Why watch Film on Film?

The BFI's first annual Film on Film festival aims to celebrate and educate on the wonders of celluloid, from nitrate and 35mm to 3D.

Words & Interviews

Lillian Crawford


In the age of digital cinema projection, the majority of audiences pay little heed to how the film is getting onto the screen in front of them – it is simply there. But why go to see a film in the cinema when most films are already available on the internet? That’s where Film on Film, a new festival at the BFI Southbank, comes in. The title itself announces it as a tool to differentiate between film (the content of the images we see projected) and film (the physical frames themselves). We’re talking celluloid with sprocket holes, tangible objects passed down through the generations.

But most of these celluloid prints have been locked away for decades, whether in the BFI National Archive in Berkhamsted or a separate storage site in Gaydon, Warwickshire. The experience of seeing films on film is a rare one today, a luxury, something which most people are unable to replicate in their homes. For cinephiles like me who were raised in the digital age, this is an opportunity to see films in a new way. For others like Robin Baker, head curator of the BFI National Archive and programme director of the BFI Film on Film Festival, this a return to the ways in which he watched films for several decades.

My work as an historian, focusing on post-war British cinemagoing, requires me to imagine what it would have been like to sit in a mid-century picturehouse without having been there. Apart from seeing cinemas captured in films like Brief Encounter (1945), or lovingly recreated in The Long Day Closes (1992) and Dennis Potter’s Lipstick On Your Collar (1993), I rely on first-hand accounts in the archive.

I tell Baker this as we sit down to chat about the festival. But before I get too excited about Baker taking us on a journey back to my favourite era of cinema history, he says, “I was very clear that we didn’t want to do a heritage experience. There’s nobody dressed up in 1940s usherettes outfits.” So don’t expect any wurlitzers, choc ices, renditions of the National Anthem, or lax smoking laws – Film on Film is about grounding film in the present, and taking stock of projection as experience in and of itself.

For those who haven’t seen films in this way before, I ask Baker what we should be looking out for from the moment the lights go down and the curtains open. “The image will move slightly,” he says. “You’ll hear the projector. You will watch reel changes, or see and hear reel changes happen. You’ll see the flicker caused by the shutter opening.” These are all things in the 21st century which we have been taught to view as imperfections, to bemoan the slightest speck on the screen. But this is what makes these cinematic experiences special.

The prints themselves, like pages layered with marginalia or graffitied walls, are palimpsests – they bear the physical markings of time in ways digital cinema never will. These are films as objects, beheld by a limited number of real people before us. It creates a sense of connection across time between projections. Reflecting on this idea, Baker agrees and tells me that he was an archaeologist before he worked in film. “I always think of that emotional charge I had when I was excavating, and I’d dig something out, realising that I was the first person to touch it in centuries.”

The same can be said of the films being screened for the festival. While the films themselves have been seen many times since, original prints haven’t been publicly screened for decades. Film on Film opens on 8 June with a special presentation of an original 1945 release nitrate print of Mildred Pierce directed by Michael Curtiz. It’s a film many cineastes will have watched multiple times over the years, but very few alive today will have seen the first version.

Baker says that he showed it to his nieces, aged 12 and 17, last Christmas and they loved it, but it is a totally different experience to watch the nitrate. “It sets your mind imagining as to who the projectionist was, and who was sitting in that audience. Women wearing clothes not dissimilar from the costumes of Joan Crawford in the film itself. They were dealing with a contemporary experience, and the artefact connects you to that audience.”

A film to which historical transformation of celluloid prints is inherent is The Afterlight by Charlie Shackleton, being screened on 10 June. The work consists of fragments from film history, showing actors from across time and space who are all now deceased. The print has been designed to slowly deteriorate with each screening, changing every time it is projected.

I asked Shackleton what the film’s inclusion in the festival means to him. “For me that’s always been the draw of celluloid: the chance to encounter a film through a material object with a material history, and feel that strange sense of communion with every audience that came before you, and those yet to come,” he says. “Because The Afterlight exists as a single print, the effect is magnified. To see the film is to encounter the same artefact as everyone who’s ever seen it, and everyone who ever will – and to know that your screening is leaving a trace, literal and figurative, that will indelibly mark the experience going forward.”

Shackleton will be demonstrating how he prepares the print for projection in the foyer beforehand, and the festival includes a plethora of workshops and talks on the nature of film. The important thing to remember, according to Baker, is “that there is a very skilled human being or several human beings in the projection booth putting on a show for you. There’s an element of danger to these screenings, like going to the theatre. It will never be the same. It could go wrong. Things do go wrong very often. It is cinema as live event.”

We all have stories, even now, of faulty projectors and disastrous screenings. Although nothing shown in a modern multiplex is quite as dangerous as some of the prints being transported to BFI Southbank for the festival. “We’ve been working for months and months to make sure that we are nitrate ready,” Baker says. “We’re the only public centre in the UK able to show nitrate to an audience. So we have done every bit of testing from fire suppression through to checking absolutely everything works to evacuation procedures.” It’s worth noting that nitrate, with its unique colouration and physical properties, hasn’t been seen in public in the UK for over a decade.

In addition to four nitrate screenings, including the oldest print ever projected to a UK cinema audience, the 91-year-old Service for Ladies (1932) directed by Alexander Korda, Film on Film includes a smattering of rarities handpicked by the BFI’s curatorial team, a celebration of the centenary of 16mm, debuts for some newly produced 35mm prints of classics including Malcolm X and Morvern Callar, and a selection of 3D shorts and features.

I wonder how many viable prints there are in the archive to keep the festival going. Baker smiles, and tells me, “We’re going to keep going, I’d say, for at least the rest of my lifetime, and including the rest of my younger colleagues’ lifetimes as well.” Perhaps in 50 years you’ll see one of these prints again at the BFI, and see the marks of a screening you attended in 2023. Isn’t it romantic?

The first edition of the BFI Film on Film Festival runs from June 8 – 11 at BFI Southbank.

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Published 1 Jun 2023

Tags: 35mm BFI BFI archives BFI Film on Film Festival

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