The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts November 4, 2005

Kovac shoots to preserve film

Although rising demand and advancing technology have fueled the growth of its new industry, the wide and incredibly intricate world of film preservation still remains an unnoticed, unfamiliar movement, explored only by those with the sincerest dedication to and love for moving pictures.

But with great troves of cinematic collections — many of which document the grand sweep of 20th century history — crumbling away in damp, dimly lit vaults across the world, the role of modern film restorers as preservers of the past has proved to be truly significant.

Few know this better than Christina Kovac (OC ’00) who works for the U.S. Government National Archives as a professional film preservationist, salvaging damaged and deteriorating film of both artistic and historical importance.

On Nov. 4, Kovac will give a lecture on film preservation titled “Destruction: A Condition of the Art of Cinema,” as part of an art department-sponsored event. Kovac, who will offer insight into a wide range of issues in film preservation, including film format history, the nature of decay and the complexities of preservation technique, hopes to share her passion for something she believes makes a real “positive impact.”

After graduating from Oberlin with a degree in history, Kovac went on to receive an M.A. in cinema studies, focusing on silent British cinema with a dissertation on the politics and ideologies of Hollywood and British film production in England during WWII. After working at the George Eastman House, she joined the National Archives in 2003.

Kovac, who mainly preserves decaying film of national historical importance including military, presidential, propaganda and other governmental footage, says her passion for film and history is what led her to a career in preservation.

“I always knew I wanted to do something with film and as I developed a love of history, I wanted to find a way to combine the two,” she said. “I love knowing that I’ve preserved something so that generations after us will have access to the past through images, rather than just words.”

The images that Kovac strives to preserve, restore and renew, however, are often extremely difficult to work with.

As Kovac explains, the whole process of preservation is both time-consuming and tedious, requiring delicate handwork, an eye for detail and an excellent knowledge of film-related technologies.

A preservation project usually involves gathering all the basic elements of the film such as the negatives, prints, reversals and soundtracks and cleaning and repairing them physically.

The film’s color and contrast are then analyzed and refined through scene-by-scene exposure determinations. The film is then printed onto new film stock, processed and re-assessed for quality.

And while there is great room for creativity when dealing with elements such as color saturation and contrast, Kovac said that preservationists always have to be mindful of how the film “would have looked at the time.”

This, though, is a rather simple account of the preservation process, as Kovac’s work involves an even greater degree of physical toil. Each film must also be treated individually, with few general rules guiding preservation efforts. The individualized, detailed labor, Kovac says, is needed because aged films are often damaged by many forms of decay, such as color fading, fragility, shrinkage, mold and insects.

“The hardest part of physically preserving a film is dealing with myriad types of film deterioration,” said Kovac. “One of the most challenging things I’ve worked on were two days that I spent scraping moths out of reels of film from the ’teens and printing films that were so brittle and shrunken that the original film literally fell apart.”

Kovac’s patience and precision, as well as her love for history, are especially useful in her projects at the National Archives, where she has preserved footage of the liberation of Nazi death camps, the final stages of World War II and Civil Rights events. She currently works on preserving anti-North Vietnamese propaganda films made by the U.S. government, as well as presidential footage of Richard Nixon that are in great danger.

Kovac says that “all kinds” of films are now being restored in the preservation industry because of growing demand. This trend, she suggests, is a far stretch from the 1970s when preservation first developed, the only demand coming from universities with film studies programs that wanted to show older films, but could not because of their poor condition.

“There’s been a real drive to preserve home movies of late and Hollywood has found that there’s a market for older films,” she said. “And with the advent of media, such as the History Channel, people are wanting more historic footage.”

Kovac ultimately feels that her work, and film preservation as a whole, contributes significantly to the larger world because the materials she restores are true records of American history.

“I’m preserving these items so that people can have access to the truths and the lies of the country,” she said. “But people must ask the right questions and want to know the truth about certain events. Luckily, I think this is happening more and more often, and I’m glad to be able to contribute to their discoveries.”


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