The technology to make movies has been around since the late 1800s. But to watch those early movies again, we needed to wait for technologies invented in just the last few years.
The advent of digital cinema has meant not only new methods of filming and screening movies but also new opportunities to restore degraded nitrate reels and cans of 35-millimeter film that had become unwatchable.
Sharon Rivo, co-director of the National Center for Jewish Film, acquired a collection of rotting Yiddish films in 1976 and went on to accumulate the largest archive of Jewish film outside Israel.
“This was really what I would call a lost period of world cinema,” Rivo said. “Every country has at least one major film archive. There was no place that was particularly interested in films that were either in the Yiddish language or films about Jews, because the Jews didn’t have a country then.”
For her work preserving Jewish film, Rivo was honored Monday during a special screening of a film her center restored. The screening was part of the Washington Jewish Film Festival.
“She brings us the very important voices that tell us where we came from and who we are and that offer us profound insights as to where we might go,” Miriam Mörsel Nathan, a former director of the film festival, said at Monday’s event, according to her prepared remarks.
Another resurrected movie, “American Matchmaker,” will be screened Sunday night in Rockville, Md., at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.
The Sunday night presentation of “American Matchmaker,” a musical comedy billed by the festival as starring a “Yiddish Fred Astaire,” will be the second screening of a movie restored by her center during the festival.
The National Center for Jewish Film’s collection of 15,000 cans of film includes everything from footage of the greats of Yiddish theater to film recorded by a soldier entering the Dachau death camp in Nazi Germany. It contains clips of people who went on to mainstream success — such as “Fiddler on the Roof” actress Molly Picon and “Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees” songwriter Jerry Ross — as they made youthful appearances in Yiddish.
The films, especially home movies, show many vanished facets of Jewish life, including the early 20th-century tenements of the Lower East Side, communities of Jews in Iran in the 1950s and wealthy Jews living in comfort in Berlin in the early 1930s just before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.
Rivo said that her center, which has its office at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, is not interested in movies made by Hollywood studios.
“Hollywood will take care of its own products. We are not the archive for ‘Annie Hall.’ We are not the archive for even ‘The Jazz Singer,’” she said.
And she won’t take any home movie just because it was recorded by a Jew. It must show Jewish religious practice — such as footage of a family lighting Shabbat candles — or ethnographic information, such as food and clothing typical of a Jewish community in a particular time and place. That information is often useful to researchers, who regularly contact the National Center for Jewish Film.
The center also provides film footage to documentary makers. About 20 minutes appeared in Simon Schama’s recent five-part PBS series, “The Story of the Jews,” Rivo said. At the Washington Jewish Film Festival, underway now, viewers Monday saw a new documentary on actor Theodore Bikel, which also included footage provided by the center.
As technology improves, the center can offer more and more rare footage for current uses.
The shown film Monday at the event honoring Rivo, for instance, was a 1922 silent called “Breaking Home Ties.” Rivo said that when she acquired it, she tried to show it to an audience. It bounced so badly that no one could watch without becoming nauseated.
At the time, there was no way to fix it. The movie was, for all intents and purposes, lost.
But digital technology allowed a lab to stabilize it.
Such films can be rescued. “It just takes a zillion dollars. That’s all,” Rivo said. That means about $100,000 per film, she said. The center’s budget is about a half-million dollars a year.
The payoff? About 70 people watched “Breaking Home Ties” again at the D.C. Jewish Community Center on Monday, with live musical accompaniment by a pianist and violinist. The decades-old drama — war, other violence, illicit romance, immigration from Russia to New York City — unfolded in crisp clarity once again on the big screen.
Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.