On Decay: Reflections on Working with Neglected Films
We are Kelas Liarsip, a virtual study group founded in 2021 by six women and non-binary individuals engaging with moving image heritage and tracing women’s work in the Indonesian Nusantara archipelago. We are citizens of the world who inherited decayed films due to neglect because of political conflict or lack of political will. We live in a period of post-military regime, where the space for freedom of expression and for uncovering history is always precarious.
For us, the rare occasion of watching old Indonesian films not only consists of touching moments and magical energy but is also often painful. The old films that we can watch are mostly incomplete due to missing frames and sound; full of scratches, mold, or bacterial infections. Our knowledge of the past is mediated by decay and loss, exhibited by film artifacts that we still can find. Our knowledge is also shaped by an awareness that a big part of our film history artifacts are absent.
We came to engage with archiving not because being an archivist was a dream for us. Quite the contrary, the archivist is a position that is highly controlled by the state, one that has been ruled by the military for 32 years and still suffers from its consequences. It’s hardly what one would call a cool career. The state limits memorializing practices, investing resources only to maintain the versions from its own institutions, and neglecting or sometimes persecuting citizens who initiate alternative processes. Only state archives have regular funds and can regularly do training to care for obsolete materials, making the knowledge of archiving very exclusive. Kelas Liarsip consists of Lisabona Rahman and Siti Anisah, who began engaging with the archives as film programmers, Imelda Mandala as queer festival organizer, Efi Sri Handayani and Julita Pratiwi as film school graduates. We were brought together by burning questions: who were the women working in film before us and where are their works?
In late 2020, when film historian Umi Lestari tried to watch a film reel from Dr. Samsi (1952) by pioneering female director Ratna Asmara (1913–1968) at the private film archive Sinematek Indonesia in Jakarta, she encountered a dead end. The reel was in an advanced stage of decay. The viewing table was not working properly and gave out the smell of burning. She stopped the viewing halfway into the first reel out of fear of damaging the film (Lestari 2022).
Decay on film reels or dysfunctional playback devices are signs of the malfunctioning management of Sinematek Indonesia, but the problem is more systematic and widespread. Umi’s experience is normally to be expected when working with archival film materials in Indonesia, as neglect happens either on purpose (in form of censorship or selective memorialization), or not on purpose (in form of ignorance). Both will end up with the same outcome: erosion of memory.
No one of us had heard about Ratna Asmara as a director, some knew her for her acting. We came to realize that the historiography of films from our region is predominantly male-centered, militaristic, commercial, nationalistic, or colonialist. That is why Ratna Asmara could never have been part of our local film canon. This will challenge our efforts to interrogate and unpack existing historiography by means of interdisciplinary knowledge in film studies, history, film preservation, feminism, and queer theories. It is also possible that some of her films haven’t survived. In the case of absence of films or other historical evidence, we were encouraged by “imaginative speculation” as practiced by feminist film historians such as Neepa Majumdar and Eliza Anna Delveroudi, presented in Doing Women’s Film History, as a way to transcend limited available archival materials (Majumdar 2015; Delveroudi 2015).
Umi’s experience was a very concrete challenge for us. If nobody was able to access Ratna’s films, her works would continue to decay until nothing would be left to be read. Ratna was being erased from history.
We decided together to start a political resistance to this ongoing neglect and marginalization by means of caring for Ratna’s films. We chose to pool our knowledge on historical research, film analysis, and preservation techniques in order to inspect and digitize Dr. Samsi. We believe that an integration between professional archivists, historians, and film scholars should be the very basis of this group. We have members who are trained in film handling technique, and others as film historians. We feel that this combination is enriching for our working group as each member complements the other’s perspective.
We have organized regular study sessions since March 2021 through virtual classrooms. Lisabona, who took up a master’s degree in film preservation and presentation, put together learning materials about professional archive practices, especially informed by experiences of archives working in situations with minimum resources and political support such as Ray Edmondson’s text on archives outside of the Europe and the North American region, as well as experiences shared by curator Didi Cheeka and filmmaker Tamer El-Said, who have been working in challenging political contexts in Nigeria and Egypt. For us in Kelas Liarsip, learning about professional practices was not a way to advance our career or move up the social ladder, but it is a way to resist state censorship.
The second phase of work consists of preparing film materials for digitization, which started from February 2022 in Jakarta. The digitization process was done with a minimum budget, without digital cleaning, and it was completed in April 2022. We were finally able to watch Ratna Asmara’s Dr. Samsi seventy years after its making, as an HD digital file, in a classroom of a cinematographers’ association in the southern suburb of Jakarta.
The condition of old films from Indonesia is generally bad, but films made by women, non-military, migrants, or leftist artists as well as non-commercial films are even more neglected and unknown. Jakarta, the city where we work, hosts a lot of old film materials. It’s a hot and humid place located close to the equator. Our biggest challenge is to deal with film reels infected with vinegar syndrome under the condition of non-existing resources (tools, knowledge, money) or what scholar Janet Ceja Alcalá (2013) calls “orphans of infrastructure” in her article about struggling archives in Latin America. The reels we inspect are often deformed because of shrinkage and the emulsion part is suffering from years of deterioration. In functioning film archives, decay due to vinegar syndrome would be the absolute exception, like an accident, but in Jakarta it is—alas—the norm.
There are only two accessible film scanners located in the city and only one of them works in sprocketless mode. Around four studios offer CGI services for commercial film production, including digital image and sound cleaning. To start a film restoration project in Jakarta means a considerable mobilization of political, financial, and technical resources. Neglected non-canonical films are neither privileged enough to attract the attention of public funding institutions, nor to earn a shift in the already overworked studios.
Therefore, at Kelas Liarsip we try to develop methods and networks to allow us to digitize decayed reels with available resources and learn to analyze and present decayed films. We retain signs of decay because the resources we need to erase the traces of decay are simply too immense and impossible to afford. This is not a position of resignation or exploitation of poverty or poor resources, but an invitation to explore possibilities of work and reading. Based on our experience the decay inside of the film couldn’t be seen as a natural cause of decomposition. It is more than that. We see decay as a way for film reels to speak up or expose their condition.
Film reels are not just a passive object for us, but rather subjects that declare a status coming from interaction with humans and their institutions. Kelas Liarsip is still at the beginning of exploring a series of questions regarding the position of subjectivity or the agency of decayed films, especially when we talk about accidental archivism. Can we eventually consider “accidental archivist” as more than the role performed by humans in archiving practices, but also performed by the medium or materials such as celluloid film, which is a chemical synthesis? This question needs further elaboration, which is beyond the scope of this article.
We choose to work with ‘decay’ as the starting keyword because it is an acknowledgement of the process and result of destruction by natural causes and neglect. We refrain from using the words ‘damage’ and ‘deterioration’ as the terms seem more general, and they do not specifically refer to the act of neglect. We see the crystal-like acid dust, scratches, the losses of image and sound as ways to present the neglect, and we find it urgent to convey these facts to our contemporary public, as well as to emerging generations. We are aware of the potentials of using digital cleaning as a way to speculate about the films’ better life or alternative reality, but we choose not to prioritize investing our time on this and instead on drawing attention to the scars of decay as a state that is a reality for films that are abandoned by the society that once produced them but no longer wishes to acknowledge nor care for them. We want to present and read the films as they are, with minimum digital cleaning and intervention on image and sound, to declare their decayed presence to our sense of sight and hearing.
Our research journey keeps us questioning the condition and dominant practice of film archiving and research in our region. For instance, the precarious condition of film vaults, the restoration practice that relies on total digital cleaning and film analysis that eliminates the reading of decay on film reels. Although there is an option to eliminate the decay during the reading process, we felt there is something odd and unethical about it. The code of decay is a term that could be used to map its character in relation to the film material. This code could be used as a consideration during the process of analysis. Film texts under the deterioration material would open a different interpretation and present a different challenge due to its reduced condition.
The research, which preserves the knowledge about decay, is the way to care, to identify, to remember—and to resist marginalization in our historiography. We decided to use this as our embarking point to make changes, being aware of the fact that this is only the start of a very long journey.
Ceja Alcalá, Janet. 2013. “Imperfect Archives and the Principle of Social Praxis in the History of Film Preservation in Latin America.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 13 (1): 66–97.
Delveroudi, Eliza Anna. 2015. “When Iris Skaravaiou Met Iris Barry: The First Greek Film Reviewer and West European Modernity.” In Doing Women’s Film History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future, edited by Christine Gledhill and Julia Knight, 66–77. Springfield: University of Illinois Press.
Lestari, Umi. 2022. “Ratna Asmara / Suska, Liarsip, dan Saya.” Umi Lestari, January 19. Accessed May 25, 2023. https://umilestari.com/ratna-asmara-suska-liarsip-dan-saya/.
Majumdar, Neepa. 2015. “Gossip, Labor, and Female Stardom in Pre-Independence Indian Cinema: The Case of Shanta Apte.” In Doing Women’s Film History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future, edited by Christine Gledhill and Julia Knight, 181–92. Springfield: University of Illinois Press.