Pretoria, South Africa
Film Must Live and Breathe
By way of introduction, I should state that my parents are entirely to blame for introducing me to cinema in 1974 when I turned seven: they had to drag me kicking and screaming into a horrible place called THE CINEMA as I didn’t want to go in. After Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express had finished, my parents had to drag me kicking and screaming out of the cinema as I didn’t want to leave.
As a film archivist, I believe that the film productions we preserve at the South African National Film and Video and Sound Archives must be screened and shown to all. They must of course be transferred to a digital tape medium as well—most of the full-length feature films produced in South Africa since Harold Shaw’s De Voortrekkers (The Pathfinders, 1916) have been digitized by the NFVSA in this way—and there must be many more than one 35mm or 16mm copy available. They must not lay unseen on a shelf gathering dust for years. The only time that film truly lives is when it is shown; if not, it is as good as dead.
I started work at the NFVSA in December, 1989, little knowing then that I had found my life’s work. Part of my duties was to prepare and project archival films for the students who regularly visited the NFVSA. To this end, I was taught projection by the then head of the NFVSA, who screamed at me when I didn’t make the film gate loops large enough and when I later burnt a projector motor out when I accidentally plugged the wrong power supply cable into the wrong socket. Worse was to come: when I failed to start the motor on another projector correctly and on time, he swore at me. It is very surprising to me, almost a quarter-century down the line, that this tiny tirade of abuse did not put me off projection altogether.
The NFVSA had weekly screenings of films for students who requested films such as D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance and Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers amongst others. We had to project these as they were in our collection, despite the fact that our collections policy enforces the preservation of productions made in or about South Africa only. The student screenings, accompanied by talks I gave on the history of the South African cinema, were something that I always looked forward to and still do, despite the never-ending presence of “what on earth am I doing here” expressions on most of their faces.
I can remember a day when the students were plainly bored with the film I was screening, tapping away at their mobile phones, yawning and talking—the latter two at the same time—and I lost my temper with them, telling them that they were wasting their time sitting there if they did not have any interest in the history of the industry they were soon to be working in. I switched off the projector and told them to leave if they were not prepared to show the pioneers of Africa’s oldest film industry some respect, even if the films were, as they put it, ‘old and creaky’. Needless to say, all were stunned into silence and no one left. In fact, it was just those expressions and synchronized yawns of the students which led me to encourage them to have an interest in one of the oldest film industries in the world, having had its beginnings in 1895 when films were first screened in Africa. To a large extent, I have succeeded and I always say that if I can inspire just one student the way I was inspired then I have done my job.
Screenings also occurred at the Volksbladfees in Bloemfontein and I talked to the paying audiences who attended, telling them what the NFVSA does and what it could do for them. Weirdness ensued. The audiences were a little taken back (to say the least) when I stood up to talk to them prior to projecting the film. In fact one lady was so taken aback that she abruptly told me to shut up and sit down. I was also taken to task by a member of the audience who lambasted me for saying that South Africa’s controversial political thriller Die Kandidaat (The Candidate, 1968) was a caricature of the feared and faceless Afrikaner Brotherhood to which almost all of the previous government’s ministers had belonged. As a film historian with this film’s director as my mentor, I informed her that this was in fact the case and that was how that organization was dealt with in the film. Her answer was that her husband was a member of that organization and he would ‘come and sort me out’.
The screening of the 1969 South African film Katrina—a searing indictment of the inhuman apartheid laws of the day—provoked a similar reaction in that same year, but far more emotional. 120 people went into the cinema dry-eyed: 120 people left crying. This film is the true test of whether anyone has a soul or not.
I have screened films in almost every conceivable place across the length and breadth of South Africa from under the stars screenings, on the side of a truck, in a flea-infested hotel, in a disused church hall, in a church itself, in a farm’s barn, on the wall of a house, at retirement villages, in school halls and at many different cinemas around the country, including the one at the NFVSA. The purpose? To evoke interest in the product of one of the oldest film industries in the world: nothing more than that.
I cannot imagine a life as a film archivist or indeed a projectionist without hearing the unmistakable sounds of a reel of film whirring through a projection gate. The day that film projection ceases to exist in its entirety is the day that I can be consigned to the archives as a relic of the past.
© copyright caboose 2012
Born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Trevor Moses is a film archivist with the National Film, Video and Sound Archives (NFVSA) in Pretoria, South Africa, a sub-directorate of the Department of Arts and Culture. Looking back on a career that has spanned nearly a quarter of a century, he considers himself both fortunate and privileged to have served both the film industry and the public at large for this length of time. In the years to come, his wish is to continue serving the industry and the public, thereby continuing to bring to light and preserve the treasures of Africa’s oldest film industry, 117 years young in 2012.