Join Levi Bettwieser for an in-depth discussion in this video Undeveloped World War II Film Discovered - Film, part of Undeveloped WWII Film Discovered.
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(emotional piano music) (rustling paper, camera shutter) - [Levi] I perceive all the images that I rescue as being historical.
It doesn't matter if the roll was shot in the 1990's. I see that as being a piece of history. But this batch of film automatically has the weight of potentially having extreme historical value. Roll 1, roll 6, this is roll 17, this is roll 23, this one says, "Lucky Strike Beach", "Boston Harbor". "Start of train trip", "Roll of French funeral", "1947". This one was wrapped in some kind of a letter. "I've always had a lonesome life, "dreaming of success and love." I generally find a roll here, a roll there.
Someone finds a roll in a camera and the sell it, or they give it to me, or they donate it to the project. So, to find a batch of film that's 31 rolls from the same source, the same photographer, that is 70-80 years old is even more uncommon. Now, I have to load the film onto these plastic reels, and then I put them in this light-proof tank, and then I can take that back out into the kitchen and do the developing in straight daylight, and it goes around the reel like this so that none of the film is touching itself.
If the film is touching, then developer can't get on it, and it won't develop that part of the film, you'll have that film ruined. You never want any of the film touching. I'm gonna shut off the lights and just do this in complete darkness. (light switch clicking, door shuts) There are a few rolls that have, what appear to be water damage. There's some rust on some of the spools, which tells me that it's been exposed to moisture, which is, really not good for film, obviously. Film's an extremely organic substance, and it's very sensitive to light and moisture and temperate changes.
You can imagine, that since the film is from the 40's, there's no telling how high-quality of images are still on the film, or if there are any images at all. (film noise) (running water) Some people might look at how I develop film and see that I'm doing it in my kitchen, and I'm loading film in my bathroom, and they think that, potentially, the quality is lower or the attention to detail is lower, as opposed to a big developing house.
When you are developing film that is so unique as this, where each roll is expired, one might have water damage, you really have to approach it in a small-batch approach, where you have to treat every roll individually, and you can't think about bulk process in this type of film. All the film is loaded here in the light-proof tank from the darkroom. We're gonna pre-soak for a minute, I'll pour the water out, I'll pour the developer in, and then we'll develop for seven minutes.
(slow keyboard music) This definitely isn't my first time, for the Rescued Film project, developing rolls of film from this age and this era. You generally are exhausting your chemicals a lot faster with old, expired film.
It's more degraded, more silver washes off, it might have rust in there and other contaminants. Also, another huge hurdle when it comes to developing old film, is that is has been rolled up on those rolls tightly for a long, long time. Anything that's been wound up that tight for that long really doesn't want to be unwound, so I generally can have a really difficult time handling the film, getting it onto the reels, hanging it, scanning it. It's a lot harder to work with than maybe a more modern film. (ambient music) Each batch takes around 30 minutes, and you're literally just sitting there and you're agitating it every 30 seconds.
It can be really tedious and boring. But, right around the last 10 minutes of the process, when I'm washing the film, I start thinking, "I'm about to open up this tank and see "what's on these rolls of film, if there's anything." I get the most nervous while developing the very first batch, because that will be an indicator of the types of images I'm gonna get in the rest of the batch. If I don't get much of anything, then I get really worried. There is a large possibility that I might not recover a single image from any of these rolls of film.
Alright, so I'm gonna poor this out. I'm gonna open the top, you can see the film, the reels are in there, and there's one more little step. - [Levi Voiceover] I'm extremely nervous that point. - And you can't tell if there's images yet, because it's still rolled up, but-- - [Levi Voiceover] I pull out the whole batch of reels. - I'll open the reel and the spool. I pop the first one open and then I hold it up, and that's when I kind of take a breath of fresh air, and then I'm just amazed at what I see.
(emotional piano music) What I'm noticing is that most of the images are wide, landscape scene shots.
The photographer seemed to be really interested in capturing moments that had kind of a large significance to multiple people. Groups of soldiers standing in harbors and waiting for trains, and walking out of church. (various sound effects of the process) Most old film is not what the old timers would call a printable negative, they're so degraded, generally, that it would be a waste of time to take that negative into a darkroom, put it in an enlarger and try and print it on a piece of paper.
What I love about the technology we have now, is I can scan it. But even if I don't see everything that's on that negative, the scanner can then pick up detail in images that I never could see with the naked eye, or even with an enlarger. (piano music) When I tell people what I do and how much time I spend, and money I spend on it, they don't quite get it. But then they start looking at some of the images that I've found and they are instantly hooked as well.
They can't believe that some of these images have never been seen before. When I pull the film that I've just developed out of my film-developing tank and look at them, I'm the very first person who has ever seen that picture. They've never been enjoyed, they've never been remembered. It almost increases the weight of the importance of that photo because it has never had those moments before.
That's really the goal of the Rescued Film Project. It's really about saving as many images as possible before they're all gone. We really look at every roll of film as if it's the photographer's mark in history. As them kind of saying, "Hey, I exist, "and these moments in time were important to me." Even if the photographer's not around anymore to remember them, we want to reveal the images to the world, because the moments in time that were captured on these forgotten rolls of film were important to someone at some point.
(uplifting piano music) The goal of the Rescued Film Project is to reconnect the images with, either the photographer who shot them, or their family, or in this instance, if it's an image of extreme historical significance, find the best avenue or venue possible to showcase and document those images. The reason we call it "Rescued Film" is because, I believe, if we weren't actively searching and finding these rolls of film, that they would be lost forever.
There are other projects out there that document historical photos and negatives and slides, but negatives and slides and photos are images that have been processed. They've been hung on people's walls, they've been put in photo albums, and they've been enjoyed by the people who were meant to enjoy them. But with the rescued film, all the images are almost locked away in these rolls of film and have never been seen before. We feel it's extremely important to rescue these rolls of film, process the images, and enjoy these moments for the people who were never able to enjoy them for themselves.