The Afterlight is a collage of fragments with a single 35mm print – but it has more in common with digital media than the illusion of instant access suggests
‘The fragile equation at the heart of film culture is laid bare’ … The Afterlight. Photograph: Loop
For as long as there have been films, there have been lost films. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of them – and not just unloved obscurities but key works by Hitchcock, Ozu and Warhol, all left to decay in their canisters, burned up in archive fires, or simply misplaced and never recovered. One day my new film, The Afterlight, will be among them.
Assembled from fragments of hundreds of old films from around the world, The Afterlight is a found-footage collage that brings together a vast ensemble cast of actors with one thing in common: everyone who appears on screen is no longer alive. In the film, they live on through the performances they left behind, as though preserved in the amber of cultural memory.
Like cultural memory, however, The Afterlight is continually fading. The film exists as a single 35mm print (struck at CPC London) with no digital copies whatsoever: no DVD, no Blu-ray, no streaming. Every time it screens, that lone print will further erode: a living record of its own life in circulation. Eventually it will deteriorate to nothing.
"The Afterlight will only ever exist as a single 35mm film print, so the stakes in creating that print could not have been higher. CPC have gone above and beyond to ensure the film looks and sounds its best, as it begins its slow descent into total deterioration.” - Charlie Shackleton
That prospect was easier to stomach when the film existed only in my imagination, before it was a tangible object representing countless creative obstacles, breakthroughs and discoveries. Its future non-existence is especially daunting after two years filled with so many other losses, during which on-demand home viewing became a rare source of comfort and stability.
Even 15 years ago, when my own passion for cinema was cultivated by a LoveFilm subscription and the imports section of play.com, I was accustomed to waiting a few days for a film to arrive in the post. Today, the barriers to home viewing – browsing and buffering – are measured in seconds. One might expect a commensurate expansion in the scale and scope of contemporary cinephilia.
Instead, it often seems as though the evident potential of streaming to open up new audiences, and diversify cultural palates, has become an excuse to forgo the work that might usher in a more complex, curious film culture. After all, Mati Diop’s acclaimed Cannes prize winner Atlantics is technicallyavailable to every one of Netflix’s 200 million global subscribers, so don’t complain if every time you load up the app, you see Hubie Halloween.
In a sense, this is nothing new: even film archives – whose existence is predicated on the value of making the moving image available to current and future generations – are filled with prints that will never be screened, films that will never be seen. Jurij Meden, a curator at the Austrian Film Museum, calls such holdings “living-dead surplus” and estimates that they account for 90% of archive collections.
Such films are at least well preserved, lest they one day cross over into that lucky 10% that commands public attention. Not so in the wilds of streaming. Any film “bought” on Amazon Prime is yours to view for only as long as Amazon retains the permission of the copyright holder to show it to you. And if those same copyright holders could not be trusted to protect our cultural heritage back when films were physical things that could be organised and inventoried, they seem unlikely to prove more reliable in the digital era.
A physical film print, properly stored, can last for hundreds of years. Digital media, for all its flexibility, is vastly less stable, requiring constant migration to evade data degradation and format obsolescence. One infamous cautionary tale concerns Pixar’s efforts to release Toy Story on DVD for the first time in 2000. Though just five years had elapsed since the film’s cinema release, the original animation files had become so thoroughly corrupted that animators were forced to recreate as much as a fifth of the film from reference copies. It’s safe to assume films that didn’t spawn multi-billion dollar franchises have not fared better.
A new age of lost films may just be beginning. Only now, we won’t even see them go, cocooned in an illusion of instant and perpetual access. Today, a film might look just as good the last time it screens as the first – but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a last time. For all the obvious limitations placed on the lifespan of my film, it might have more in common with the cohort of 2021 releases than first impressions suggest.
In the case of The Afterlight, at least, the fragile equation at the heart of film culture is laid bare. The scratches and blemishes that accumulate on the print will irrevocably alter the film itself, but they’ll also stand in for something larger: the projection during which they occurred, and the audience there to witness it. In the process, the act of viewership itself will be made material, in an era when it’s usually anything but.