One of the common misconceptions about cinematic history is that in this digital age we can watch almost any film that has screened in a cinema. And even if we can’t get them on DVD, great director’s films are surely lovingly preserved in a film archive somewhere in the world? Unfortunately that’s not always the case. A director who narrowly missed cinematic oblivion is Satyajit Ray – one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th Century.
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When Satyajit Ray was presented with an Honorary Oscar at the 1991 Academy Awards, it was discovered that his films were being lost to decay. After his death in 1992 the Academy undertook to preserve as many of his films as possible. Tragically, only months after the negatives for his three most important films ‘The Apu Trilogy’ were transferred to a London film laboratory for restoration, they were severely damaged in a fire at the lab in 1993.
Fast forward to 2013 and those charred film cans were reopened to see if anything remained salvageable. Incredibly, even though the films were smoky, burnt and often stuck together there was enough material to use for a restoration. In a partnership between the Academy Film Archive, Criterion Collection and an expert film restoration lab in Italy L’Immagine Ritrovata, the films have been meticulously pieced together to form glorious new 4K restorations.
Known for his poetic realism and sensitive approach to storytelling, Satyajit Ray’s films reveal intimate stories about the human condition. His characters are shaped with a reality and universality that continue to be fresh to contemporary audiences and his films are an ongoing touchstone for Indian and international directors alike. A unique auteur, Ray was responsible for not just directing, but on a number of productions also contributed to the scripting, casting, scoring, cinematography, and worked closely on art direction and editing, titles and publicity material.
Rosie Hays is Associate Curator, Australian Cinémathèque, QAGOMA
‘Satyajit Ray: The Restorations’ Australian Cinémathèque, Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) 17 November – 13 December 2017
Featured image: Production still from Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) 1959 / Dir: Satyajit Ray / Image courtesy: Janus Films