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This film festival spotlights efforts to preserve and discover lost movies

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Nearly half of all movies made before 1950 have been lost, according to some estimates. That's why film historians and archivists are racing to preserve older movies. The Restored and Rediscovered Film Festival spotlights these efforts, and it kicks off today at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y. One of the festival's offerings is this rarely seen 1971 film, "Bushman." It's about the racial politics of 1960s America as seen through the eyes of a Nigerian immigrant.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BUSHMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Man, I can't get used to these strange Black people in the world (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm Blacker than you are.

CHANG: Senior film programmer and critic Monica Castillo is here to tell us more. Welcome.

MONICA CASTILLO: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Well, thanks for being with us. So can we start with that film, "Bushman"? Like, I've heard it described as half drama, half documentary. What was this film about exactly?

CASTILLO: It's a really interesting film that blends narrative nonfiction and fiction. You're following a Nigerian exchange student as he kind of explores identity, ideas of home and belonging in counterculture San Francisco in the late 1960s. And he even embraces the name Bushman as well. You know, and his different questioning and answers throughout the different characters that he meets.

But then all of a sudden, the movie comes to a screeching halt. And then somebody else comes in front of the frame and tells you that the actor playing the main character was arrested on his own college campus and deported. So then that's when the documentary aspect really comes in. And it's a talking point for the way that Black students are treated, the way that immigrants are treated. It's a really remarkable film.

CHANG: So interesting.

CASTILLO: Yeah.

CHANG: Well, I do want to talk about the work involved in bringing a film like "Bushman" to audiences on the big screen. Like, what does it take to restore a film? What do archivists have to do to resurrect some of these films, exactly?

CASTILLO: Yeah. So it really depends on the film itself and what condition it's in. There's usually a scanning process, digitizing it. And then once it's in a computer, they can fix the imperfections, whether that be mold or color degradation or scratches. And then through that process, we're able to get another copy on the other end. So that's what we're able to show.

CHANG: What's fascinating about this for me is when I think of restored films, I think of, like, the old silent films or the early talkies. But we're talking about films that are much more modern. Like, I know one of the films you're showing is the 1960 British horror thriller "Peeping Tom."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PEEPING TOM")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Whatever I photograph, I always lose.

(SCREAMING)

CHANG: Which I understand that critics hated when the movie came out. So tell me why you decided to showcase that movie here.

CASTILLO: Absolutely. And they sure did hate it at that time. But...

CHANG: And why? What was so awful about this movie?

CASTILLO: It was controversial in the way that it depicted violence. And it sort of equated, you know, movie making with a sense of warriorism. I mean, that's very much what it's playing with, but maybe it was a little too ahead of its time. So even though it came out about the same time that "Psycho" did, you know, Alfred Hitchcock was celebrated, and Michael Powell had to deal with the sort of career fallout with all of these negative reviews over "Peeping Tom." But now with this new restoration, I mean, you get to really appreciate the amount of texture and color work that he's working with. Like, he really immerses you in the main character's sort of mania, and it's really fascinating.

CHANG: So what do you ultimately hope that people will take away from watching these films years and years later?

CASTILLO: I really just hope that they keep an eye out for these restorations. They are so special, and you get to see so much more. I was just thinking of the Iranian New Wave film "The Runner," which we have in our series. Before, I had seen a sort of VHS scan copy off of YouTube, and you lost so much of the story.

CHANG: Yeah.

CASTILLO: And then now with this restoration, there's whole pieces of the story that now come together. And you feel this character's journey in a such more emotional and visceral way. That's part of the movie magic.

CHANG: That is Monica Castillo, senior film programmer at the Jacob Burns Film Center. And if you aren't able to make it to the festival in Pleasantville, many of these restorations will be available to stream or to buy. Thank you so much, Monica. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jordan-Marie Smith
Jordan-Marie Smith is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.