How the American Genre Film Archive Is Saving Movies One Reel at a Time

Austin nonprofit preserves cinema’s underseen and underappreciated

Joseph Ziemba (l) and Sebastian del Castillo (photo by David Brendan Hall)

You never forget your first time seeing the American Genre Film Archive. Sebastian del Castillo was a food runner at the Alamo Village. One day, he went up to the projection booth and found rack after rack of 35mm film reels. He said, "I was like, 'Oh my God, what is this?' I remember looking at titles and seeing Xombi and Killing of a Chinese Bookie and thinking, this is incredible. How can I be involved in this?"

For Joseph Ziemba, founder of horror celebration site Bleeding Skull and current host of the Drafthouse's Terror Tuesday strand, his first glimpse of cinema's underbelly was during a visit from Los Angeles. He was being shown around by Terror Tuesday founder Zack Carlson: "We were eating tacos somewhere and Zack said, 'OK, do you want to go see AGFA?' 'Well, what is AGFA?' He said, 'Oh, that's where all our 35mm film prints are.' I said, 'What 35mm film prints?'" When he saw the collection, "my jaw dropped," he said. The first title he noticed, the name inscribed in black Sharpie on a cardboard box, was Double Agent 73 by underground icon Doris Wishman – one of his favorite exploitation movies by one of his favorite directors. Then he saw another Wishman title, Satan Was a Lady, later disowned by the director and never released on home video. "I was like, 'What? What is this print here of this movie that I've read about and I've heard about?' I decided that I didn't want to go back to where I was staying, I just wanted to sleep there."

The first A in AGFA could also stand for Alamo, since its roots are deep in the history of the Drafthouse chain. However, while it's still based at three Austin locations (the collection split between Slaughter Lane and Village, while AGFA's office is upstairs at South Lamar), it's a separate entity: a freestanding nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of cinema's underseen and underappreciated, with Ziemba now its director and del Castillo the chief archivist.

The backbone of the collection was the original 35mm stash Drafthouse programmers raided regularly for special screenings. Then, in 2009, the team rescued 250 Shaw Brothers films languishing under the stage of an old Chinese theatre in Vancouver, British Columbia, and AGFA was born. Three years later, hundreds of previously unseen Hong Kong action films in a San Francisco film depot were diverted from a watery grave in the Pacific Ocean. Similar rescue missions have swollen the archives to over 3,200 completed films and several hundred more partial prints.

For some of these films, these are literally the only known copy. Many turn up with no history or provenance, the only movie by some desperate filmmaker, a title so obscure it doesn't even have an IMDb page. But that doesn't mean they should be trashed. Ziemba said, "There are these pieces of pop-culture history that are ignored as garbage or worthless, and we say, 'No, they're not. They're important and they deserve to be seen.'"

Yet it's a long and ongoing struggle to turn a stockpile of film cans into an actual archive. Del Castillo said, "We need to pull it off the shelf, identify it, repair it, document it, and put it in the database. But a lot of it, we don't even know what it is." Take the massive San Francisco haul: Most boxes had titles scrawled on them, del Castillo said, "but it was all Chinese characters. So we had to go through and open up all the boxes and go through and see what the title was." Sometimes the title will even be a lie: One day, del Castillo was looking for a copy of Bloodthirsty Butchers by sleaze king Andy Milligan. He pulled out a print, started watching it, and quickly found it was actually a different Milligan movie bizarrely glued in its place. "It was Torture Dungeon with the title removed and the title for Bloodthirsty Butchers spliced in. Immediately, when I found out, I asked Joe, 'Why? Where did this play?'"

While the aim is to get these movies back on screens, there's a risk every time a print is sent out the door. All it takes is one lost delivery, one projection mishap, and that one-of-a-kind artifact is lost forever. That's where AGFA's latest addition comes in: a Kickstarter-funded 4K scanner, plus editing suite, to restore these lost classics. The duo split duties: del Castillo used to work as a negative cutter and so handles color correction, while Ziemba fixes the sound.

Yet that still leaves the complicated issue of rights. AGFA may own the print, but finding who owns the film itself can require what Ziemba called "obsessive detective work." That's where the pivotal new relationship with Something Weird Video came into play. For decades, the Seattle-based distribution house released the most astounding rarities on VHS, and so has done much of that legwork. Combine their archive and legal records and AGFA's archive and restoration team, and that will lead to more screenings and more re-releases. For del Castillo, that's AGFA's true purpose: to find new life for "titles that have never had a home release, stuff that's really cool and that we like and we want to make available to the rest of the world."

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More American Genre Film Archive
A Watery Grave Narrowly Avoided
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Marc Savlov, Dec. 25, 2009

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