Silents speak up from afar

Aussie-found films to be restored

While the popularity of modern U.S. films worldwide is undisputed, a cache of lost silent films being repatriated from Australia under a new program proves that the so-called Hollywood effect goes back nearly a century.

The eight short films being preserved under the new program that's called Film Connection: Australia-America are virtually unknown, yet they demonstrate the lasting cultural hold that American cinema has worldwide.

The films range from 1912-27. Newsreels, documentaries, trailers and Hollywood promotional films that filled out theater programs and were widely seen by audiences in the U.S. and Australia are represented.

"What makes this partnership different, and I believe, ground-breaking, is that it recognizes that American silent film is a shared cultural patrimony," said Paolo Cherchi Usai, director of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

Only a fraction of the American films created during the first four decades of the motion picture industry survive in the U.S. They were often lost, destroyed or cannibalized after their immediate economic usefulness was exhausted.

The Library of Congress estimates that about one-third of American silent-era features that survive in complete form exist only in archives outside the U.S.

This project allows the films to be preserved and accessed through the five major American silent film archives: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Copies also will be publicly available in Australia.

Digital technology is at the core of the collaboration. The Australians will send the nitrate film to Haghefilm Conservation B.V., a Dutch film restoration laboratory. There the motion pictures will be scanned to digital files. Americans will make any necessary digital corrections and return the files to Haghefilm for printing to 35mm film and color tinting.

At the end of the process, the nitrate will be returned to the NFSA-Australia, along with new exhibition prints; the preservation masters and a second set of exhibition prints will be shipped to America.

"Unlike earlier efforts, the nitrate source material will return to its home in the NFSA-Australia," Usai said. "New preservation masters and prints will go to our sister archives in the United States for safekeeping and access. It's a win-win for everyone."

The National Film Preservation Foundation, the charitable affiliate of the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, has helped save more than 1,270 films since starting operations in 1997.