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International Films Find Home at Film Archives - 2002-11-26

The Anthology Film Archives, located in a cavernous, run-down former New York City courthouse, houses more than 60,000 films spanning a century of international film-making. The esteemed institution and its sprawling collection are mostly the work of one man.

Although he is often called the godfather of American avant-garde filmmaking, Jonas Mekas was born in Lithuania in 1922. He spent the last year of the Second World War in a German forced-labor camp, and moved to the United States in 1949.

At age 27, in a settlement for displaced persons, he discovered a love for film.

"When the Soviets came to Lithuania, we saw only Russian propaganda films, then the Germans came, and we saw a different set of propaganda movies," he said. "Only when I came to New York did I have a chance to see what can be called, 'the art of cinema'."

So inspired was he by his newfound passion, that he felt the need to share it with others. He screened his first film in New York City, not far from where the Anthology Film Archives is now located, in 1951. The film was Kenneth Anger's Fireworks, and the screening began a 50 year crusade to find larger audiences for avant-garde, independent, and foreign films.

In 1970, Mr. Mekas founded the Anthology Film Archives. The AFA, which has two movie theaters in addition to its vast library, presents three programs a day and sells 50,000 tickets a year.

The programs include new works and retrospectives of major independent filmmakers, as well as the Essential Film Repertory, a continuously evolving collection of films the organizers believe to be the world's most important and influential.

AFA exhibition coordinator John Mhiripiri says the theaters are usually as crowded as the local movie houses showing first-run Hollywood films.

"Anthology's identity is grounded in the avant-garde and non-commercial cinema, and that is what people will come here for," he said. "We can show a program from our Essential Cinema collection Joseph Cornell or Stan Brackhage or Harry Smith, and we can sell it out. Or the Dada films from the '20s, by Man Ray and people like that. And that is really rewarding because that is what we are all about."

The AFA is also about film preservation. Film shrinkage, color fading, and chemical disintegration threaten most every film print on its shelves. Michael Friend, a film preservationist who works with Mr. Mekas and the AFA, says that the need for preservation is reaching a crisis point.

"We are coming to the end of the era of film as a normal production medium," he said. "When you lose a medium, whether it is Technicolor, or magnetic soundtrack, or black and white panchromatic or nitrate based, you have to transfer everything to a new medium. The challenge is to find the proper materials and to find a way to emulate the original qualities of film in this new medium, and to keep film alive as it originally was."

Mr. Friend explains that while it is easy to find money to preserve films like The Godfather and Casablanca, securing funding to preserve relatively obscure films like those housed in the AFA is a constant battle. But, he says, it is a battle that must be waged.

"This building contains one of the greatest intellectual treasures of the western world. And most people do not even dream of that," Mr. Friend said. "They walk down the street and pay $10 to see a new Hollywood movie when here, you have these brilliant intellectual works of art that are one of the greatest repositories of American achievement. Rock videos were originally created by the kinds of artists that Jonas Mekas collected. People like Kenneth Anger and Harry Smith and so on. The idea of visual music came out of this tradition. This is where the ideas are."

For Archives director Jonas Mekas, who is also a film-maker, the issue remains simple, and unchanged even after a half-century. He just wants people to see and experience everything that the world of film has to offer, not just the big, commercial films.

"In the old days, when people used to make dangerous travels into Asia and to various countries to bring something, some spices, some perfumes, something different that we local people in Europe did not have," Mr. Mekas said. "They made those trips and brought back those very special things that enriched their lives, their whole civilization and culture. If we cut out from classical Europe what came from Asia and Africa, European civilization and culture would not be what it is. The same is true here. We are losing a lot by not being familiar with the cinema of other countries. We are depriving ourselves."

Mr. Mekas says the Anthology Film Archives hopes to begin construction on a new, $3 million state-of-the-art library next year. When that is done, he says the many films relegated to the boxes that clutter AFA hallways will finally get the shelf-space they deserve.