A few weeks ago I received an email from Tom Luddy of the Telluride Film Festival asking if I would be willing to write a small piece on Gian Luca Farinelli and conduct a brief interivew with him. Gian Luca and the Cineteca di Bologna were to be honoured at this year’s Telluride Film Festival with the Special Medallion.
I, of course, agreed and immediately set about contacting Gian Luca who was very obliging in allowing me to discuss his career with him. I’ve had the great honour to know Gian Luca for just over five years now through my connection with Bologna’s annual film festival, Il Cinema Ritrovato, and his presence at the Midnight Sun Film Festival for the past few years.
I was asked to write around 800 words, but I’m afraid the piece ended up being twice as much and more, so on the basis that I am assuming the article appeared in an abridged format in the Telluride Film Festival magazine, I am including the complete unedited version here. Tom Luddy has given me permission to do so.
My thanks also go to Peter von Bagh and Thierry Frémaux for their contribution and comments that I have included.
Gian Luca Farinelli – interview with Neil McGlone
“If the world’s film archives are a solar system with increasing influence on the significant presentation of films, then Gian Luca Farinelli is one of it’s centers of gravity, perhaps even the most important one of the moment.” – Peter von Bagh (Artistic director of Il Cinema Ritrovato)
Born in Bologna in 1963, Gian Luca graduated in film restoration at the University of Urbino with the highest possible marks. He started work at the film library in Bologna in 1984 and then at the tender age of just 23 co-created Il Cinema Ritrovato with Nicola Mazzanti, now considered among the most prestigious film festivals in the world dedicated to the history of cinema and film preservation and restoration. It was soon after this he oversaw the creation of the first Italian film restoration school and laboratory, L’Immagine Ritrovata, which works with all the major film archives of the world.
Gian Luca is recognized internationally as one of the most important film restoration experts in the world and played a leading role in the creation of L´Association des Cinémathèques Européennes. He’s been the director of Bureau Recherche des films perdus since 1992, a research project promoted by European film archives for retrieving lost films around the world that has already identified over 600 films belonging to European film heritage. As well as being on the board of directors for the World Cinema Foundation, he has also directed around 400 restoration projects. He’s currently the director of the Cineteca di Bologna and has held that position since 2000.
NM: Where did your love of film come from and were there are any defining cinematic moments in your childhood that made you want to study film at University?
GLF: My parents were literature teachers and during my childhood cinema was part of my cultural education. Very soon I started waiting for those special moments, like when the new Fellini or Buñuel films were released. When I was young, during the 60s, Italian television had only one channel, where two times a week the best film critics introduced a great selection of film classics. That’s how I developed my own taste for movies.
But it was silent cinema that changed my life. It was 1978, I was in my first year in high school in Bologna, it was March and we students were commemorating the death of a boy, killed for no reason by the police the year before.
The demonstration arrived in Piazza Maggiore, the major city square, where on an improvised screen a 16mm print of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) was screened. It was a shock, both aesthetical and political. I had never seen such a powerful film, able to convey the very same feeling of injustice and oppression we, as students, were experiencing in that exact moment. That screening, though totally inadequate from a technical point of view, taught me everything I needed to know; that classic films can still speak an unknown truth, that silent cinema has that kind of beauty that overcomes times and fashion, that a single screening can be an incredible social experience for a community.
Dreyer and Falconetti changed my life
NM: What was it specifically about film restoration that interested you?
GLF: The first restoration I saw was that of Gance’s Napoleon (1927), with the three screens and all, and I must say it was a hell of a start!
I think that the idea of restoration, the idea of bringing back the beauty, now faded, and the truth, now forgotten, of an artistic oeuvre is something quite normal for someone who lives in Italy and loves art.
But for me it became a challenge when, after some editions of Il Cinema Ritrovato, I saw the full picture: while all Europe, particularly France, UK, Germany, had developed serious work on restoration, with research studies and incredible technical achievements, Italy was, at the time, incapable of making a restoration worthy of the name. Italian archives simply lacked the sensibility towards restoration. So, it was a double challenge: in order to level up to the European archives we had to build a specialized laboratory from scratch, with little money and with no experience at all. It was a foolish goal, but it seems that our foolishness has been rewarded
NM: When you set up Il Cinema Ritrovato in 1986, was there any goal you had in mind that you wanted the festival to achieve?
GLF: Nicola Mazzanti (who now runs the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique) and I were just two young guys working at the Cineteca di Bologna with a short-term contract. First, I worked at the theatre, programming and then I discovered that the Cineteca had a little but promising film collection, a collection no one really worked on. So I convinced Vittorio Boarini, the founder of Cineteca, of the importance of studying and cataloguing those films, and I got Mazzanti involved in this project, as I was sure he was absolutely perfect for the job.
When we finished, we wanted to tell everyone what we discovered, and that’s how Il Cinema Ritrovato was born.
It was a different time. No Internet, no DVDs, not even VHS cassettes. Organizing a retrospective was an almost impossible job, and screening the great masterpieces of the Masters wasn’t an easy task at all.
It was a time, during the second half of the 80s, with growing expectations towards new technologies. Somehow they had become the answer to every problem, and the only hope for a better (but empty, I’d say) future.
Instead, we decided to run in the opposite direction; running towards the past to gain a new perspective on the present.
Since the beginning we wanted to create a festival where “ancient” and rare films could be shown, and where through films, their different versions, their restored versions, one could understand the importance of archival work.
At the time Cineteca hosted La Mostra del Cinema Libero, a festival born in 1960 to showcase independent cinema, and that had lost most of its provocative strength in the 80s. We started from there, and we added to the mix the very new approach to film history that we learned from Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
NM: You have been involved with over 400 restoration projects in Bologna, can you talk briefly about the work that the Cineteca di Bologna does and what you see as the importance of its role in cinema today?
The field of restoration is now completely different from when I started. It’s a different approach, new technologies and mostly a new sensibility of public opinion.
When I worked on my first restoration (Mario Camerini’s Kiff Tebby ) I remember that the laboratory, which was a commercial facility making one or two restoration per year, wanted to destroy the nitrate negative, since there was now a safety print available. It was normal at that time, to destroy the original nitrate negative once the new triacetate print was ready.
It is clear now that triacetate is more fragile than nitrate, for preservation purposes. No one would even think of destroying a nitrate nowadays; and for this new “conscience” we have to thank also the digital technologies, which have proven that a film can be restored many many times. That’s the biggest change I’ve faced in my experience. When I started I thought that a restoration was all that was needed for a title to be available for future generations. Now I understand that the key to guarantee a film’s life is preservation. Restoration is just a mean to give a present life to works of the past, but restorations age fast, because the technologies involved in the process leave their own mark on the images.
I think our work as a film archive has contributed to enlarge the general knowledge of Italian cinema, especially on the lesser-known areas like silent or non-fiction films. Also, we’ve had the incredible opportunity to restore the classics of Italian cinema when the witnesses of that golden era were still alive. Their contribution has been essential; they’ve helped us understand the correct way to approach a restoration, reading the author’s intentions and making the restoration accordingly
NM: With Kodak being the only major company still producing motion-picture film and with that recently threatened to end, how do you see the future for film as a medium?
GLF: This is a really hard question. We live in a transition era, between two centuries, between two very different worlds. When I started there were plenty of conferences about cinema’s imminent death. 35 years have gone by, cinema still breathes and, compared to other art forms, it seems to me that it’s still in very good shape.
True, it’s not the centre of the media universe anymore, but thousands of films are produced and seen every year around the world.
Archives nowadays have two main commitments. The first one is keeping theaters alive and promoting the importance of the theatrical experience.
We love The Leopard (1963) or La Dolce Vita (1960) mainly because we’ve seen them on the big screen, in crowded theaters. Keeping this kind of fruition alive is the only way to save the cinema we love
The other goal is saving film as a means to support. For about 100 years cinema has been on film, but the current trend is that of destruction and forgetting old technologies and expertise. What we lose today will be extremely hard to recover. But this path requires an international effort, which is still struggling to take shape.
“You can’t be good in the archive world without generosity. Gianluca is one of the most generous, open and nicest men in our world. And it’s one of the keys to his success. The way he laughs is one of the best things in life. The second reason why he’s good, is because he’s a real cinephile; he knows what cinema is. Bologna has become in less than 30 years one of the best archives in the world because its model goes beyond the rules. It became a lab, an industrial project when nobody thought it was possible.
So we know now that pasta alla Bolognesa is not the only reason to go to Bologna. There is Gianluca Farinelli there!” (Thierry Frémaux – director of the Institute Lumière and the Cannes Film Festival)