MURDO MACLEOD
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Where the bodies are buried

Whether you’re alive or dead, Sue Black knows who you are – as dozens of murderers and war criminals have discovered.

Even before she became an anatomy student, Sue Black was used to death. From the age of 13 she had worked every Saturday at a local butcher’s shop. On cold days, she would rush to pick up the livers from the incoming vans, the fresh organs warming her hands in the cold Scottish winter.

By the time she arrived at the University of Aberdeen, having lied to her worried parents that she had secured a full grant, she was already familiar with bones, blood and flesh. But what she saw inside David – the nickname she gave to the cadaver she was instructed to dissect – was very different.

She calls the inside of the human body an “amazing world”, a life story written in skin and tissue. Stretching out her pale forearms – she is red-haired and “tans as well as a snowball” – she shows me her freckles. Their ­position was decided in her mother’s womb: the cells settled in a layer of skin called the basal lamina, waiting to be activated by sunlight. “If you stay indoors and you never go outside,” she says, “well, you’ll always remain pale and interesting.”

Black, now 54, has made her career painstakingly learning to read these human stories. She is now Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology at the University of Dundee and one of Britain’s leading experts in human identification. She sees bodies that betray their owners – the veins on a paedophile’s hand, for example, which are more distinctive than a fingerprint – and bodies whose marks and scars become testimonies to murders and war crimes. She cannot help looking at the world as an anatomist: it always annoys her that political cartoonists put the gap in Tony Blair’s teeth in the wrong place.

Three deaths influenced Sue Black’s childhood and set the pattern for her career. The first was that of her grandmother – a tough old woman who, when she knew she was dying, told the young Susan that whenever she needed advice, she could turn to her own shoulder and talk to her. (She still does.) The second was a young mother called Renee MacRae, who went missing in 1976 with her son Andrew near Inverness, where Black grew up. “I can remember the police coming round and asking my father to look in the outhouses,” she says, her hands cradling a cup of tea in her university office.

The officers found no trace of MacRae and her son, there or anywhere else. The case remained dormant until 2004, when a new chief constable decided that there was enough intelligence to excavate a local quarry. Black was involved with the search but after the police moved tonnes of earth, they uncovered only a few bones – which belonged to a rabbit. The disappearances are now Scotland’s longest-running missing persons case. “Those kinds of things get under your skin,” she says. “You think there’s a family sitting with their life, in part, in a stutter. They just want their sister back . . . Whoever killed her is the only person, I suspect, who knows where she is.”

The final death that changed the young Sue’s life was that of a rat, beaten to death by her father, who had found it scavenging outside the hotel that he ran on the shores of Loch Carron. She remembers its eyes, its teeth, its tail, its fevered thrashing as it died. It left her with a fear of rodents, so she was stumped when, on reaching the fourth year of her anatomy degree, she was told to dissect the brains of hamsters and mice. She convinced her tutor to let her study human bones instead – and never looked back.

***

What Sue Black does is easy to explain but sometimes difficult to accomplish: she finds out who people are or, more often, were. After training as an anatomist, she was employed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and travelled to Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Thailand and Iraq to help identify the bodies of those killed in natural disasters and massacres. Her first big mission came in 1999, when a colleague, Peter Vanezis, was asked to collect evidence in Kosovo for a possible war crimes tribunal. He arrived at a barn in the village of Velika Kruša, in the west of the country, and found it filled with 42 decomposing bodies. He told his superiors that he needed help. He needed Sue Black.

She was by then the mother of three children, aged 15, five and three. With her husband working full-time and her parents living 120 miles away, she hired a nanny and got on the next plane. It was not a hard decision. “The girls have grown up knowing that we adore them but they also know that their dad has a life and their mum has a life, the same as they will have a life – or they do have a life now, because they’re much, much older.”

What she found in Kosovo was a scene of horror. There was a survivor from the barn massacre – a man who had made it to the corner of the room and had been shielded by his friends as Serbian troops sprayed the men with bullets, then tried to set the barn on fire. He lay still under their bodies until it was safe to emerge, many hours later. Black’s job was to see if the physical evidence corroborated his story.

That involved sifting through the remains with her fingertips, working on bodies that had been burned and partly eaten by local dogs and were now a boiling mass of maggots. There was no running water on site and there were snipers in the hills. There were also no toilets. On the first day, one of the police officers on the mission returned from the tree that the team had been using as a makeshift loo, beaming from ear to ear. He had found himself urinating on an explosive device. It had a tripwire that would have triggered if anyone walked down the road away from the barn, killing or severely injuring them. But the man was thrilled: at his age, he had managed to stop mid-flow as soon as he saw it.

During her time in Kosovo, Black took on the role of the team’s surrogate mother. “Everybody kicks in to a professional mode the minute you get into the car and you’re heading out to an event,” she says. “But when you’re in your lodgings at night, when people are being people rather than being professionals, there’s a different dynamic that goes on.” In that role, she says, she could tell them to stop drinking, have a proper meal, or go to bed. “And those buttons are ones that a mother can hit. What becomes quite disruptive within a team is when you have single, available, attractive women and you have men.”

She also helped the rest of the team deal with the emotional demands of the job. Once, she was conducting a post-mortem in a field. The subject was a toddler, still in red booties and a sleepsuit. Soldiers had chased the village children into the field and then used their heads for target practice while the adults were made to watch. Pausing for a moment from her work, she looked up and saw a line of policemen’s boots. One of the officers had broken down – he had a toddler at home – and his colleagues were sheltering him until he could continue. Black, however, was having none of it. She stood up and threw her arms around him, allowing him to cry in the open. Then she told him that he had to keep his work and home life separate.

When she is working on a difficult case, she has a mantra: “You didn’t cause this, you didn’t do this, you’re not responsible.” She keeps her professional life in the “work box” and, because of this, she professes never to have had a sleepless night as a result of the things she has seen. The crime writer Val McDermid, who has known Black for 20 years, says that she is “very good at compartmentalising . . . It’s that ability to not bring her work out of the building that makes it possible for her to survive.”

***

For the first half of her career, Black was mostly concerned with identifying the dead. But it can be just as important to identify the living – as in the case of Scotland’s largest paedophile ring.

Some time between 2005 and 2007, a man called Neil Strachan, who worked as an engineer with Crown Paints in Edinburgh, attached a personal hard drive to a computer at work. He forgot all about it, until one day the computer was sent away for repair. On the hard drive, the technician found a sexually explicit photograph of a child.

That discovery set off a chain of raids and arrests, leading to the trial of a group of men who had met online to swap indecent images and boast about their exploits. One of Strachan’s contacts, a man called James Rennie, had an email address beginning “kplover”, standing for “kiddie porn lover”. When the case was coming to trial, though, the police faced a challenge. Strachan had sent messages to Rennie indicating that he was not only looking at child sex abuse images but abusing children. “I might have found us a contact with two boys, two and four, willing to share,” he wrote once. Another time, he boasted of “having fun” with an 18-month-old boy; police found a picture of a man abusing a child roughly that age around New Year, which became known as the “Hogmanay image”. They desperately wanted to know if Strachan was the man in the photograph, because the penalties for making child pornography are far greater than those for merely viewing it.

But how? The images didn’t show the man’s face. For some unknown reason, however, the defence counsel had taken images of Strachan’s thighs – and although his legs were entirely unremarkable, in one of the images he was holding the photographic scale. And there, on his thumb, was the mark that betrayed him. He had a deformation of the lunula, the crescent-shaped white area at the base of the nail. So did the man in the Hogmanay image. The evidence went to court and in 2009, Strachan was convicted of the ­attempted rape of the 18-month-old and sentenced to life.

Black and her team now examine dozens of similar images every year and in 80 per cent of the cases they work on, their identification of an anatomical feature convinces the defendant to change his plea to guilty. She is the only member of the team who has children and again the mantra – “This is  not something you caused . . .” – helps her, as does her day job in the dissecting room. “When you’ve worked in anatomy, where you spend your life with the deceased, when you then work in forensic anthropology, where you see individuals in all sorts of circumstances, whether it’s in burnings, whether it’s in explosions, whether it’s in murder, suicide, whatever it may be, all of these serve to help you find that ability to retain a detachment.”

Some of Black’s opinions are unexpected, such as her belief that defendants in rape and child abuse cases should not be named unless they are found guilty. “I can’t think of anything worse for a man than to be wrongly accused of being a child abuser,” she says. “Once that label’s been put on you . . . even though you’re found innocent, in the public’s mind there is still always this: ‘Is there no smoke without fire?’” She is wary, too, of investing too much in cases and feeling tempted to overegg the science or her certainty. “It’s incredibly important that we only say things that are backed up by research, because to put the wrong person on the wrong side of bars is unacceptable. That’s not justice working, that’s injustice.”

In almost all of her work, the forensic evidence is just part of a larger case built by the police. This can have unexpected consequences, as in an early case that used vein pattern analysis. “The very first one we did was a case of alleged child abuse where the girl alleged that her biological father was abusing her and she – bless her – had her Skype camera on her computer. And I don’t know if you know, but if you run it in night mode, it goes into infrared, so you had infrared capture through the night. And a picture was picked up on the camera at about half past four in the morning of a hand coming in and interfering with the girl under the covers.”

The infrared camera picked up the perpetrator’s hand and, from her years in the lab, Black knew that the veins that were visible were very distinctive. Her team compared the blood vessels in the images with the defendant’s. They matched. “But what I had no research on – and didn’t present [in court] – was what the likelihood was of anybody having the same veins, because we simply didn’t know,” she says.

After some back and forth between the judge, the prosecutors and the defence, the vein match was ruled admissible. “So the jury heard it. The jury then went away and they came back with a not guilty verdict.”

Black and her team wondered what they had done wrong, so they sent a note to ask whether the jury had not been convinced by the untested technique. “They said, ‘Oh, no, we had no problem with the science, that was fine.’” The trouble was that the members of the jury did not believe the girl, whom they had found to be too composed in the witness box. She sighs. “She was a young teenager. Who else would be in her room at half past four in the morning? But, you know, that’s not our case.”

***

Since then, Black and her team have discovered that the veins in the hand are, as they suspected, highly distinctive – even in identical twins. (Earlier, she told me with relish: “That’s the wholly wonderful thing about identical twins – that the one thing that they are not is identical.”)

This new information provides police with a more reliable method of identification than many of the better-known forms. In Scottish courts now, for instance, fingerprint matches are treated as matters of opinion rather than fact. This follows an inquiry into an eyebrow-raising case in which a police detective called Shirley McKie was suspended, then sacked, then charged with perjury, after her fingerprint was apparently found on a door frame at a murder scene, although she denied ever visiting it. Her father, a retired detective, took up the case and McKie was eventually acquitted and awarded £750,000 in compensation. It seems likely that although her prints matched those at the scene on all the points that had been sampled, they were not identical.

“It took her many, many years to prove that, in fact, the way in which fingerprints were being assessed was fundamentally flawed, so that all cases where convictions relied on fingerprints were now in jeopardy,” Black says. Other staples of forensic science, such as gait analysis, now face similar questions. “In America at the moment, they’re having horrendous problems – and we’re not surprised – with bite marks.”

She is also dismissive of iris identification, because it is possible to make a good-quality replica of an eyeball on acetate and print it on a contact lens. “If you can spoof the biometric, then ultimately it’s not a very good biometric. And they’ve now been able to spoof irises. Spoofing of fingerprints is child’s play now.”

Such concerns are why Black talks about a “crisis” in forensic science. For many years, DNA evidence has been a kind of deus ex machina in criminal cases – the DNA has spoken: that guy did it – but matches are based on probability rather than certainty and the modern techniques used to isolate very small strands of DNA are open to contamination.

Other types of evidence are prone to misunderstanding. In February 2014, she brought together a group of forensic scientists to discuss the limitations of their work. Without the scientists’ knowledge, Black also asked several senior judges and lawyers to attend. “We have two key players in the forensic world who only ever meet in an adversarial position, so they’re never, ever going to understand each other,” she says. “So, by the scientists being open and honest and not realising the judges were in the room, the judges were going, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is what the scientists think. Ooh!’”

The result of the meeting was that the scientists and lawyers agreed that 40 evidence types needed attention. “And that went from DNA, fingerprints, footwear marks, gunshot residue, bite marks – you go through the whole list – that said either we’ve got a problem in detecting it, or recognising it, or comparing it, or evaluating it, or communicating it.”

The scientists are now producing primers, written in simple English, to help juries and judges better understand the science they are being asked to weigh up. “That’s probably the biggest ever project attempted in public engagement with science, if you think that’s taking science into every single courtroom in the land, every single day.”

***

Alongside these grand plans, Sue Black’s attention in the past few years has been on a project closer to home. When I visit Dundee on a wind-whipped December day, the department is humming with quiet industry: there are students (95 per cent of them female), mortuary assistants and colleagues in Christmas jumpers. And there are bodies.

When Black arrived at Dundee in 2005, anatomy departments were in decline – they were either closing down altogether, or moving to “prosection”, in which an instructor dissects a cadaver in front of the class. But she is an evangelist for the importance of hands-on experience, and the department receives 80 new bodies every year for its students to cut into and explore.

Val McDermid was one of a group of crime writers who agreed to help Black raise the funds for a new mortuary a few years ago. They asked their fans to vote for a room to be named after them and to pay a pound to do so. It’s clear who won, as Sue Black guides me into the “Val McDermid Mortuary” and then to the “Stuart MacBride Dissecting Room”. The other eight writers each got their name on an embalming tank, with the exception of Lee Child, who decided to use that of his lead character Jack Reacher instead. “We realised early on we couldn’t have the Child Mortuary,” says Black dispassionately.

The dissecting rooms are cool, and – to my surprise – smell of very little, not even disinfectant. The air-conditioning draws the air downwards and the new Thiel embalming method stops the bodies from decomposing. This has been Black’s pet project for the past half-decade, as formalin, the old embalming fluid, is known to be carcinogenic and leaves dead bodies stiff and unyielding. Other departments tried “fresh frozen” – dismembering a cadaver and defrosting each section as it was needed. Black thought that this was “incredibly wasteful of the gift”, because each body part has a usable life of just a few days, and wasteful of money, too, because limbs and organs had to be bought in from abroad. “You could have 12 legs come in, shipped into Heathrow. They would carry a health certificate that they’re free from everything – I’m sorry, but I’d want to check – and then they’d go off and be dissected. Incredibly expensive.”

Black’s preferred alternative is the Thiel method, named after the Austrian anatomist Walter Thiel, which involves soaking bodies in a mixture of salts, chemicals and a smaller measure of formalin. It keeps the bodies soft and pliable, which Black says works better for everyone except trainee neurosurgeons and colorectal specialists (a living gut has more tension). McDermid says that the Thiel cadavers “look like people – albeit slightly strange, with no hair or fingernails. For the students, that’s a huge advantage, because it gives them a sense of what they are going to be working with in a way the old bodies didn’t.”

Downstairs, two of the department’s mortuary assistants, Claire and Sam, are dressed in scrubs and wellies, preparing a body using the Thiel method. The cadaver is propped up, almost upright, on a table, with tubes running into the top of his head and out of his thigh. He looks peaceful; the scene is not in the least Gothic. “I do tend to talk to them,” Claire says. “I applaud them if they have very good veins.” What’s the difference between picking up a live patient and a dead body? “The bodies are heavier, because they’re not helping you,” Sam says.

Black and her PA, Vivienne McGuire, meet many of the cadaver donors while they are still alive, offering them a cup of tea in her office, which is spangled with plaques and knick-knacks. (“To save time, let’s assume I know everything,” reads one slogan. “My job is secure – nobody wants it,” offers another.) There’s a skeleton in the corner, which might eventually be replaced with Black: she has said that she would be delighted to become a teaching aid in her old department one day.

There are many reasons why people agree to donate their bodies. For some, it is as simple as wanting not to burden their families with the £3,600 that the average funeral costs. Others want to pay back the medical profession, or hope to train doctors to cure the disease that killed them. As they leave her office, Black tells the donors, “Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but we really don’t want to see you soon.”

She takes me upstairs and shows me the book of remembrance: the donors for 2014 included Shelagh, James, Irene and Angus. On the first Wednesday of May every year, the department holds a memorial service for donors’ families, attended by the staff and students. “I found it quite moving to go into the mortuary and see the cadavers,” says McDermid. “There is a sense of respect for the people who have donated their bodies. This is not Doctor in the House. There’s no larking about in Sue’s mortuary.”

Throughout her career, Black has been close to death, often involving the most traumatic circumstances. Yet she is one of the most serene, untroubled people I have ever interviewed; serious when the occasion demands it but ready to laugh. “Her students are utterly devoted to her,” McDermid says. “It’s extraordinary. They’d walk on hot coals for her.”

Perhaps the cliché is true: contemplating death really does make you feel more alive? “It’s my view that we have, as a society, removed ourselves from death,” Black says. “We’ve built a wall around it that makes us uncomfortable, whereas if you go back just a few generations, when Granny died she was in the coffin in the front room. It was viewed as just as natural as birth.”

On my way out of the building, I think: I wouldn’t mind if my final resting place were Sue Black’s mortuary. I pull my coat around myself, happily, and walk out into the cold winter sunshine. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war

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Can celluloid lovers like Christopher Nolan stop a digital-only future for film?

Despite proponents like the Dunkirk director, physical film is finding it tough in the modern age. 

“Chris Nolan is one of the few producing and directing films right now who could open that film. He is one of the all-time great filmmakers.”

No prizes for guessing which new release Vue CEO Tim Richards is talking about. Aside from its box office success, aside from its filmmaking craft, aside even from its early reception as an Oscar favourite, Dunkirk sees Nolan doing what Nolan does best: he has used his latest film to reopen the debate about celluloid.

Until relatively recently all film was projected from that old, classic medium of the film reel - a spool of celluloid run in front of a projector bulb throwing images on to a screen. It comes mainly in two forms: 35mm (standard theatrical presentations) or 70mm (larger, more detailed presentations most popular in the 60s and 70s). Fans say it provides a “warmer” colour palette, with more depth and saturation than modern digital formats.

But now it’s hard to even see movies on film to make the comparison. After George Lucas, godfather of the Star Wars franchise, shot Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones entirely in digital rather than on physical film, the rollout of digital progressed with clinical efficacy. Within ten years, film was almost wiped out, deemed to be impractical and irrelevant. Modern cinema, it was argued, could be stored in a hard drive.

Christopher Nolan set out to change all that. He championed film as a medium against the industry trend, producing (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar) in super-detailed, super-sized IMAX 70mm. With Dunkirk, Nolan has taken that further by screening the film in 35mm, 70mm and IMAX 70mm.

Nolan is not the medium's only poster boy – it is symbolic that the new Star Wars trilogy, 15 years on from Attack’s groundbreaking digital filming, is now being shot on film once more. This summer, Dunkirk may well be seeing the biggest rollout of a 70mm presentation in cinemas for 25 years, but in 2015 Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight saw chains and independent cinemas having to retrofit 21st Century cinemas for a 20th Century presentation style. It was a difficult process, with only a handful of screens able to show the film as Tarantino intended – but it was a start.

Today, celluloid is, ostensibly, looking healthier. A recent deal struck between Hollywood big wigs and Kodak has helped. Kodak will now supply celluloid to Twentieth Century Fox, Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount and Sony. It’s a deal which is not only helping keep Kodak afloat, but also film alive.

Kodak has also gone a step further, launching an app to help audiences find 35mm screenings in local cinemas. Called ‘Reel Film’, it endeavours to back Nolan and co in ensuring that celluloid is still a viable method of film projection in the 21st century.

Even so, whether Nolan’s film fightback has actually had any impact is unclear. Independent cinemas still screen in film, and certainly Vue and Odeon both have film projectors in some of their flagship screens, but digital dominates. Meanwhile, key creatives are pushing hard for a digital future: Peter Jackson, James Cameron and the creative teams at Marvel are all pioneering in digital fields. Whether or not film can survive after over a decade of effacement is a difficult – and surpisingly emotionally charged – question.

****

Paul Vickery, Head of Programming at the Prince Charles Cinema in London, is the kind of person you might expect to talk all about how physical film is a beautiful medium, key for preserving the history of cinema. History, he tells me, is important to the Prince Charles, but it's a surprise when he saysfilm is actually more practical for their operation. Because not every film they screen has been digitised, access to old reels is essential for their business.

“If you completely remove film as an option for presentation as a cinema that shows older films,” he says, “you effectively cut 75 per cent of the films that you could possibly show out of your options, and you can only focus on those that have been digitised.”

Vickery says the debate around film and digital often neglects the practicality of film. “It's always focusing on the idea of the romance of seeing films on film, but as much as it is that, it's also to have more options, to present more films. You need to be able to show them from all formats.”

That’s a key part of what makes the Prince Charles Cinema special. Sitting in London's movie-premier hub Leicester Square, the Prince Charles is renowned for its celluloid presentations of older films and has made a successful business out of its 35mm and 70mm screenings of both classics and niche films.

“If there is the option to show film and digital, we tend to take film as the option because it's also something you can't replicate at home,” he explains. “It's also just the nature of how film is seen on screen: its image clarity, its colour palette, the sound is just something that's very different to digital, and I think that's something that's very worth saving.

“Not many people have 35mm projectors at home. If you have it on Blu-Ray or DVD, to see it on film is a way of dragging someone out from their house to come and see it at the cinema.”

Currently screening is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm. It’s an incredible presentation of what Vickery says is a seven or eight year-old print struck from the film’s original negatives: the colour of the picture is far richer, while the fine detail in some close-up shots is on par with modern movies. Even more impressive, though, is that the screening is packed. “Fifteen years ago, there would be cinemas where that would be almost on a circuit,” laments Vickery. “We've just stayed the course, and that's something that's just fallen away and we're one of the last, along with the BFI, to show films from film.

“There’s still a bit kicking around, but as we do more and more of it, we seem to be pulling out those people who are looking for that and they seem to be coming back again and again. The repertory side of our programme is more popular than ever.”

That popularity is seemingly reflected in its audiences’ passion for celluloid. Vickery tells me that the PCC’s suggestions board and social media are always filled with requests for film screenings, with specific questions about the way it’s being projected.

For Vickery, it’s a mark of pride. “It sounds like inflated ego almost,” he begins, as if providing a disclaimer, “but it's why I think the work we do and the BFI do and any cinema that shows films from film is about history. By us continuing to show film on film, studios will continue to make their film print available and keep them going out. If people stop showing films on film, they'd just get rid of them.

“Once they're all gone, they only way we're ever gonna be able to see them is if they're taking these films and digitising them, which as you imagine, is always going to be the classic set of films, and then there'll be very select ones will get picked, but it's not gonna be every film.

“You have to keep showing films from film to keep the history of cinema alive in cinemas.”

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History is something that the BFI is committed to preserving. 40 per cent of their annual programming is projected on celluloid, and they loan around 200 prints to venues each year. Their new “BFI 2022” initiative will produce 100 new film prints in the next five years.

Most recently they have focussed on safeguarding their archive, the BFI’s creative director Heather Stewart tells me when we meet her in her office in the BFI’s artsy offices just off Tottenham Court Road.

“We got money from the government to renew our storage which was a big deal because the national collection really wasn't safe,” she says  “There was work at risk because it was warm and humid and we have bought a fantastic, sub-zero state of the art storage facility in Warwickshire in our big site there and our negatives are there. So our master materials are all in there safe - all the nitrate negatives and all that. In 200 years, people will be able to come back and make materials from those, whether digitising or analogue.”

Stewart tells me that it’s important to do both: “Do we at the BFI think that audiences need to see films in the way the filmmaker intended? Yes. That's not going away - that's what we're here for. Do we want as many audiences as possible to see the film? Yes. So of course we're interested in digital.”

The restoration and printing project is attracting lots of “international interest” according to Stewart: just one example is that the BFI are looking into partnering with Warner Bros in their labs in Burbank, California.

“We're becoming the only place left that actually loans film prints around the world so that you can see the films the way they were intended,” she says. “So if you don't have any kind of renewal programme, you'll eventually just have blanked out, scratchy old prints and you can't see them."

They're getting financial support too, she says: “There are people like Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson [director of Oscar-winner There Will Be Blood whose 2012 film The Master was shot and screened in 70mm], a lot of people who are very committed to film, and so there's conversations going on elsewhere and with the film foundation about bringing other investments in so we can really go for it and have a fantastic collection of great great 35mm prints for audiences to look at.”

As a fan of the film reel, Stewart is passionate about this. I put to her the common suggestion that lay audiences can’t tell the difference between screening on film, and digital. “I don't agree with that", she says. "If you sit with people and look at it, they feel something that you might not be able to articulate.

“It's the realism the film gives you - that organic thing, the light going through the film is not the same as the binary of 0s and 1s. It's a different sensation. Which isn't to say that digital is 'lesser than', but it's a different effect. People know. They feel it in their bodies, the excitement becomes more real. There's that pleasure of film, of course but I don't want to be too geeky about it.”

Yet not every film print available is in good condition. “There's a live discussion,” says Stewart. “Is it better to show a scratched 35mm print of some great film, or a really excellent digital transfer?”

There’s no neat answer.

But Stewart is certainly driven by the idea of presenting films as closely as possible to the filmmakers’ true vision. “If you're interested in the artwork,” she explains, “that's what the artwork has to look like, and digital will be an approximation of that. If you spend a lot of money, and I mean really a lot of money, it can be an excellent approximation of that. But lots of digital transfers are not great - they're cheap. They're fine, but they're never going to be like the original.”

The process of restoration doesn’t end with digitisation. Keeping film copies in order to have originals is hugely important given how quickly digital media change. Film is a constant form of storage which does not alter. As Stewart defiantly puts it, “all archives worldwide are on the same page and the plan is to continue looking after analogue, so it ain't going anywhere.”

****

The BFI were kind enough put on a display of how film projection works in practice. Tina McFarling, Media Advisor, and Dominic Simmons, Head of Technical, provide a tour of two screens at BFI Southbank. Chatting in the projection room above the screen which hosted the 70mm première of Dunkirk, their passion for celluloid was on display.

Standing next to two mammoth 70mm projectors, Simmons talks through the real-terms use of film, and the technical expertise behind it. “It's a lot more labour intensive than sticking digital prints on, but it's something we want to do,” he says.

One of the projection booths at the BFI

During the visit, the team are prepping a rare 35mm screening of the documentary I Am Cuba to be shown that afternoon. Simmons says that operating a celluloid projector is a “more complex operation” than digital. Looking at the endless labyrinth of film and sprockets, it's easy to believe.

“If you're screening from film in a cinema,” he says, “then you need engineers, technicians who are capable of doing it, whereas a lot of multiplexes have deskilled their operation.”

Simmons says that, while larger chains have one engineer to oversee every screen with the actual process of running the films centralised with a centre loading playlists, the BFI has twenty-two technicians, each closely overseeing the projection of a film when on duty.

“There's so much about the different elements of the presentation that you need to know that all comes together with the sound, the lighting and the rest of it.

“When you're starting a film, it's more of a manual operation. Someone needs to be there to press the buttons at the right time, manage the sound, operate the curtains, and attach the trailers to the feature.”

Having skilled operators is all very well, but of course you need to have the equipment to operate in the first place. “We have to make sure that the equipment is kept and utilised as well as making sure the prints are available, and then the skills will follow”, he says.

Simmons says many are likening the film fight back to vinyl’s resurrection, but has a rueful smile when he talks about film being described as “hipsterish” and “boutiquey”.

He also points out that the quaint touches that make film attractive to this new, younger audience – blemishes, the occasional scratch – are a headache for projectionists. “For me,” he says, “that's quite difficult because a bad print of a film is never a good thing, but if it's a bad print of a film that can't be seen any other way...” He trails off sadly.

The threat of damage to film prints is constant, he says. “Every time you run a film print through a projector there is some element of damage done to it. You're running it over sprockets at loads of feet per second.”

He switches a nearby projector on – it’s loud, quick and, after leaning in to look more closely, it’s easy to see that it’s violent. “It's a really physical process,” Simmons continues. “The film is starting and stopping 24 times a second.”

The idea that shooting on film, for which the very raw material is in short and ever-decreasing supply, is endangered is a tragic one. “There's a finite amount,” Simmons says. “People aren't striking new prints, so if you damage a print, the damage is there forever.”

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The Prince Charles and the BFI are in a privileged position to protect endangered film stock. A friendly partnership between them, which sees the BFI lending reels to the Prince Charles, as well as benefitting from the business of London’s rabidly cinephile audience, allow them to prioritise screening on film the majority of the time. Not every cinema is so lucky.

While the historic Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford does have a 35mm projector, owner Becky Hallsmith says that it’s mainly the digital projector in use “for all sorts of logistic reasons”.

Though Dunkirk’s push for film projection was a welcome one, it still didn’t make sense for the UPP to screen it. “Certainly we thought about it, but I felt that if you're going to see it on celluloid, you probably want to see it on 70mm, so we decided not to get it on 35mm.”

Economic factors come into effect here too – the UPP, based just out of the city centre in Cowley, vies for Oxford’s filmgoers’ love with the Phoenix Picturehouse in nearby Jericho. While they do have slightly different markets, Hallsmith was aware that the Picturehouse was already set to screen Dunkirk in 35mm, leading her to decide not to.

 “It's not like I'm saying we never do it” she clarifies. “But there are reasons I haven't this time.”

Hallsmith was also aware that not all of her projectionists are trained in screening film, saying that, by screening Dunkirk in digital, she was “taking that little headache out of the equation”.

For the UPP, practicality of this kind trumps sentiment, given the cinema’s small operation. “I'd love it if I had the time to work out what films had beautiful 35mm prints and programme accordingly,” she says, “but I just don't have the time to put that amount of thought into details of programming. We're tiny. I'm doing all sorts of different jobs around the cinema as well. The programming is by no means the least important - it's the most important part of the job - but there is a limit to how much one can do and how much research one can do.”

Despite the practical issues related to 35mm, Hallsmith is still glad to have the option available, saying that when the digital projector was installed in 2012, there was enough room for the installation to account for the 35mm one – and to revamp it.

Despite many 35mm projectors being sent to an unceremonious death in skips, some projectors that are replaced for digital successors are cannibalised for parts. Hallsmith was a beneficiary. “Most of the bits on our 35mm projector are quite new,” she explains, “because they had all this stuff that they were taking out of other cinemas, so they upgraded our 35mm for us because they had all the parts to do it with.”

But Hallsmith is grounded when I ask her if having both projectors in operation is important. “It's important for me,” she laughs. “One of my real pleasures in life is to sit at the back near the projection room and to hear the film going through the sprocket. It's one of the most magical sounds in the world and always will be for me.

“But I know that for a lot of our customers, it is neither here nor there, so I have mixed feelings about it. It's not like I think everything should be on 35mm. I love it, but I can see the practicalities.”

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It is certainly practicality that’s governing cinema chains. Cineworld, Odeon and Vue have all seen huge expansions in recent years. Vue chief Tim Richards, says celluloid is a “niche product”, but the admission is tinged with sadness.

“The problem that we had,” he says about the 70mm screenings of Dunkirk, “with the conversion to digital that happened globally, there are literally no projectors left anywhere, and it's very, very hard to get one. We managed to find a projector and then we couldn't find anybody who actually knew how to run it. There are very real practical issues with the medium.

“To reinforce that we have a new look and feel to our head office, and I really wanted to have an old analogue 35mm projector in our reception and we couldn't find one. We had thousands of these things, and we had none left. We couldn't even get one for our reception!”

Even with a working projector and a trained projectionist, Richards says the format has “very obvious issues” with mass consumption. Again on the subject of Dunkirk, this time in 35mm, he says, “One of the prints that arrived was scratched. It's something that's been in the industry for a long time. If you have a big scratch, you simply can't screen it. You've got to get another print, especially when it will run through part of the film.”

It’s something that saddens Richards, who still says that projecting on film forms part of the “philosophy” of Vue. “We’re all big supporters [of film] and we love it. We've all been in the industry for between 25 and 30 years, the whole senior team. We genuinely love what we do, we genuinely love movies.”

That said, Richards, who is a governor of the BFI, is firmly committed to refining digital, more practical for Vue’s multiplexes. “If you go down and look at what we opened up in Leicester Square, our new flagship site, it's a 100 year old building where we shoehorned in new technology so it's not perfect, but it gives you an idea of what we're doing."

The new site has two Sony Finity 4K resolution projectors working in tandem – as well as the brand new Dolby Atmos sound system. The dual projection gives the screen a brighter, deeper hue. From a digital perspective, it is bleeding edge, and the set up is being rolled out across the UK and Germany, with 44 sites and counting. Richards is, as you would expect, enamoured with the results, claiming “that screen stands up to anything in the world”. What might be more surprising are the reactions he claims that it has elicited from celluloid devotees.

“There were a lot of old hardcore film fans there who were pleasantly surprised at the quality” he says. “People think of digital as being that new, TV-at-home which has got that clinical feel to it, and they don't feel it's got that warmth and colour saturation. This [Finity presentation] has that warmth of an old 35mm or 70mm, so I don't think the future is going back.”

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For Richards and Vue, the future appears to be as bright as that 4K Sony Finity screen in Leicester Square - for celluloid, not so much. While the appetite for watching movies on film might be growing at a promising rate for indie exhibitors, the list of technical and logistical problems is still insurmountable for many smaller venues - saying nothing of the race against time to preserve easily-damaged prints.

The main concern is an ephemeral one: the preservation of the knowledge needed to run a film projection. When the BFI’s Dominic Simmons speaks about the skills of his team and the need to pass those skills on, it evokes near forgotten skills such as thatching and forging. If the BFI and the PCC have anything to say about it, those projection skills will live on, but it’s unclear how far their voices can carry in a digital multiplex age.

As for the voice of celluloid-lover-supreme Christopher Nolan, even he too is shouting down what seems to be an unstoppable march towards a convenient digital future. But in a groundswell of growing interest and passion for the film reel, it seems that a director so obsessed with playing with time in his films seems to have bought exactly that for celluloid. Time is running out on the film reel, but there might be more of it left than we thought.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war