I take my work as a curator very seriously. I consider myself fortunate to put into practice on a daily basis the knowledge I gained as an undergraduate and graduate film and art history student. But honestly, we’re not saving lives here at MoMA or finding the means for alternate energy sources that will sustain our planet for millennia. My mother is proud of my professional achievements too, but she’ll never have the chance to say to her friends “my daughter, the Nobel Prize winner.” Even so, the work of a film curator is significant, enduring, and critical to the history of cinema. I was reminded of this when I was recently part of a talented and dedicated team of curators, filmmakers, and conservators who rescued the Brazilian film Mangue-Bangue (1971) by director Neville D’Almeida from being lost. In the world of film archives this is a really significant accomplishment—like winning the Nobel Prize, only without the golden medal and cash prize. The result of our efforts, a newly made 16mm print of the film, will premiere this weekend as part of MoMA’s film exhibition To Save and Project: The Eighth MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation.
Neville D’Almeida is an independent Brazilian filmmaker who worked in close association with the transgressive avant-garde artist Hélio Oiticica. Oiticica introduced D’Almeida to Mangue, a red-light district in Rio de Janeiro from which the film draws its title. Striving for a record of direct life experience, D’Almeida infused Mangue-Bangue, the quasi-fictional story of a transgendered Brazilian living in poverty, with pop culture, local music, improvisational theater techniques, explicit drug use, and political urgency.
In 2003, a 16mm Kodachrome print of Mangue-Bangue entered MoMA’s film collection. For many years this print was thought to be the only extant copy, and this guess was finally confirmed in a 2008 meeting with D’Almeida. (To this day, the director has neither seen his film nor owned a copy since 1973.) Through our involvement with the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), MoMA was able to reach out to our archival colleagues at the Cinemateca Brasileira in São Paulo, and they too noted an absence of this significant Brazilian cinematic work in their collection, or anywhere else in Brazil for that matter.
Following the careful inspection of the 16mm print, the physical condition was assessed as fair. There were scratches, dirt, and previously repaired perforations and splices throughout the two reels, and the soundtrack contained unintentional noise and blips, causing crackling sounds where the track was meant to be quiet. In September 2009, the 16mm print was sent to one of MoMA’s preferred film labs, one which understands the precision required for archival film preservation. A duplicate 16mm negative was made from the 16mm print, and then the unique print was returned to storage. With the duplicate negative now used as the source material for preservation, there was no further need to access this rare, vintage print.
The film preservation of Mangue-Bangue was supervised by Film Conservation Manager Peter Williamson, who screened the film probably ten or so times in the course of the preservation project. This level of scrutiny is part of the preservation process—conservators and curators alike sometimes screen works several times as they work to determine the best possible exhibition print or to make adjustments in their preservation work. (I’ll leave the story of watching three different 35mm prints Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) for another blog post!) In order to clean up (but by no means diminish) the character of the 1971 audio tone of the film, a sound-production company transferred the analog track from the original 16mm print to a digital work station at the start of the project, which effectively reduced the crackling sound caused by the dirt embedded on the surface of the print. A new 16mm magnetic track and recorded 16mm track negative were made. The newly formed visual and sound elements came together to create two new 16mm viewing prints, each 62 minutes in duration, for MoMA’s collection. All materials have English main and credit titles with music track and one song.
At the October 2010 opening of the Cosmococa Pavilion at the Inhotim Museum in Brazil, D’Almeida told MoMA curator Luis Perez-Oramas that Hélio Oiticica first saw Mangue-Bangue at The Museum of Modern Art in 1973. Just a few days after this screening, D’Almeida and Oiticica began their collaboration on their Cosmococa project. Nearly forty years later, the confluence of events—the preservation and upcoming screenings of Mangue-Bangue, the inauguration of the Cosmococa Pavilion in Brazil, and the return of a new 16mm print to Neville D’Almeida by MoMA—is certainly striking, and a testament to the enduring legacies of these important artists.
Having contributed to this happy ending validates my work as a curator, and the critical work curators everywhere do to preserve culture, aesthetics, education, intellectual discourse, history, and human experience. I don’t believe the Nobel Prize committee has a category for film preservation or curatorial work just yet…but who knows?
Mangue-Bangue will be shown at MoMA this coming Monday, November 1, at 6:30 p.m.