Il Cinema Ritrovato's Peter Von Bagh: DVD Companies Doing Work of Archives (Q&A)

Peter Von Bagh

The Finnish artistic director of Bologna’s rediscovered-cinema festival said cinephilia is now driven partly by home entertainment producers, filling the gap for underfunded archives.

BOLOGNA, ITALY – These days, nearly every A-list film festival has a section dedicated to old gems. Cannes started its Cannes Classics sidebar in 2004, and Venice and then Berlin have joined in.

But Italy’s Il Cinema Ritrovato was there first. Organized by the Cineteca di Bologna and backed by the Italian city’s municipal authorities, the week-long festival is now in its 27th edition, which ends on Saturday.

The festival is the film geek’s version of heaven, with screenings of classic and rare films organized into innovative sections. The regular showcase of short frilms from a century ago and is “Rediscovered and Restored” section are joined this year by a look a 1960s Czech films shot on the unique Orwo stock. These include well-known films like Jiri Menzel’s Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains, and some less acknowledged works such as Vojcech Jasny’s The Cassandra Cat.

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These screenings are usually supplemented with seminars, and the festival also boasts long-running research projects on the life and career of Charlie Chaplin. Allan Dwan and Jerry Lewis are also feted at the festival this year. Not that this is a completely inward-looking event. The festival also acknowledged how the survival and rediscovery of classics from around the world is reliant on the commercial instincts of home entertainment producers.

Now in his 13th year as the festival’s artistic director, Finnish filmmaker-archivist-scholar Peter Von Bagh is the director of grand documentaries about his home country dating back from the 1970s.

Bagh down with The Hollywood Reporter in between his screenings, seminars and dinner dates to talk about Il Cinema Ritrovato’s importance and how DVD producers are filling in the void left by cash-stricken European film archives.

The Hollywood Reporter: How much has the festival evolved from its roots?

Peter Von Bagh: I don’t know whether it has “evolved” as it might be something negative. When I started [coming to the festival] it was basically just one huge cinema and everybody was sitting there and they only saw one set of films. And then obviously at some point there was a second cinema [added] – I remember then, when I was not involved in the festival, I opposed it. I think it was ideal to have all of us sitting together and discussing the same film, the same emotions and so on – and it worked beautifully.

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Then I criminally ditched my convictions because during my time – I didn’t make the big decisions alone, and I tend to agree with [the festival organizers] – it has become much bigger, four cinemas and really much more people coming from all over the world. You can even say it’s become more popular… and really it has a certain reputation.

I think it’s pretty natural why this happened because nowadays the offers of commercial cinemas is worse than ever in my lifetime. It’s impossible to follow it because there seems to be no hope. And there are some festivals who are running just as [a showcase of] previews for commercial repertory and they have less and less ambition for retrospectives and even big festivals like Cannes only run digital things. So I mean it’s pretty hopeless for a cinephile who loves cinema deeply.

There is no place to go and [Il Cinema Ritrovato] is one where you are certain from nine o’clock in the morning until midnight you have something very, very interesting.

THR: How much has the program changed during these years then?

Von Bagh:The structure is pretty much the same. The huge part is silent films, more than that in Poderone. So those who love silent films can come here and sit all the time in silent movies. Then we have our favorite sections, repeating sections which are huge parts of the festival – for example, the screening of films from 100 years ago is something of a very strong part, it has a very clear idea.

But some sections are poignantly pointing to the importance of auteurs and digitals – we have for the past 12 years running Cinemascope films, which began 50 or 60 years ago. We have the historical series, and now it’s [“War Is Near”], with films from about two years before the Second World War started in Europe – of course in Asia it was going on already for almost ten years.

And there were always important filmmakers, actors and actresses. The whole philosophy here in Bologna was [established] before I came to work here. I was just following the lead and I can’t claim to have invented much – it’s very strong because two persons were very clever and intelligent – Gian Luca Farinelli and Nicola Mazzanti who founded this thing [in 1986] at the age of something like 22. It needs young people to invent something like this.

THR: And there are the DVD awards, which are pretty different an enterprise than the more academic or aesthetically-inclined parts of the festival.

Von Bagh:The best DVD companies are doing the same kind of job that we are doing. And with additional [features] they are unearthing good material, they are doing exactly the job that film archives should be doing.

THR: So how does the festival interact with this development, this relationship with the more commercial aspects of this rediscovering-film pursuit?

Von Bagh: Probably DVDs help us, because they brought classics into the world, available to many people. Blu-Ray is more limited even if it involves better technique. But I think they created the need to see [films] properly, and the philosophy [at the festival] is to show films in the best copies you can ever find. [But] digital is another thing which I don’t like. I don’t like this trend of digital restorations, but there are many archives who are doing them.

There was this showing of a Riccardo Freda film [Beatrice Cenci from 1956] a moment ago and there was somebody from Rome Film Archive who said it’s a question of money. Europe is very poor and European archives don’t have the money to do real restorations. This is one sad thing, I would say. But the main part of the program is still fantastic, you see we have all good relationships with archives, we can take the best view of some films.

THR: More and more DVD companies are coming to the festival too…

Von Bagh:These people come here and we have very good relations with them and we have tremendous respect for their work, because the DVD publishing published restorations, reconstructions and lost sequences and things like that, they are doing the work that the archives should have had done. But the archives don’t have the money the DVD companies have so… The only thing I’m sorry about is that it’s for home entertainment, it’s very good for private people but it doesn’t do at all for the existence of film as a culture seen in cinemas.