Séverine Wemaere, head of the Paris-based Technicolor Foundation, specialises in rescuing “orphan” films. When years of neglect cause long-abandoned prints to deteriorate, Technicolor steps in to restore them and bring them to new audiences. Wemaere is now in Cambodia to support Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center’s Memory! Film Festival, which aims to promote cinematic awareness among the Kingdom’s young generation. Bennett Murray spoke to the cinephile about the lost footage of Georges Méliès and the threats to film in Cambodia.
How long have you been protecting film heritage?
For the past ten years I’ve been directly involved in film heritage. But I’d say it’s a passion much older than that. It’s probably from my parents, I’m very grateful that they led me to that. My parents drove me to the cinema from the very beginning, and I watched classics a lot. The modernity it could have, the joy it could bring. After that it became a personal passion.
I’ve been working with Cambodia for the past seven years. Bophana was one of the first projects of the foundation. I was working in India and Cambodia at the same time, but I would say that Cambodia is the founding project of my foundation. I took part with the film inventory and digitisation that was founded at the Department of Cinema here.
You were behind the restoration of the colour version of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, the first known science fiction movie. Can you explain what you did?
Méliès shot the film in 1902, and had a colour version made by hand painting each of the individual 14,000 frames by hand. It disappeared, and years later we found it in Spain. It was almost 100 years old and in pieces, but because it was a masterpiece, we collected all the frames and put them together again like a puzzle. The film was 260 metres long and 15 minutes in length, which was huge for the time it was made, and it took over a year to put back together. But it was very important and was used to open the Cannes film festival when we finished.
Do many films get lost?
Lots! Méliès shot 600 titles, and we could only find 250. And he’s the master of cinema. There’s a lot of lost films I want to find, but you have to think there’s no lost films. You can always find them if you try. Sometimes you have to accept that a movie might be lost, but you should never give up hope. Films have always traveled a lot since the beginning. Méliès would screen a movie first in France, then a few weeks later in New York. You never know where you will find them.
Are you in Cambodia to restore films?
Not right now, but maybe Memory! will allow that. I’m not going to restore a film, I’m not going preserve a film, I’m not going to look for a film to preserve if I don’t have a plan or a vision to show it. Films are not just to be in shelters. They’re good as treasuries and memories, as a country’s memories or the world’s memories. They are to be shown and shared. Each project that we launch, I’m going to see that film onscreen with an audience. That’s the spirit of cinema.
What threatens film?
Heat and humidity. They are the enemies of film. If it’s not preserved in a humidity-controlled and heat controlled environment, it undergoes chemical destruction. You have it in Cambodia, but you have it everywhere in the world. You can’t just keep your film in a kitchen in your apartment. You have to keep it in proper storage conditions.
What is your favourite movie that you have restored?
I fall in love with all the films I’m involved in. I never choose a film to restore because I personally like it. But usually, there’s something that happens where I fall in love with the film.
You go into the universe of the filmmaker in a very singular way. You go into his universe, you find his intimate booklets about how he conceived the film. So you very much like the film at the end of the day, or end of the year or two that you work on it.
What film would you most like to restore?
I don’t know the title of what I want to restore, because I think it will pop up just like that. It will come to me. I’m not going to choose my next project, or my favorite project. But I’d like to find lots of Khmer films. I’ve read a lot about that, so my ambition is to collect films from Cambodia.