Preserving history, frame by frame: At Harvard Film Archive, focus is on saving the past

Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ... Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits

Liz Coffey has a motto. "Film takes up a lot of space and a lot of money," notes the Harvard Film Archive conservator with a rueful grin. Invested with the responsibility of preserving and restoring a wedge of film history, Coffey and the staff of the HFA are well aware of the effort and expense required to save even a single film from the ravages of time.

Nonetheless, they press on in their dual role as preservationists and exhibitors at Boston's leading venue for the screening of international, documentary, and avant-garde cinema. Haden Guest, director of the HFA, views the archive's work as essential to the study of film history. "We are working with our colleagues in different institutions to preserve American film heritage," Guest says.

Crafting its own niche in the happily crowded world of film preservation, the HFA leaves the Hollywood work to Los Angeles archives like UCLA's. Founding curator Vlada Petric, possessed of strong Eastern Bloc connections, had concentrated on collecting Soviet avant-garde films, and the archive has since built up holdings in the American avant-garde, postwar American films, and contemporary German film - courtesy of an ongoing donation from the Bavarian Film Foundation.

Following a lengthy fallow period, in which the archive went through numerous directors and shifts in focus, the HFA has returned to its strong suits - exhibition and the preservation of shorter works. Harvard's long tradition as an incubator of documentary and avant-garde filmmakers lends the archive's work a personal touch, with Crimson alums' work often singled out for attention. Beginning with short films, the 28-year-old HFA is jump-starting its once-moribund conservation program in the hopes of returning to the ranks of noted American film preservationists.

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