Inexplicably, I had never seen Luis BuÃ±uelâ€™s Los Olvidados before last weekâ€™s screening at the Auditorio Nacional. Over 4,500 of us pressed in to have our hearts broken, and I keep stumbling across others who were there and were equally in raptures. Working in film preservation has doomed me to be highly conscious of the materiality of film as a physical artifact, the dust, the scratches, the splices. The restored print was incandescent, faintly imperfect, and I ran home from the screening to find out exactly which elements had been used for the preservation.
A bit of sleuthing revealed that the Filmoteca de la UNAM worked from the original nitrate negative, held in its collection. Nitrate, a highly flammable film stock, was industry standard until the early 1950s, but screenings are rare and fraught with legal restrictions; I saw a nitrate print only once, in a theatre of archivists covertly looking back at the projection booth in anticipatory terror. Despite causing regular fires in theatres and film vaults, one of which, debatably, destroyed the Cineteca Nacional in 1982, it has a dense, luminous quality to the light, wholly absent from the safer stocks that replaced it.
Although great care is usually taken to guard the original camera negative, when new prints of Los Olvidados were needed for exhibition, they went back to that negative again and again and again (until it disappeared for 20 years, although that is another story), leaving it worn and battered and patiently waitingâ€¦
-Audrey Young, Mexico City
(Audrey Young–who has a Masters in Moving Image and Archiving Preservation– is part of TÃ³xico’s International Internship program)