Archivist rejuvenates ageing reels

Japanese film archivist Nobukazu Suzuki
Japanese film archivist Nobukazu Suzuki examines a reel of film in his office at the Bophana Centre. Charlotte Pert

Archivist rejuvenates ageing reels

With primitive equipment and a looming deadline, Nobukazu Suzuki has been given the mammoth task of painstakingly inspecting, repairing and digitising the Kingdom’s vast repository of archival footage

For the past decade, on a daily basis, Nobukazu Suzuki has battled fungus, operated archaic machinery and endured noxious fumes. He’s not a trash collector – he’s an archivist.

Suzuki, who is from Tokyo, is in Cambodia to help the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center with the mammoth job of digitising the country’s vast film collection. It’s a tedious but rewarding task: what is on the thousands of reels, many of which are badly degraded after years of neglect, few have seen.

“Most people don’t understand my work,” the softly spoken 34-year-old tells me, as he wraps a gloved hand around one of dozens of reels in his charge, many of which are coated in a sinister-looking white substance. “Sometimes fungus and sometimes powder,” he explains.

On his desk sit a blue plastic mask and a bottle of rubbing alcohol – to block the dust and clean the film, respectively. The floor is littered with bits of machinery and boxes of reels that emit a chemical odour, making him something of a talking point among his colleagues. “Cambodians almost run away!” he says.

Each day, Suzuki works through piles of cardboard boxes filled with footage that until recently were buried somewhere in the depths of the Ministry of Culture. Most are post-Khmer Rouge but a few pre-date the regime. Suzuki’s job is to inspect, repair and digitise the films so that Bophana can catalogue them.

The quickest way to do this is with a telecine machine but, at $80,000, the cost is prohibitive. Suzuki is hoping for funding for a film projector, which costs around $15,000, so he can do it DIY-style: screen and then capture the images on a digital camcorder. But for now, he flattens and scans frames one by one.

Until the Japanese government, who are funding Suzuki, sent over a glass plate, Bophana didn’t have the technology to straighten film that has curled at the edges. As we talk, a scanner in his office is in action, copying images from one of the reels he has already repaired.

When I ask to see them, he says yes, with the caveat: “But they’re a little grotesque.” He clicks a few times and the frames pop up. They’re from the bombing of Phnom Penh in the lead up to the Khmer Rouge takeover. A man, bloodied and clearly dead, is sprawled on a cyclo in the middle of a street.

Suzuki is accustomed to images of tragedy. Before he came to Cambodia, he worked on the production of a film about the 2011 tsunami that killed 15,884 people and devastated large swathes of Japan. In the days after the disaster, the archivist realised that amid the wreckage there were records that could be used to preserve the memory of some of the places that had been destroyed.

Rusted film cans are piled up waiting to be inspected
Rusted film cans are piled up waiting to be inspected. Charlotte Pert

Suzuki, who then worked for the Japanese National Film Archives, helped launch a campaign to collect material from members of the public who lived in disaster-struck areas.

“While some documentaries are about political issues or social problems, home movies are always personal – that is very impressive to our hearts,” he says.

Everything collected was merged to create a short film bearing the futuristic title Project of Re-building and Creation of Psycho Social Scene and Landscape, which follows the story of one town using footage shot by a single family. They survived the tragedy, though it claimed the lives of hundreds of their neighbours.

The result is a film ruminating on loss made all the more haunting by the poor quality of some of the damaged reels. In one shot, a toddler in tartan shorts scrambles up some steps and later, rides a tricycle down a street; in another, dancers parade in colourful costumes. There are lingering shots of mountains and rivers. Most of the scenes are dogged by blue stains on the film – iridescent clumps caused by the water damage.

When water seeps into film, it washes away the emulsion, the mixture of chemicals that create the images. The recovered images bear ghostly traces, as seen most famously in Robert Capa’s images from the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

But water damage is preferable to the type of wear sustained by most Cambodian film, according to Suzuki. With the former, “the base [of the film] is still strong, so we can make a projection very easily,” he says. When films age over time – especially when left exposed to high temperatures and a humid climate – the base becomes brittle and is easily shattered. Handling them requires a delicate touch.

The work is slow and painstaking: it can take him a month to finish two hours of film, says Suzuki. At this point, he isn’t sure how much he’ll get through before he returns to Japan in August. “I counted the film cans at the cinema department and there are 3,500 cans, so I don’t know if my work will be finished,” he says.

As we kneel over another pungent-smelling reel, I ask if he thinks that his work has a bad effect on his health. “I think it is very bad,” he says.

“But you do it anyway?”
“Yes, because somebody should inspect film,” he says. “My passion is just to see the moving images – just only that – and I try to hand it down to the young generation.”

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