Analogue Cinema in Digital Times The beauty of an art form believed to be dead

Not exclusively an enthusiasts’ project
Not exclusively an enthusiasts’ project | Photo (detail): © Friedl Kubelka School for Independent Film

The future of commercial cinema is digital. Nevertheless, analogue film lives on. On an international level, a large number of initiatives and collectives have committed themselves to this medium that was thought to be obsolete.

If you ask filmmaker, Deborah S. Phillips, why most of her films are shot on 16mm film, it doesn’t take her long to answer, “If you compare analogue with digitally produced images, the difference is similar to that between an oil painting and a photocopy”. The analogue film creates a richness of nuances and colour that could never be achieved digitally. Furthermore, the camera which Ms. Phillips uses – a Bolex from Switzerland – enables her to shoot without artificial light, as is the case with digital cameras. Due to extremely long exposure times she is also able to capture images on film, “which one would not see with the naked eye”. Thanks to analogue technology, Phillips emphasises, “I have every shot completely under control”.

Analogue collectives

Deborah S. Phillips is a member of a collective called LaborBerlin e.V., where more than 60 filmmakers have come together to form a democratic association with a grassroots approach. They organise exhibitions and workshops, in which they practically and theoretically explore all the things that can be done with analogue film in the digital age. LaborBerlin also runs, Analogue Zone, a long-term project that brings together like-minded people from Egypt, Germany and Greece and has produced around 30 analogue films.

Collectives and initiatives like LaborBerlin exist in many countries around the world. There are regular meetings of the international analogue film community, where technical knowledge about projectors, cutting tables, development emulsions and other aspects are gathered and exchanged – this year it was held in July, in Nantes, France.

Museums instead of cinemas

Despite the large number of artistic projects, the analogue film is threatened by marginalisation both on an industrial level, as well as on a commercial one. Projectors for 35mm, 16mm or even 8mm film are hardly produced anymore. Moreover, fewer and fewer cinemas have the appropriate equipment to show these films. This development has been accelerated by the fact that in Germany and other European countries the refitting of art house cinemas with digital technology is promoted and sponsored by the state.
As a result, analogue films, which are often so experimental, are now to be found in museums and galleries. Any major event on the visual arts scene is nothing unless it has a film installation, explains Philipp Fleischmann, filmmaker and director of the Friedl Kubelka School for Independent Film in Vienna, where the students work with analogue technology.

Getting to the core of the medium

Philipp Fleischmann compares the medium with “a strict teacher who demands hard work, patience and independence from her pupils”. When working with analogue film, the image is not immediately visible or available and it cannot be immediately shared with the whole world on Instagram. Many filmmakers of the younger generation, however, are overwhelmed by the seemingly endless possibilities of the digital domain. In addition, an understanding of the analogue material is necessary “in order to understand film history”, particularly in the area of the experimental avant-garde, where, for example, the composition of the film material itself often played a substantial role in the creation of many works.
The works of the Friedl Kubelka School and the Berlin Labor Group is also the focus of the film series, The Last Machine: Analogue Film Art from Berlin, Paris, Vienna, which is being shown at the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna in November 2016. At the moment there are two main directions in analogue film making, observes Alejandro Bachmann, a researcher at the Vienna Film Museum. “On the one hand, there is a structuralist interest that tries to get to the core of the medium. On the other hand, there are narrative formats in which the filmmakers say the analogue process brings about an increased concentration in their work.” Finally, the material is much more expensive and so one has to use it sparingly.

The analogue film will live on

Nevertheless, analogue film is not exclusively an enthusiasts’ project, which is trying to find its niche in the art world. For the purpose of archiving, Bachmann stresses that, analogue copies are still the best back-up medium to date, compared to the much more vulnerable hard drive. And he mentions the international online initiative, which is committed to the survival of analogue footage. It is supported by such great visual artists as Tacita Dean, award-winning filmmaker Michael Haneke, and Hollywood directors Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan. Their argument – the “analogue versus digital film” discussion – was primarily conducted from the technical perspective. However, both digital as well as analogue film are different forms of media with different forms of artistic expression. Both should, therefore, have a right to exist. In fact, Kodak recently resumed its production of 35mm film material. In return, the US film industry promised to place a minimum order.
“In the realm of art history, there have always been moments when certain media were said to be dead,” says Alejandro Bachmann from the Austrian Film Museum. He cites frescoes as an example. “There was a time when the paint and the craftsmanship required for their production were widespread.” This is, of course, no longer true today. Nevertheless, the art form has not completely disappeared. Accordingly, Bachmann expects the analogue film of the future to “no longer have the dominance that it has enjoyed over the past 120 years. There will, however, still be artists who are very interested in this medium.”

The Cine Esquema Novo (CEN) festival is being held in Porto Alegre from 3 until 10 November 2016. This festival has promoted the diversity of the image through video art since 2003. With 44 productions such as film and video installations, the CEN presents a panorama of contemporary Brazilian production at a variety of venues in the city. CEN 2016 immerses itself in the world of celluloid and aims to discuss the preservation of analogue techniques. The exhibition in Porto Alegre presents two important film labs: the German LaborBerlin and the Dutch Worm.Filmwerkplaats. In addition, the 16mm production by the duo OJOBOCA (Anja Dornieden from Germany and Juan David González Monroy from Colombia) will be examined. Both artists have been invited by the Goethe-Institut Porto Alegre and the CEN festival to show their films in the city. They will also lead a workshop on working with 16mm film (filming and manual development). A dialogue with the audience on their work with film and reports on the work at LaborBerlin will offer insight into the diversity of analogue artistic production in film. The analogue film programme at the CEN festival was organised by the film production pátiovazio, whose members Luciana Mazeto and Vinícius Lopes were in Berlin and Rotterdam in July. They are planning to launch an analogue film lab in Porto Alegre.