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Belgium's Vast Film Archive Fights for Self-Preservation

Movies * Famous but underfunded, institution decries lack of support for its restoration work.


BRUSSELS — It's a long way from the glamour of Hollywood to the seedy streets and dilapidated buildings around Brussels' Midi train station. Yet movie magic is being made here or, more precisely, restored.

In a plain, worn workshop hidden behind low-rent apartments and storefronts, Noel Desmet, head of the Royal Belgian Film Archive's restoration department, moves frame by frame through "John Petticoats," a 1919 silent western, touching up here, inserting missing bits there.

Combining deteriorating reels from the U.S. Library of Congress and the archive's collection, the final restored and preserved print will premiere at an Italian festival this summer in its original tinted black-and-white glory.

"For me, it's kind of a testament," says Desmet, who joined the lab right out of film school 36 years ago. "I have children, and I want them to be able to see some of these old films too. . . . I mean, can you imagine if we couldn't see any Rubens anymore? Or Van Gogh? It's the same thing.

"These films have to be preserved or they will be lost forever."

But it's uncertain how much longer Desmet--famous in restoration circles for a revolutionary preservation technique bearing his name--will be able to keep rescuing forgotten gems before they disintegrate.

Founded in 1938, Belgium's archive today ranks as the world's largest. It includes 100 American silent movies that exist nowhere else.

It's gotten so big because, since the 1970s, a copy of just about every film shown in Belgium is deposited once it finishes its cinematic run.

But although the films are free, the upkeep isn't. Bereft of private sponsors, the Belgian archive competes with post-Communist Moscow's for the dubious honor of most underfunded.

With 27 full-time employees, three climate-controlled warehouses, a restoration lab, film museum, screening house and offices, the Belgian archive scrapes by on an annual $1.5-million budget.

Even the Dutch, whose collection is roughly 5% the size of Belgium's, spend twice as much taking care of it.

The final straw for curator Gabrielle Claes, who's been fighting budget battles for 12 years, came this year when the Belgian government turned responsibility for her financing over to the vagaries of the National Lottery.

"The idea of being dependent on something which by definition cannot have a long-term policy, I thought it was very worrying," she said in an interview in her cluttered office, where old movie posters struggle to brighten a gloomy atmosphere of cracked window panes, exposed electrical wiring and broken heaters.

She called reporters and cinemaphiles to one of the warehouses, where she shredded a ruined nitrate reel of Roberto Rossellini's "Viaggio in Italia" to demonstrate what happens to old stock unless it's preserved.

She even pulled in Martin Scorsese, who counts the archive's late founder, Jacques Ledoux, as one of his mentors. Scorsese was directing TV commercials when his three-minute student film "The Big Shave" won a competition sponsored by the archive in 1967.

"This is one of the finest collections on the planet, and it deserves to be protected and treated with the same care and deference as any museum or fine-arts institution," he told the news conference by telephone from a Rome film set.

Last month, the Belgian government agreed to put the archive's finances back in its general budget. But whether Claes will see any increase is uncertain.

A spokeswoman for the government ministry that oversees the archive said the minister has asked the archive to submit a detailed budgetary analysis for consideration. But he also warned that any additional funding has to be approved by the entire Cabinet.

Claes acknowledges that cultural institutions the world over complain of underfunding. "But at least they have the support of private persons and companies" to supplement public money, she says.

Belgium has little tradition of private or corporate sponsoring. The few companies willing to give gravitate to big attention-grabbers like museum exhibitions or music events, not to an obscure film archive, she says.

Dressed in a dirty white lab coat, Desmet speaks with reverence about facilities elsewhere. Like the British Film Institute's J. Paul Getty Conservation Centre, named after its generous benefactor. Or the $11.2-million state-of-the-art facility that New York's Museum of Modern Art opened five years ago in Hamlin, Pa.

"Those are castles," he says, looking around his utilitarian quarters, bare fluorescent bulbs hanging from the ceiling. "Here, it's not a castle."

Yet it still produces treasures, such as the 1922 Rudolph Valentino romantic adventure "Moran of the Lady Letty," pieced together with reels from Belgium and Russia, or the most complete version of the 1920 German horror classic "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," which mixed stray reels from Uruguay, Italy, Russia, Germany and Belgium.


Even a B-picture like "John Petticoats" has significance, Desmet argues.

The early western helped launch the career of cowboy star William S. Hart. Its director, Lambert Hillyer, spent four decades in Hollywood and ended his career on the pioneering TV western series "The Cisco Kid."

Noting that her salary of barely $17,500 a year is the highest in the archive, Claes, 54, worries that the archive won't be able to attract qualified people to keep it going.

"I see [the archive] with kind of a tenderness, but I'm not expecting young people to do so," she says. "We are amateurs, and there's something nice about that but . . . that's part of the problem. . . . I want this archive to be a modern institution, with the right people, good equipment. The films deserve that, otherwise they're not going to survive, and all the work which was done is going to be for nothing at the end."

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