Footnotes: Frame by Frame | An interview with Ruxandra Blaga

13 October, 2022

Away, far away from the festival bustle of the fall season, in a small Italian town, there is an event dedicated to silent film called Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, the largest of its kind in Europe. For the second time in the year, Italy becomes the assembly point of film archivists, restorers, researchers, and historians – but, in contrast to the more popular Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, the one in Pordenone plays to a different rule, even if only for the fact that there are no parallel screenings, which means that everyone – around 1000 people – sees the same film, at once, and listens to the same live soundtrack, that is never electronic. And Jay Weissberg, the festival’s artistic director since 2015, knows his audience well; not always in-person, although many have confessed to me that they’ve been faithful to the Giornate for entire decades, but rather professionally – and so, the festival retains a certain self-conscience, one that is both cinephile and commercial in nature (because, after all, archives have their own market).

Anyways, there’s no surprise to the fact that I ran into Ruxandra Blaga in Pordenone, after meeting her a few months ago in Bologna. It would be unfair to characterize her as the only Romanian restoration professional, but I have no qualms in calling her by her name: our only restoration professional that is more than a technician and is also concerned with cinema at an intellectual level. A day before the festival began, she co-organized a screening of the 4K restoration of Manasse (dir. Jean Mihail, 1925), which was simultaneously screened at Cinema Victoria (in Cluj) and the Eforie Cinematheque (in Bucharest). My first conversation with Ruxandra took place a year ago, around the same time, when I attended the screening of The Romanian Independence (dir. Grigore Brezeanu, 1912) at Image and Sound, in a variant that was restored by her. And now, in Pordenone, I finally had the chance to interview her.

How did you get into film restoration? 

I went to the Art High School in Baia Mare, to the Architecture and Design section, since even back then, I was already passionate about painting and art history. I wanted to continue studying that at university, abroad, and back then, in the UK, they were still offering a loan program to students. I applied to five colleges and got into all of them, but of them all, the one in York had a very good Art History department and offered the possibility of going on an Erasmus scholarship to Florence. I first heard about film restoration in Florence – because I took advantage of the Erasmus program – from some colleagues who were volunteering at Il Cinema Ritrovato. It was also then that I took my first film courses, and then I wrote my degree on color in cinema. Then I did an internship in Venice at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, where, for three months, I was in charge of the museum’s educational program and the presentation of the modern art collection. One thing led to another, and by constantly talking about modern art, I realized that I kept on stopping upon its contemporaneity with cinema. Anyway, then I moved to Amsterdam for an MA in Heritage Studies, and after that, I did a summer school program and an internship at L’Immagine Ritrovata, the restoration lab of the Bologna Cinematheque, where I learned how to work with two digital restoration programs.

You grew up in the 2000s, which were quite plural in terms of cinematic images – cinemas ran physical copies, at home, you had VHS cassettes, and digital piracy was filling CDs that were then passed from one hand to the other. Did you ever reflect on the instability that was reigning at the time? Do all of these bastardized copies that we’ve seen – who knows how far down the line we were – have any archival value?

I didn’t think about those times in such analytic terms, but I lived through them – I still remember the first borrowed tapes, the first film I saw at the cinema, etc. They clearly have an emotional value, and it’s a pity that their playback devices also turned out to be so ephemeral. With the necessary effort – a pretty big one – these copies can also be digitized while remaining as faithful as possible to the original format. However, in conservation, the original film copy is the most important one, the negative from which projection copies are made and which is often the ideal material for restoration, as it is free from various traces of wear and tear. If you have to make a decision, then you should always preserve the best copy.

What’s the difference between digitization and restoration?

It differs from one point onwards. Digitization consists of inspecting, cleaning, and scanning the film. Before the process can even begin, the perforations on the edge need to be solid so that they can be entered into the scanner, and impurities need to be removed, insofar as possible. Restoration starts where digitization ends, that is, with the digital material itself, which needs to be stabilized and cleaned (dust, scratches, black dots, etc.), sometimes even frame by frame, as the software still fails sometimes.

So it’s not going to become a fully automated job any time soon, is it?

No, no way, you need to have the power of decision.

What’s the reputation of Walter Benjamin’s 1935 text, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, amongst archivists and restorers? The reason why I’m asking this is that in this essay, which is already perfectly canonical, Benjamin says that the revolutionary modernity of photographic art is precisely the result of the lack of a highly-coveted original. And, of course, film archivsm was still in its infancy, back then.

I have known the text since my art history studies, but I picked it up once more after I started working in the archival field by reading what Giovanna Fossati wrote about it in one of her famous books, From Grain to Pixel. She takes Benjamin’s idea and tests several notions of the original in cinema, which, in and of itself, is a complicated discussion, as the film is a copy of a copy of a copy. Some say that the uniqueness of each film is material, that is, the first negative, period, but that doesn’t seem enough to me. The history of cinema is much more complicated, with director’s cuts contradicting producer’s cuts and so on. And Fossati also makes another strong argument, in that each copy preserved in an archive has its own authenticity and takes part in the life of the film. Sure, you can trace the first version, but…

That’s not easy either, is it? At Pordenone, I saw this American melodrama, Just Around the Corner (1921), in a restoration done at the Eye Filmmuseum after two different negatives, the American and export versions. Regarding restoration as an act of faithfulness towards history, one wonders if this combination of two versions, which is then shown in Europe, still has something to do with the pre-planned destiny of the film.

Indeed, and Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, the curator at Eye, was saying exactly the same thing, that their contemporary version can only be described as a reconstruction. The purists, as they like to call themselves, don’t even present it as a restoration, but, as I said, as a reconstruction made in a way that it can be shown to the public in the most complete and fluid form achievable. And this is where other discussions begin – what does fluid mean, and concerning what? The audience at the time would have seen one of the two versions.

I know that we also have stories like these in our archive. Erstwhile, A Night to Remember / O noapte de pomină (1939) wasn’t fully preserved, and the variant edited by archivists has around 54 minutes. And I know that a found footage film from 1970, Memories from Bucharest / Amintiri bucureștene by Radu Gabrea, has a moment with the drunken rage of George Timică that doesn’t make it into the reconstruction, probably because it wasn’t fully kept in the original materials.

There are decisions that you have to own as Elif said. Behind such projects lies a lot of documentation that informs the interpretation of the material, but you rarely get a chance to justify your choices. You can put an explanatory card right at the beginning, but how much can you explain in it? People come to see the film. Of course, at festivals like Pordenone, some talks are specifically about that, as it’s a specialist-oriented event. I also wanted to say that reconstruction and restoration are not mutually exclusive, the whole process of research and attribution of meaning to the film would do well to end up in a digital restoration of the image, too.

My impression from the discussions at the festival was that you can only call a “pure” restoration that is fully in line with the history of the film in question. That it would not be just a technical term related to the image, but also an umbrella term that equally implies definitive research, which is only allowed in some fortunate cases. I’m interested in this, especially because, in Romania, the terminology remains very ambiguous, and few people distinguish between restoration and digitization.

Terminological confusion happens everywhere, not just in Romania, and it really has to do with the fact that there is no fixed definition of restoration, which is a problem… As I said, digital restoration does not simply involve the scanning of a film, but also some digital manipulation. In The Digital Statement Part III, a recent FIAF document, restoration is referred to as an intervention with digital tools, designed to manipulate the digitized film material (the scanned film frames) in some way, to repair or mitigate the damage that the film has suffered. Restoration also includes combining several scanned images to create a more complete or higher-quality end result.

But there’s also a certain beauty to this.

Beauty, yes, but also a not-at-all-recent problem – for example, back in the 1950s, when everything was analog, so pre-digital, restoration was understood as transferring film from nitrate support to a non-flammable acetate copy. It was a useful solution for everyone’s safety, as nitrate had caused many fires, but eventually, it was discovered that, unfortunately, the quality of the films suffered as a result of this process.  

Why does nitrate preserve images at a better quality?

Because it’s the original medium for those films. Every copy impoverishes the quality of the image, which is not the case with digital.

I’ve often come across the argument that preserving film on film is mainly justified by the fact that digital resolutions, those done in 1080p, 2K, and 4K, have not yet caught up with analog image performance, and that technical improvements are to be expected. Do you agree – that maybe 6K or 8K will solve the problem?

I have a hard time answering that, as we don’t know what will happen with these new technologies, and the quality differences between film and digital are already under constant debate. But one well-known thing is that especially when it comes to polyester prints – as acetate prints can develop vinegar syndrome, warping and becoming unusable over time – films can have a much longer shelf life than on various ever-changing digital formats. It’s very easy to lose something that is digital and it’s very hard to keep it, which is why new media art is so challenging for archivists.

But, concretely, do you think that there is a noticeable difference between 2K and 4K?

Of course. But most mainstream cinemas don’t go beyond 2K, that’s why such decisions much rather have more to do with the purpose of the project, these are very concrete issues – if you want to do IMAX screenings, then you restore in 4K.

And I think it depends on the film, especially in the case of silent cinema, where the canonical mise-en-scene is pretty emphatic and easily intelligible, but sometimes you run into an extravagant one like The Romanian Independence (dir. Grigore Brezeanu, 1912), whose chaotic direction sort of lets things all happen at the same time in the frame, and so I imagine that a higher resolution also implies a higher chance of carefully following the film. Coincidentally, you were the one to restore it, the very first Romanian fiction film. How did it go?

It was … a pretty big challenge (laughs), like with any film from that period. And it’s all the more challenging to keep the proportions between the technical production and projection conditions of the time, which you allow to reveal themselves throughout the film, along with the effects that time had on the film reel. For example, I was careful with the pulsations of light, which I didn’t want to be intrusive, as they were in the footage that I received, which was scanned from a positive, but it wouldn’t have been right to remove it altogether either, as it was part of the viewing experience of the time. The same goes for the image grain, which is typical to film, but the software detects as irregular movement, thus, as an effect; but here, too, there’s another discussion, since you never know what the original looked like.

Do you work according to the FIAF (International Federation of Film Archives) code of ethics?

Exactly, and according to the principles that I learned from my teachers and colleagues.

Until very recently, that is, until the discussion that you had after the screening of the restored version of Manasse (dir. Jean Mihail, 1925) at the Eforie Cinematheque, I hadn’t heard about this idea of contemporary restoration as a plural practice, as every restored version invites the existence of a later, better, or at least different one. From various discussions that I’d had, I had the impression that it was something fixed and definitive.

I didn’t hear about this discourse, and from the very beginning, I was told that everything is perfectible, depending on the state of cinema history as well as the technique of the moment. Naturally, ideally speaking, your restoration will be as documented, faithful, and complete as possible, but it will never be definitive, even if only for the fact that it also implies interpretation.

How did the National Film Archive get in touch with you?

Mihai Fulger [then acting director of the NFA – e.n.] was attending a conference of the Eye Filmmuseum organized by our professors, and I helped as a photographer. I had already returned to Romania when the Archive called me because they wanted to restore The Romanian Independence. I was interested in the proposal and came to Bucharest for a face-to-face interview and spent six months at the CNC for the project. Since then, I have been an external collaborator of the Archive, and other films that I have restored for them through my studio include Leiba Zibal (r. Ion Niculescu-Brună, 1931) and Manasse.

And in parallel, you are working on a project to restore some early D.W. Griffith films.

Yes, for the nonprofit Film Preservation Society, which is working with MoMA and the Library of Congress to restore those short films directed by Griffith that were produced by Biograph. These are one-reel films that are kept in the two partner archives, and the documentation is compiled from documents kept in both of the archives. We assemble the scenes from the negative, reconstruct the intertitles, and then the films get a soundtrack, as they get distributed to TV, festivals, BluRay, etc. It’s exciting, I’m currently working on Griffith’s first close-up, The Brahma Diamond from 1909, with a scene where someone steals a diamond and hides it in the top of a suitcase, and then there’s the close-up. It’s very damaged… but it’s worth it.

Do you think your experience as a restorer requires a certain aestheticism? Do you tend to get more excited about the form rather than the subject?

I feel that, yes. I’m interested in color in cinema, but I’m also interested in everything that has to do with composition. In particular, at one point I was working on the hand-held frames of a Cassavetes film and I was very serious about keeping that abrupt spontaneity in the restoration too because it seemed absolutely necessary.

If you were to choose, what would you like to restore?

Oh! Animations! And experimental cinema. I’d like for the films to not just be silent. In Bologna, I worked on Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) and it felt wonderful!


(Thumbnail photo: Petre Fall)

Film critic and journalist. He is an editor at AARC and writes the ”Screens” features for Art Magazine. He collaborates with many publications and film festivals as a freelancer and he is strangely attached to John Ford's movies.