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Archive fights to preserve film heritage

The Swiss film archives are at risk Keystone

Switzerland’s National Film Archive is calling for more government money to salvage its large collection of old and rare films, many of which are in an advanced state of decay.

But the Federal Office for Culture says it does not have enough cash to fund the foundation’s plans for better storage facilities.

The National Film Archive – or Cinémathèque – houses around 65,000 film prints in its archive facilities in Lausanne, many of them rare or even unique.

However, some of the older reels are decaying. Around ten per cent of the films are on nitrate film, a substance prone to crumbling.

The organisation’s director, Hervé Dumont, put into motion a restoration plan when he took up his position in 1996, but personnel and financial constraints mean the task is an uphill struggle.

Not only is the task of restoring film very expensive, he told swissinfo, one of the biggest obstacles to preserving them is inadequate storage.

“Ours is a problem of space and construction: it [the archive] is getting full. Some parts don’t have the right humidity or conditions ideal to film preservation. So we have to build a new storage space, and here we need the help of the Swiss government.”

Reluctant government

The organisation plans to construct a new building, which would provide the right conditions for storing the films. The new annexe would cost around SFr15 million ($12 million) if the current building design is followed.

The National Film Archive has asked the government to provide money for the project. But, so far, the authorities have been reluctant to put their hands in their pockets.

Dumont says this is because Bern does not appreciate the worth of the film archives.

“The Federal Office for Culture is behind us but the rest of the government does not see the importance of film and the way it has shaped our society over the past 110 years.

“The authorities must understand it is just as important to keep these films as it is to keep paintings and books in a national gallery or library.”


The federal authorities currently provide around three quarters of the National Film Archive’s funding, which amounts to about SFr2 million per year.

But, in spite of this, the organisation is a private foundation. And this, according to David Streiff, director of the Federal Office for Culture, is the main reason why the government is disinclined to fund the expansion.

“It’s a pity the Cinémathèque didn’t try to get under the wings of the government in the past,” Streiff said. “For a long time they were extremely eager to be independent, and now that doesn’t suit them anymore they have come for help.”

“If the organisation was a government institution, it would be easier for it to get funding. But it wouldn’t be that much easier, as money is lacking at the moment.”

While Streiff says he supports the National Film Archive, the difficulty lies in convincing the finance ministry that it deserves extra cash.

He is even struggling to get more funding for the national library and national museum – both federal institutions – as the government is currently looking at ways to reduce public spending.

The search for solutions

“We are trying to convince the government that we have to take steps to solve this problem,” said Streiff.

The culture office has proposed that the government provide the land for the new storage facility. It has also advocated a review of the current plans to see if costs can be cut.

Otherwise, Streiff says, it may be a case of waiting until the economic climate has improved in the hope that the government will have more money at its disposal.

swissinfo, Joanne Shields

The Swiss National Film Archive was founded in 1943 in Basel.
After Basel cut its funding, the archives moved to Lausanne in 1948.
The archive became a private foundation in 1981, but two-thirds of its funding still comes from local and federal authorities.
Hervé Dumont took over as director in 1996 and began a programme to restore the archived films.

The foundation stores not only Swiss films, but also foreign productions filmed in Switzerland.

Around 10% of the 65,000 films in the National Film Archive are on nitrate film, a substance prone to crumbling.

The films need to be stored in the right humidity and temperature, so the National Film Archive wants to build a new storage facility.

The new annexe would cost around SFr15 million to build from current design plans.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR