Film historian and archivist Fernando Martín Peña’s (58) passion for movies is on full display in his house. He lives amidst cans of 35mm film prints, books, vinyl records, and half a dozen cats. He also has a personal archive that is so big that he even needed a separate building to house it, a climate-controlled, two-story tower Peña built right next to his home.
Collecting and preserving films, something he has dedicated his life to, is not a labor born merely from his love of movies. It is also a key part of a struggle that he has been embarked on since the mid-1990s and has yet to succeed in achieving: trying to get the state to build and finance a national cinematheque to keep the country’s rich film history.
“Argentina has a serious problem with memory,” he tells the Herald following a brief tour of the archive he has named Filmoteca Buenos Aires. He has more than 8,000 films safely kept on giant metal shelves that he has pledged to donate to the state after his death.
Although Peña’s lifelong endeavor has been preserving and screening films, his career has taken him through all echelons of Argentina’s cinematic universe. He has been the director of Argentina’s top two film festivals (in Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata), and currently hosts the cult TV program Filmoteca, which shows films of all ages and genres, from silent porn to spaghetti westerns (it airs daily after midnight on TV Pública).
Peña is also the film curator at Malba museum and runs a self-managed festival named ‘Bazofi’ (a pun on the Buenos Aires film festival’s acronym, Bafici), where he shows all sorts of rarities from his collection.
His behind-the-scenes labor is also getting a bit of public recognition these days. Peña’s book Diario de la Filmoteca (Film Diary, Blatt & Ríos, 2023), a rich and entertaining glimpse into the everyday life of his rare and essential craft, was published in June. He is also the subject of Enrique Bellande’s documentary La vida a oscuras (Life in the dark), which premiered earlier this year.
Film preservation as an act of memory
Like an Indiana Jones of celluloid history, Peña has fought for decades against government indifference — and/or negligence — to get Argentina its own cinematheque. A state-managed, well-funded facility to preserve, restore, and exhibit the country’s vast film production, which, sadly, is mostly lost forever.
“Officially, Argentina doesn’t even know how much it has lost,” he says. According to his calculations, the country has lost more than half of its film heritage. Around 90% of the films made in the silent film era — Argentine films have existed since 1895 — and 50% of those made with sound in the 20th century.
Peña’s preservation efforts gained international visibility back in 2008, when he and Paula Félix-Didier, director of the Buenos Aires Film Museum, found the only existing print of Fritz Lang’s original version of Metropolis, his 1927 sci-fi silent masterpiece (Peña wrote the story behind this discovery in his book Metrópolis, published by La Tercera.)
Peña says it all started with a casual conversation he had with film club pioneer Salvador Sammaritano, who recalled the time he spent more than two hours screening Metropolis, holding the film with his fingers on the projector so it wouldn’t come off.
The time Sammaritano mentioned didn’t add up. It was longer than the existing versions of the film. Peña’s thorough detective work tracked it down and finally found it, unidentified, in the Buenos Aires Film Museum.
“Metropolis survived because it was kept in state archives. No one realized it was there, true, but it survived because it was there. If that had ended in private hands, it would have been destroyed or sold to a foreign buyer, and they would have found it in another country.”
Why does Peña advocate the creation of a cinematheque? Because celluloid film — properly stored under controlled temperature and humidity — remains the best way to preserve audiovisual material, both in terms of durability and cost. “The negatives of Lumière films still exist in 35mm”, says Peña.
“And you can still screen that if you’re careful, because it’s the same system with the same basic mechanisms”. Today’s polyester-made films, Peña claims, could last for 500 years. “You can’t break polyester, and as far as we know, it doesn’t undergo any decaying chemical process,” he says.
Digital, today’s ruling format, is much more ephemeral than celluloid and requires infrastructure that is a lot more expensive. But it’s also the opposite of stable, since the technology is constantly updated.
Just as paper was the main form of record in the 19th century, Peña says the 20th century’s primary form of record-keeping was audiovisual. Argentine cinema, then, can also be viewed as the ultimate record of life. The country’s history, he says, has been recorded on film.
“But what remains of that today, I don’t know,” he acknowledges.
Film preservation began to gain ground in Latin America after World War II, when countries in the region started promoting their local film production as a way of countering the invasion of market-hoarding Hollywood films.
But the next logical step — funding the preservation of what their growing film industries were making — didn’t occur in Argentina the same way as it did in Brazil or Mexico, the most comparable countries in terms of film heritage.
“We dealt with it as if it were any other industry, like noodles or shoes. The state never spent a dime on film preservation specifically,” says Peña.
The first Argentine film law passed by Congress in 1999 actually declared the country in a state of “film heritage emergency”. Thirteen years after its implementation, however, the cinematheque hasn’t been born yet. According to Peña, it’s in a complete deadlock. Although state bureaucracy appears to have somewhat moved forward in the organization of its authorities, the 1999-written law that determined the origin and structure of funding is so outdated for it to even work.
Peña says he doesn’t feel frustrated and that he did everything he could to see the cinematheque come true. “What I won’t accept is for anyone to say ‘We have lost half of the film heritage.’ No. You [as the state] have lost it. I didn’t. I used all my energy and my resources to preserve it. And here it is,” he states, pointing towards the Filmoteca tower across the yard he has vowed to donate after his death.
His life’s work, one way or another, will result in the Argentine cinematheque the country has so far been unable to build. But there is no merit in that, he says.
“I couldn’t have done anything else. This is all I know how to do.”