B-roll Burden

Who should be responsible for our celluloid civic history?

Summer, 2013 / No. 30
Photograph by Tom Hicken
Tom Hicken

Veillette and Geddes in their Spadina office.

The first thing you notice is the vastness: about five thousand round canisters of sixteen-millimetre film, each one about an inch thick and ranging from seven to fifteen inches in diameter, stacked on seven-foot-high metal racks. Housed in the basement of a furniture shop in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood, the collection takes up an entire room, about five hundred square feet, floor to ceiling. Standing here, dwarfed by the shelving and under dim bulbs powered by snaking extension cords, gives the feeling of having entered a secret vault; a library of dusty and forgotten oddities.

“We don’t know the majority of these titles,” says Colin Geddes, a programmer with the Toronto International Film Festival, who, along with the film historian and journalist Eric Veillette, now owns what once was the Toronto Reference Library’s entire collection of sixteen-millimetre film. “We can hazard a guess on some titles, and we know there are lots of National Film Board and CBC films, but sixty per cent is who knows what.” The Land of the Disappearing Buddha, Rivers of Sand, Waking Up to Rape—you won’t find these titles on Netflix.

In 2010, Geddes learned through a friend that the library was determined to find a new home for its collection. York and the University of Toronto took away a few cans, but the majority remained up for grabs. Geddes quickly notified Veillette, with whom he shares a downtown office space. Almost immediately, Veillette set up a meeting with one of the chief librarians. “I was inquiring more as a reporter, never thinking I’d end up with all of it,” Veillette says. Seeing the sheer scope of what was on offer, he immediately switched into salesman mode. “I grabbed a few cans and ran back to the office and said to Colin, ‘This is insane. We need to get this.’”

Largely due to Veillette’s involvement with the Revue Cinema in Roncesvalles Village, where he puts on regular screenings of silent films, and Geddes’ own history screening movies and his involvement with TIFF, the librarian agreed to give them the collection, on three conditions: they had to take it all, they could only move it after hours, and they had to have it removed in less than two weeks.

Geddes and Veillette were able to secure about thirty people and a van, enough to move everything over two long nights. Along with the thousands of canisters, they also walked away with an assortment of peripheral materials: racking, stickers, push carts, card catalogue, pamphlets, and two film and sound editing machines, each about the size of a commercial photocopier. Too much to house in their small office, Veillette called his boss at the furniture store where he works weekends and convinced him to let them store it in a basement room. He agreed, with the understanding that it was temporary, and if and when Veillette quit, the collection had to go. “Turnover at the store was brisk, and he thought we’d be out of there in a few months,” says Veillette. “That was more than two years ago.”

There was a time, decades ago, when the Toronto Reference Library, like most other libraries, did brisk business loaning sixteen-millimetre films. Movies were borrowed for birthday parties and backyard screenings, for clubs and educational purposes. If you were in public school prior to the early nineteen-eighties, you likely remember the sight of a projector being wheeled into the classroom, the whirl of the reel, the faint smell of burning dust. “It always felt special,” says Geddes, who grew up in Camden East, just outside of Kingston, Ontario. “Then came video, and suddenly the screen size went from something large enough to be projected onto a wall to the tiny spectrum of a TV screen.”

The advent of the VCR did push sixteen millimetre from the public sphere, and the reels, like vinyl records and other antiquated technologies, became the stuff of collectors. Now, at any given time, there are scores of sixteen-millimetre cans being bought and sold on-line, much of it derived from discarded or sold-off library collections. While most cans are virtually worthless—the film equivalent of dollar-bin LPs—some can fetch hundreds of dollars. Their value derives mainly from rarity and condition. “Most film fades or turns red and loses its tonal quality,” says Geddes. “You’ll see listings for films, and the seller writes, ‘Has a nice vinegar smell.’ Um, if your film smells like fish and chips, it means it’s mouldy and you need to remove it from your collection immediately, otherwise it’ll contaminate everything around it.”

Because he still doesn’t fully know the scope or value of the collection, Geddes has been spending evenings and weekends underground, cataloguing. “Eric keeps cherry-picking the good ones, but we need to put everything in order first, so we know what we want to keep and what we can shed,” says Geddes. On one particular night, Geddes has been at it for two hours, dictating each can title into his laptop. “The Insect Challenge. New line. The Jews of Winnipeg. New line. Can A Guy Say No. New line. The Man From Nowhere. New line. House of Flame. New line. That’s the thing—House of Flame, what the hell is that? There’s not even a year on this one.” Pausing, he opens up a large hardcover book listing each title, another artifact attached to the collection. “O.K., here it is: House of Flame, nineteen minutes. ‘The spirit of a maiden who drowned 500 years ago asks a traveller to help release her from purgatory….Animated puppets….Japan.’ No year.”

While the N.F.B. and CBC titles most likely exist elsewhere or have been digitized (making them worthless in terms of preservation), many likely exist only in this collection—toss them, and they would be lost to history.

“There’s this common misconception that most film has been digitized and put on-line,” says Veillette. This is especially true of local, or what Veillette calls “B-roll” cans: footage shot by amateurs or cameramen working for nearby TV stations, home movies, lingering reels of tape that show a time and place that might be long forgotten.

“We’ve got film from 1954 showing a tickertape parade after Marilyn Bell became the first person to swim across Lake Ontario,” says Veillette. “Most of this stuff doesn’t even have a label or name attached to it. We’ve uncovered footage from 1929 taken during the opening of the Royal York.” There’s also a documentary from the early eighties, called Spadina, which shows the street before it became Chinatown. But it’s the slow and seemingly mundane stuff that Veillette most appreciates. “We’ve got this one can, likely from the early fifties, showing people shopping near Queen and Bay. You get to see all these details, inside store windows, what people are wearing, cars going by—there’s even a part where [the country music singer] Hank Snow gets out of a Cadillac and walks into the Casino theatre.”

As libraries culled their collections, much of this type of film was lost. Some, like the Windsor Public Library, had the foresight to preserve films chronicling local history. But not Toronto. “Our audio-visual history has been poorly preserved,” says Veillette. “We uncovered a T.T.C. propaganda film from the late nineteen-forties, shot before the construction of the subway system. It’s incredible. You see these streetcars barrelling down Yonge Street, dropping people off at Eaton’s.” Knowing they were sitting on something special, Veillette and Geddes called the Toronto Transit Commission to let them know about the film. “They were saying, ‘No, this doesn’t exist. It’s not real.’ But it is. We were projecting it on our office wall.

“Part of the reason we took on this collection was so we could show these films to people in the city,” says Veillette, who, like Geddes, believes the act of projection is itself a form of preservation. “This is valuable shit, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

As every collector knows, there comes a point when you have to decide what’s worth keeping, and what can be culled. After holding the film collection for nearly three years, the shine of ownership has been replaced by something akin to burden. “We rescued it because we knew the collection was special, irreplaceable,” says Veillette. “But it’s just too big. I walk into the room and I’m overwhelmed. It’s like going from having a stack of forty-fives to owning an entire record store.”

In early March of this year, Veillette got word from his boss at the furniture store that the film collection was no longer welcome, and had to be gone in a month. Harsh and alarming, the news was actually something Veillette welcomed. “I’ve wanted to quit that job for a year, but couldn’t because of the film,” he says. “It’s gotten to the point where I’d be willing to give away ninety-five per cent of what we’ve got.” But this is a shared collection, a partnership, and while Geddes is also keen to shave it down, he’s not quite as eager to slash.

“It would be great to create some sort of lending library or co-op where we could lend the films to people,” says Geddes. But that, he concedes, would be a full-time job and require them to find a new storage space equal in size. “I’ve been called a hoarder, I can admit it,” says Geddes, who, in addition to the collection he shares with Veillette, also owns a large cache of Hong Kong films and posters, which he stores in multiple storage spaces and sometimes sells on eBay. “I’ve got to be careful. I’ve seen too many people collapse under the weight of their collections.”

More than a month has passed since Veillette was told to move the stacks of film cannisters, with no repercussions. And so he continues to work, not because he needs the cash, but because he needs the space. Neither he nor Geddes seems quite ready to part with it. And so the cataloguing continues.

“How can you get rid of what you don’t know you have? ” Geddes says. “A lot of this stuff is just educational garbage. Here’s one: The Heritage of Slavery. Let’s put on a 1968 documentary on slavery.

“Actually, I would like to see that.”