Staff ruses helped preserve valuable footage during communism, says NFA head Bregant

Michal Bregant, photo: Helena Petáková

Michal Bregant is the director of the National Film Archive, a state body that oversees over 150 million metres of film, tens of thousands of movie posters and other valuable materials. When we met at a lively bar near the FAMU film school, of which Bregant was dean for six years, we discussed film preservation, digitisation and the future of the NFA. But the first topic of conversation was the foundation of the Archive way back in 1943: Were the Czechoslovaks unusual in realising at that time that their movies needed to be looked after?

Michal Bregant,  photo: Helena Petáková
“There were some film sections in bigger libraries, for example, in some other countries before the war.

“But in Czechoslovakia, or at that time the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the original intention was to prevent films from possible destruction during the war.

“All the archives basically started as a passionate job of collectors who wanted to make collections. And there is a big difference between collecting and archiving, obviously.

“When you collect you want to get the most precious stones for you collection, but in archiving you know that it’s your responsibility to get it all, regardless of the quality of the stuff.

“You never know what dull propaganda documentary will become precious material in 20, 30, 40, 50 years.”

Over the years, how well has the National Film Archive or its predecessors done its job, fulfilled its mission of archiving?

“You know how important the political realities in this country were and have been – basically since the 17th century. And the 20th century was even more intense in that regard.

“During the 40 years of the Communist totalitarian system, the biggest concern of all memory institutions, libraries, was how to preserve the integrity of collections.

“In libraries, librarians were forced to pull the so-called dangerous books from the shelves and send them out to some place where they were collecting those books.

“In the Archive there were also some attempts at kind of controlling the content of the collection.

“For example, once they figured out that the Archive had far too many American films they decided that it had to destroy a certain number of them from the collection.

Photo: Kristýna Maková
“So what the archivists did was that they made a pile of film prints which were set to be destroyed, because they were useless or something, and they made a big fire for the authorities and they documented that fact.

“The authorities were happy that we now had less American films and the Film Archive is ideologically a safer place.

“There were all kinds of games with mislabelling, misplacing films, like the documentary footage from the political trial of Milada Horáková of 1949. There was also this story with the footage from the funeral of Jan Palach, of 1969…

“The only way to make them safe was to hide them from the eyes of the authorities. The advantage of the archive was that it was so rich, so big. There were many corners and many shelves on which you could keep them.”

I guess that depended on the memory of an individual who knew where the hidden material was?

“This is obviously the weakest link. My predecessor Vladimír Opěla has definitely been a blessing for the archive. However, it’s really hard to convince him that we need to get a lot of his knowledge on paper. He was running around with all the knowledge in his mind.

“This is also one of the transitions that we need to make in the archive – to make things more accessible and understandable for other colleagues.”

I was reading that the NFA administers all Czech films that were screened before 1965 and all films that were produced afterwards are controlled by a private company. Why is that the case?

“If you put it that way, it sounds kind of strange. But as a matter of fact, a very rational and smart – if not wise – decision was made in the early ‘90s.

“At that time, it was necessary to find financial sources both for the Film Archive and Film Fund [the Czech State Fund for the Support and Development of Czech Cinematography], which was established in 1991, if I’m not mistaken.

“The decision was made that the royalties from films produced before 1965 would go to the Film Archive, and the royalties from films produced between 1965 and 1991 would go to the Film Fund. It worked very well and it also generated serious money in the 1990s.

“And this border between the two parts of one library makes sense even today. The post-1965 films were administered by Barrandov, by this and that private company, and until the end of 2013 they’re being administered by the company ABZ in Zlín.

'Marketa Lazarová'
“Their contract expires on December 31 and it seems more than probable that from January next year it will be the NFA that will be administering the rights for those films between ’65 and ’91.

“The money that these films will generate would go to the Film Fund. So it’s going to be our responsibility to support actually, by our business activities, the Film Fund and to send them the money.”

In recent years the Archive has been involved in a high-profile project to digitally restore some classic Czech films, like Marketa Lazarová… this year it was All My Good Countrymen. How important an aspect of your work is that? It’s certainly one of the most highly visible aspects of your work.

“You know, I always say that it’s great that – thanks to the Nadace české bijáky, the České Bijáky Foundation – we are able to continue the digital restoration at the highest level available.

“But digitising, or digitally restoring these films, doesn’t make the life of those films longer. Those films will always live in the archive, on their original carrier; film material is something that is reliable, something that needs to be taken care of.

“But the digitization, the digital restoration, is crucially important for the visibility of those films and for the presence of those films on the market, in the air.

“People simply should not forget about these films. And unless we make them digitally available, accessible, those films would disappear from the memory of our potential viewers.”

I understand you’re not necessarily in favour of digitisation? Or you don’t see it as any great saviour for the longer term?

“Well, digitisation doesn’t prolong the life of the film. Digitisation is great for democratic access to those films.

“We probably need to wait for some more years to get other technologies. I don’t know, maybe the military industry would make some sort of alternative technologies available for the market. Because digital carriers, digital memory, is not that sustainable.

“We know, well the British Film Institute knows, that to maintain digital data in good shape is 11 times more costly than keeping film material in the best possible shape.”

Ponrepo cinema | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International
How hard is it to preserve film? You were saying that the temperature has to be lower for colour film.

“For colour film it’s minus five centigrade and under 40 percent relative humidity. So it’s pretty demanding, technology wise.

“These will be the conditions in which we will keep the colour material in the future, because we are going to start construction of a new vault outside of Prague for those materials.

“And we know that in the future we will be able to provide new technologies with material that is always going to be the source.”

I was reading an interview with you in which you said that the Archive’s cinema, Ponrepo, could end up being the last real cinema in Prague, showing film on reels.

“This is the new slogan for Ponrepo cinema: Kino kde se promítají filmy, cinema where we are showing films.

“What we see in other regular, commercial cinemas is… they do some sort of big screens, and the quality of those projections is very disputable.

“We want the audience to experience the old-fashioned, traditional screening of a film, which comes from the back. In a way it’s a physical, corporeal experience to watch a film.

“Especially compared to the regular cinema technology, this is something that I think people are… loving more and more. Every time it’s surprising to me to see how much new and young audiences we are getting.”

What role does the internet play for the National Film Archive? Or what role may it play in the future, do you think?

“Many roles. Let me name the two most important ones. First the internet is the platform on which we will be distributing our collections, or presenting our collections.

“Secondly, the internet is going to be the way how we mainly communicate with our, hopefully very broad, audience, through what we call the Portal of Czech Cinema.”

You’ve been in your job for almost two years now. How would you like to see the NFA developing into the future?

Žižkov freight train station,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“First, I want to see the construction of the new vault being completed. And second, I want to see the NFA sitting in its new building, which hopefully will be at the old freight train station in Žižkov.

“It’s our project to move out there, because the centre of the Film Archive is one of the major projects of the NFA.

“I’m sure that the train station is a kind of ideal place, and that the NFA would support the synergy effect and would be a seed for what we call a cultural cluster in this freight train station in Žižkov.”