Confessions of a film archivist


He delicately operates his specialised machinery, eyes laser-focused on ensuring that he makes no mistakes. One wrong move could ruin the film he is preserving.

Mr Chew, 33, is an archivist for the Asian Film Archive (AFA). He told The New Paper that the non-profit organisation acquires, protects and showcases regional and local films that date as far back as the 1930s.

Along with his team, he checks and cleans reels of film before deciding whether to send them for restoration overseas.

According to Mr Chew, who has been an archivist for almost 10 years, archiving and restoration are two different fields, and his team focuses on conserving and sharing the films they acquire.

“We identify the films that are in dire need of restoration. Sometimes when we get them, they are in such bad condition that the canisters cannot even be opened,” he said.

“There is a lot of work needed to ensure that the films are taken care of, too.”

The problems an old film face can be endless, he added, especially if it has not been properly taken care of.

“The problems include discolouration, wear and tear of the film reels and shrinkage due to vinegar syndrome decay.

“Maintaining the quality of the films is important.

“We store them in climate-controlled conditions, we do labelling, we catalogue the conditions and we have to do reports about them – all before we acquire them for the collection,” said Mr Chew, who added that the AFA has more than 2,000 films in its collection.

It is not just the film spools Mr Chew works with. He also helps organise film screenings and events that showcase the films the AFA has had a hand in acquiring and restoring.

One event is the upcoming Asian Restored Classics festival, which will be held from the end of this month for two weekends.

A film that will be shown at the festival is 1973’s Ring Of Fury, which – according to Mr Chew – is the first local gongfu film.

Leaning forward in excitement, Mr Chew said that sharing the films he and his team get to archive is the part of his job he finds the most “heartening”.

He said: “We have people who come up to thank us, because they used to watch these films with their parents or maybe they watched it when they were younger.

“It is heartening to have people who have never seen the films before but recognise the stars or see the locations. It is especially important to see it on the big screen too.”

Asked how he ended up as an archivist, Mr Chew admitted that he never intended to be one.

When he was studying, he wanted to be a film-maker, but a chance encounter with an internship advertisement from the AFA led to where he is today.

With a smile, Mr Chew said he is happy to be an archivist, because it allows him to contribute to the longevity of films – something he is passionate about.

“An archive of film, to me, is a cultural record of our time. By saving and preserving it, we are preserving a slice of our lives that took place for future generations to learn and appreciate,” he said.

“To understand and appreciate our heritage, that is rare, and I am glad I get to do it.”
Source: New Paper


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