Ambitious Documentary Frames up the Vitality of the Celluloid Image



Cinema may be dying, but film, it turns out, is very much alive.  As in, it, like us, it is a living, organic thing that will come to life when it’s in motion but will eventually decompose.  Where a can of exposed photo-chemical movie film (which is specifically the subject) and a human body differ is that it’s possible to maintain and sometimes even salvage decomposed film.  In fact, for all its fragility and volatility, celluloid reels remain the ideal go-to format for long term preservation.  Per the documentary’s title, the bottom line is that images captured on tactile photochemical film is the future’s greatest attribute in understanding people and cultures past.   

As a documentary, Film is a talky affair, ready and anxious to spend its two-plus hours allowing an expansive rotation of talking heads (including prominent archivists, historians, and filmmakers) to pelt us with all matter of information about the importance of film preservation.  As information, it’s expertly diversified and never illegitimate.  Through a wide assortment of sit-down interviews, we learn about the fragility of celluloid, the race against time to preserve important works of cinema, the ways that vintage home movies inform us of sociology-gone-by, the heroes of film preservation worldwide, how they got started, and the organizations they launched. The documentary’s reach is nothing short of global, quite possibly leaving no stone unturned, though also leaving no stone fully examined.

Through regular implementations of a diverse array of chin-scratching on-screen text quotes (not to mention the film’s very title, which is gleaned from William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 55”, dated 1609), one gets the impression that director Inés Toharia Terán hoped for this documentary to emerge with a more transcendent milieu.  You know, the way Mark Cousins’ film history docs feel.  This one, despite some very inspired use of clips throughout, never quite elevates beyond its packed agenda.  The agenda items are consistently important and always worthwhile, but The Living Record of Our Memory never quite lives beyond its own assembly.

As Film: The Living Record of Our Memory points out, motion picture documentation can, does, and has taken many forms.  From mass commercial entertainment to 8mm home movies to industrial demo films to experimental short cinema and beyond, Toharia Terán makes the case for all of it. Eventually, the doc runs the full gamut from making the impassioned case about the looming ticking clock the inevitable decay of many vintage films to explaining that celluloid- not digital, not anything else- is still the most viable method to preserve motion pictures.  Careful storage is everything in these matters.

It’s somewhat a shame that such a meticulously pursued multi-pronged subject (film recovery/restoration/preservation) is condensed into a single two-hour block.  The conventional commercial running time model does this doc no favors, as it’s both too short (the many excellent interview subjects, including but absolutely not limited to Costa-Gavras, Jonas Mekas, Patricio Guzmán, Kevin Brownlow, Ken Loach, Bill Morrison, Fernando Trueba, Ridley Scott, and Wim Wenders are all essentially reduced to cameo and glorified sound bites) and too long (the pile-on of varied tech talk takes its toll).  Here’s hoping that Film: The Living Record of Our Memory will be revisited and reissued as an extended series or long-form documentary.

But still, make a point to watch Film: The Living Record of Our Memory.  There’s simply too much here that cannot be ignored.  If anything, filmmaker Toharia Terán did too much due diligence for a single standard documentary.  It is currently available for streaming on several platforms including Kino Now, as well as on DVD (reviewed here).  Though merely standard definition, a good Blu-ray player’s automatic up-conversation to high definition serves the film well and speaks to a healthy encoding.  The DVD offers a menu of deleted scenes, each individually clickable.  The diversity of these outtakes further illuminates the range to which the documentary aspires, having cut a 2019 clip of Jean-Luc Godard and a hands-on vintage camera detailed behind the scenes at the George Eastman Museum.