judge how much work will need to be done, and he stresses the importance of doing things properly. “The important thing is to use original materials as much as possible. When you start getting into digital technology it opens up questions of whether you are restoring the film to its original state. But we may have to use digital technology to restore the soundtracks. We’ll do what we need to do to make it look good and sound good. But that could mean shipping some of the reels to our Hollywood facility.”
Commitment such as this is admirable, but naturally the goodwill of a single company cannot solve all the problems of an under-funded facility such as the NFAT. Recognising this, Stambaugh is looking to develop a broader coalition involving other industry players. “As a company we make money from the Thai film industry, and I believe we should give some of it back to safeguard the national heritage,” he reasons. “And I believe this should be true of all companies in the industry, so one thing I’d like to see evolve out of this is to get everybody involved in helping as much as possible. I’m hopeful that by doing this project I can encourage others to do something similar, and also convince the government to look at the archive and ask whether there is a way to raise more money. Ultimately, we need a foundation that can conduct fundraising and support the archive financially.”
His ambitions go further than that, however. Thailand is hardly the only country in Southeast Asia that neglects its film archives; the problem is as bad, if not worse, in the rest of the region. “I think it’s important to have a powerful regional action group that can push this issue forward and raise funding,” he argues. “I think it’s critical. There is a wider Southeast Asian organisation [SEAPAVAA, the Southeast Asia-Pacific Audio Visual Archives Association] and I definitely want to get involved with that group.”
And while the longer-term intentions of Stambaugh’s vision could bring benefits to the NFAT, it bodes well for Technicolor too. Asia is desperately lacking labs which can offer high quality restoration work, so Technicolor’s Bangkok facilities could become a regional hub for jobs of this kind. There are problems inherent in this too, though. Previously, the only option for Asian film archives undertaking restoration work has been to send material to labs in Japan. The NFAT and similar Southeast Asian film archives have never been in a position to afford this, but it’s doubtful that they would be able to afford to pay for Technicolor’s local services either. Brigitte Paulowitz, an Austrian film archivist visiting the NFAT as a volunteer consultant, believes that Technicolor might be able to draw business from richer countries such as Taiwan and Hong Kong by undercutting the Japanese labs; earnings from those clients might then be made available to subsidise work for the cash-strapped Southeast Asian archives. But whether this is a viable business model – and whether Technicolor bosses would be prepared to extend their benevolence – remains to be seen.