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Abu Dhabi filmgoers will be able to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s on the big screen. AP / Paramount
Abu Dhabi filmgoers will be able to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s on the big screen. AP / Paramount
Abu Dhabi filmgoers will be able to see Once Upon a Time in the West on the big screen. Rex / Everett Collection
Abu Dhabi filmgoers will be able to see Once Upon a Time in the West on the big screen. Rex / Everett Collection

Abu Dhabi Film Festival delves into the archives to remaster classic movies

With the Abu Dhabi Film Festival screening a number of classics, Kevin Hackett looks at the cultural importance of – and technology behind – film remastering.

Ever since the mid-1980s, when the compact disc changed the way we listen to music, our lives have become more and more high definition. Digitalisation of not only music and data recording but films and television, too, has resulted in most of us taking for granted utterly perfect cinema and home viewing experiences. Blu-ray, surround sound, enormous, ultra-high-definition televisions that can be viewed in crystal clear 3D – this is all standard kit for many households nowadays.

That’s all well and good for new releases, where the source material has been created using state-of-the-art technology. But what about the classics? The films that have kept us enthralled for decades. The films that we’ve formed emotional attachments to; the ones that we like to revisit every now and then, to bring memories flooding back. Thankfully, there are people out there whose sole mission in life seems to be to restore and preserve for all eternity some of the greatest and, often, most obscure classics of the silver screen. People like Mohammad Khawaja, a programmer and coordinator for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Khawaja is the real deal; not simply a film buff, but a fanatic who’s extremely passionate about bringing back to cinema screens films that many either never knew existed or, more often than not, had given up hope of ever seeing them in the way that their makers intended. It’s an interesting, extremely varied job, and the satisfaction of seeing the positive reaction of an audience to something that he’s been instrumental in screening here must be incredibly rewarding.

What, though, is involved in selecting the classics to be screened at the festival under the heading “Pieces of Time: Classic Odysseys, the Art of Preserving and Restoring Cinema”? It’s a special programme of restored classics that offers viewers the chance to discover or rediscover some of the greatest films in the history of cinema and, for Khawaja, the process is a never-ending one. “We attend other festivals throughout the year,” he says. “ Il Cinema Ritrovato [Cinema Rediscovered] in Bologna, Italy, is a highlight – one of the world’s leading lights in film restoration. There’s also The Reel Thing in Los Angeles and, of course, Berlin. We also keep our ears to the ground, listening to what’s going on in the industry.”

Once a list has been settled on, film distributors, studios, agents and organisations such as the Film Foundation, which is fronted by the director Martin Scorcese, are all approached for help in sourcing the films and, this year, there’s a wonderful selection being shown that are wholesome viewing for the entire family.

“We have to be extremely selective,” admits Khawaja, “because we don’t want to have to make any cuts to enable us to show them. We want to show them in their original form – that’s very important. We also have to make sure any given film is available in a format we can screen in Abu Dhabi. We’re not equipped for archival prints, which definitely limits our selection, so that has to be dealt with right at the beginning.”

This year, audiences will be able to see Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Dial M for Murder, exactly the way that the master of suspense intended, when the festival screens the film in 3D. Hitchcock originally shot the film in 3D, only for the format to fall out of favour just before its first release. There will also be the opportunity to see the digital restoration of Sergio Leone’s original, uncut version of Once Upon a Time in the West on the big screen, with Ennio Morricone’s celebrated soundtrack showcased in digital surround sound.

An obscure, perhaps forgotten gem will be Jacques Demy’s 1964 French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, starring Catherine Deneuve, and Blake Edwards’ iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring Audrey Hepburn in her unforgettable role as Holly Golightly, will also be showcased, after an extensive restoration project. Classic British cinema will be celebrated with the 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes, the restoration of which took more than two years to complete. And last, but hardly least, is Alexander Korda’s Technicolor fantasy-adventure The Thief of Baghdad. Khawaja’s enthusiasm for the selection is quite contagious.

“All of these films are classics of their genres,” he says, “and they will speak to Abu Dhabi filmgoers and residents on a personal level, too. They all, in one way or another, address the issue of loneliness and seeing them presented in a way that would have been impossible just a short while ago is a rewarding and enriching experience.”

Khawaja, who joined the ADFF in 2010, says that he will be personally addressing audiences before the films are screened, explaining their cultural significance and the efforts that have been put into their painstaking restorations. “There’s something personal that comes through from the director of each title, and we’re screening the original trailers before each film, too,” he continues, “which will be a lovely touch, providing just an extra bit of insight into these masterpieces.”

When you examine what’s involved with these restoration projects, you can’t help but wonder if the people behind them ever recoup the huge investments. “Oh, but they do,” says Khawaja. “Take Disney, for example. That studio’s entire back catalogue is its legacy and bringing them back to life opens the films to entirely new audiences. All around the world, there are cinemas set up purely to show these old classics. And then there’s the Blu-ray market. The studios always make their money back, one way or another.”

With that in mind, perhaps it’s time to plan your cinema viewing around some of these wondrous films: screenings commence today with Breakfast at Tiffany’s at 3.15pm in Marina Mall’s VOX 1. You can view the entire programme, read more about the films being shown and buy tickets atwww.adff.ae

khackett@thenational.ae

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