Shortly after Cecilia Cenciarelli joined the Cineteca di Bologna, Italy, in 2000 she was given charge of the Chaplin Project, whose mission is to digitise and catalogue Charlie Chaplin’s vast paper-and-stills archive. As part of the project, she has coordinated the restoration of Chaplin’s complete works, as well. On the faculty for Film Heritage Foundation’s Film Preservation and Restoration School India in Mumbai, Cenciarelli talks about preserving the cinematic icon’s work.
When did you get involved with the Charlie Chaplin project?
I got involved with it in 2002, when the project was three years old. Charlie Chaplin’s family possesses most of the material including films, letters, and photographs, related to his career and life. So, the idea was to do something with this archive that was kept in the closet for so many years. Our job is to give films and documents the longest life possible. At the same time, we want to make it available to film historians and archivists.
But there is no restoration without preservation. Unless filmmakers preserve their work and correspondence, there is no way we can restore it. Once the restoration is complete we show it to the public just like we do with the Chaplin movies when we are done restoring it, at our annual festival, where we screen old classics.
How closely have you been working with the Chaplin family?
The family sends us material in batches and we digitise and catalogue them before sending it back. The original work is now stored in Chaplin’s Switzerland home, however, it isn’t open to the public. It is meant for long-term preservation. People who want to access the archive approach Cineteca di Bologna, where we give them access to digital copies.
How did Cineteca come on board to preserve his work?
In 1998, we requested his family for a copy of The Kid for our festival. When the copy arrived, we found that it was in a bad state. We restored it and screened it the following year. When his family saw the print, they were stunned and asked us to restore the rest of his material.
How far have you progressed with the project?
We have finished the first phase of the project, which is of restoration. Now, we will disseminate the material for publication and other educational purposes. We have restored most of his long features including Modern Times, Circus and A Woman in Paris. The Great Dictator has not been restored because it is still in good condition. So is his Countess from Hong Kong, which was produced by Universal. Overall, we have restored close to 80 films, including his short comedies.
What were the hiccups that you faced while carrying out the project?
Chaplin was business savvy and aware of his career. What made it possible to preserve his films is the fact that he became an independent filmmaker in 1919. He produced and distributed his own films. He had complete control over them. There are filmmakers today who want to preserve their work, but they cannot do much about it as they don’t own the negatives. They don’t even know where the negatives are.
That has happened even with Chaplin. Before he produced his own work, he had acted in nearly 60 short films. These films have been in public domain for too long and most of them have been tampered with. For instance, a film exhibitor might get copy of a copy with a missing part and takes the liberty of changing the inter-titles or editing it. Today, we don’t know how some these films originally looked like.
What kind of interest does the famous tramp arouse in the cinematic community?
Chaplin is one of the geniuses of the 20th century. He could reach anybody from any culture and age-group. We meet children who don’t know about him, but the moment they see his movies they are captivated. We screen his movies at a square filled with nearly 8,000 people and the laughter and the sense of community, his films evoke, are indescribable.
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