Show Hide image

Becoming a pariah state

Even if none of the Mumbai attackers turns out to be British, radicalised young men from over here c

Intelligence officers around the world must have winced as the camera-phone images from Mumbai showed the only terrorist left alive being beaten by a vengeful crowd. Not, of course, through any sympathy for this AK-47-wielding murderer, but through professional concern that the only live source of information about the planning and execution of these audacious attacks was about to die. Police officers intervened and the injured attacker survived to face the trials of the interrogation room.

The detainee, 21-year-old Azam Amir Qasab, is reported to have told his captors that he comes from the small village of Faridkot, in Pakistan's Punjab Province. He has admitted, it is said, to being a member of the Pakistani militant Islamist group Lashkar-e-Toiba - "the Army of the Pure" - which has been blamed for similar well-planned guerrilla attacks carried out by heavily armed men. It was Lashkar-e-Toiba fighters who tried to storm the parliament building in New Delhi in December 2001, spraying automatic gunfire and killing nine guards and parliament stewards. According to the terrorism analyst Sajjan Gohel, this kind of assault by fedayeen fighters is the hallmark of LeT. In the past, al-Qaeda has favoured human, car and truck bombs or plots involving planes, but Gohel says that the two groups are now affiliated, and also notes that "Lashkar-e-Toiba even gave al-Qaeda leaders sanctuary when they fled Afghanistan in 2001".

Early reports from India suggest that Azam Qasab has limited formal education and yet apparently speaks fluent English. Strange for a man from rural Pakistan. This, among other factors, has prompted speculation that he may have connections to Britain. A senior minister suggested that two of the terrorists were UK passport holders - and then seemed to backtrack. Other sources tell me that MI5 has conducted financial records checks on a British citizen of Pakistani origin who is believed to have taken part in the attacks, though I have no confirmation of this.

Were Britons involved in the attacks? It is entirely logical that, if a connection is suspected, much would be done to suppress any details to play for time on the ground. Confirming a story of this magnitude would prompt camera crews to overrun communities. This happened to Beeston, in Leeds, home town of three of the four 7 July 2005 London bombers. So much interest could damage a counterterrorist investigation, especially if journalists ended up knocking on doors before the police. On the other hand, all this speculation may be untrue. The test will be whether we see police raids in the coming weeks; only then will the full story emerge.

It is quite possible that even if all the terrorists are traced back to Pakistan there will still be a British connection of some kind. They may not be British citizens but they may have studied here or have family ties. Britain has a large Kashmiri population and while the vast majority reject terror, there are those willing to fund extremist groups in Pakistan or even to volunteer as operatives. The dispute over Kashmir has long driven extremism. Once again, some of those claiming to have been involved in these latest attacks raised Kashmir as justification for their acts.

Slowly, the world is recognising that Britain has a huge problem with home-grown support for violent Islamic extremism; in fact, it has the biggest problem of any country in the west. If these latest atrocities are shown to have substantial British links, Britain risks being viewed as an international pariah state, a country whose children export terror across the globe. The shame of this would cut deeply into the national consciousness and its effect on community cohesion would be disastrous.

MI5 has estimated that 4,000 British Muslims may be a threat to national security; thousands of young men born in these islands have trained in camps overseas, notably in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The secretary for US homeland security, Michael Chertoff, has warned of the threat that British Muslims travelling under the visa waiver programme pose to US borders. A source of mine who has spent many years at the heart of Britain's intelligence apparatus says that more than 50 per cent of the CIA's counterterror effort has been directed at extremists with links to Britain. If that figure is anywhere near accurate, it would represent an astonishing state of affairs for America's closest political ally. No wonder the visa waiver programme is to be changed.

In India, Azam Qasab has apparently said that the terrorists' aim was to kill as many people as possible and to murder US and British citizens. Eyewitness reports corroborate this, telling how the attackers demanded that British and American passport holders raise their hands. This approach bears more resemblance to al-Qaeda than Lashkar-e-Toiba, which used to concentrate only on Kashmir, and therefore Indian targets. It is possible that al-Qaeda has sought to co-opt LeT, just as it has sought to enter into agreements with formerly nationalist jihadist movements in North Africa. This cross-fertilisation, if proved, would be deeply worrying for the west, but for al-Qaeda it is a pragmatic approach, especially at a time when the core leadership is under tre mendous pressure in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There are other clues about the motivation of the Mumbai terrorists. Unsurprisingly, they were seeking to create waves of publicity for their cause. The planners would have been watching on TV as their recruits played out their murderous theatre. That the world watches these attacks on television is part of the message.

The intent of terrorist spectaculars is far more sophisticated than simply generating support for their cause among a few disaffected youths. After all, cold-blooded mass murder is a hard sell for all but the most psychopathic (or brainwashed) supporters of Islamist revival, whose proponents dream of a new world order in which Islam rules supreme. The terrorists' approach is more subtle. They hope the revulsion and anger that these acts have generated could foment regional instability as ordinary Indians start to call for unmanned drones to target as yet unidentified training camps in Pakistan. Deep-seated suspicion of Pakistan threatens to boil into rage. It is already happening. There is loose talk of war from ordinary citizens, and India is just weeks away from state polls and, indeed, a national election. When Pakistani terrorists from Lashkar-e-Toiba launched the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, both sides massed troops on the border while the world looked on nervously; both states are nuclear powers. Now tension is once more rising fast.

The British human rights lawyer Shahzadi Beg, one of the most insightful observers of Pakistani politics, says relations between the two countries are "deteriorating alarmingly fast". She says that "the incoming US president, Barack Obama, had expressed a desire for a regional solution that would acknowledge Pakistani security concerns over the disputed territory of Kashmir. This approach will now be undermined as India argues there can be no negotiation with Islamabad following the Mumbai attacks."

The language of confrontation is intensifying. India’s deputy home minister Shakeel Ahmad has said it is “very clearly established” that all the terrorists were from Pakistan. If this is true, it makes it likely that the attacks were planned in Pakistan, possibly with help in Mumbai from an indigenous jihadist group such as the Indian Mujahedin, which has claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in Indian cities this year. Local helpers may well have checked in as hotel guests in Mumbai, planned routes of attack, assessed targets and stashed ammunition. However, the west would see any build-up of troops or conflict on Pakistan’s eastern border with India as a disaster for the fight against Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda on the western border with Afghanistan.

Even if the attacks prove to have been orchestrated from within Pakistan, that is not the same as official involvement. Contrary to suspicions in India, it is unlikely that Pakistan's civilian administration, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, knew anything at all. Zardari has far too much to lose. He has sided, tacitly, with the Americans by ignoring drone attacks on alleged al-Qaeda fighters in Pakistan's western borderlands, though routine denunciations about breaches of sovereignty are fired off as diplomatic cover. The Mumbai attacks, by promoting a crisis between India and Pakistan, have weakened Zardari, in an already weak position, and strengthened the military who are the true power brokers in Pakistan. He is losing the battle to rein them in and a string of decisions that would have allowed him to exert more control has been reversed.

It is Pakistan's military-intelligence complex that will be the focus of most anger from India. If Lashkar-e-Toiba turns out to have been involved, awkward questions will be asked about where the terrorists trained and who paid for the operation. The problem for Pakistan is that its intelligence service, the ISI, is known to have supported jihadist camps in the past. Groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba, Harakat-ul-Mujahedin and Jaish-e-Mohammed have created a production line of volunteer fighters for the conflict in Kashmir and beyond. The British Muslim extremists who received training in these same camps include Omar Khyam, leader of the fertiliser bomb plot to blow up the Bluewater shopping centre as well as nightclubs and bars.

Not long ago I was sitting in Newsnight's office with a former jihadi from Pakistan. We were comparing detailed military maps with Google Earth images on my computer. We zoomed in to the locations of several of the training camps in Mansehra District, close to the Kashmir border. In a recent court case in the US, witnesses spoke of passing official army checkpoints close to one of the camps I was shown near the town of Balakot. Some of the camps are less than 20 kilometres from garrison towns where there are huge concentrations of troops. It is virtually inconceivable that Pakistan's military-intelligence complex was not aware of these training grounds. Many say that they were partly run by the ISI, though this has always been denied.

What relevance does all this have for Britain? Well, whatever facts emerge about the backgrounds of the Mumbai attackers, the conflict in Kashmir will continue to be used to radicalise young jihadi sympathisers from the west. It does not take much imagination to realise that, for young men groomed for a cause, the idea of travelling to a mountain redoubt and learning to fire guns could be intoxicating, especially when you have been taught to believe that the world is divided neatly in two, between the Dar-ul-Harb, or the land of war, and Dar-ul-Islam.

For the best part of 20 years, successive governments in Britain, as well as the police, MI5 and MI6, woefully underestimated the threat posed by Islamic extremists, right up to the London bombings of 2005. Extremist preachers such as Omar Bakri Mohammed and Abu Hamza were given safe haven in Britain on condition that they would not threaten the security of the country in which they were living. How wrong that turned out to be as support for separatist, supremacist Islam grew from these seeds.

We are now playing a deadly game of catch-up and are struggling to devise policies to contain indigenous Islamic terrorism. We have carelessly allowed many of our towns to become segregated, with Muslim communities isolated from the rest of society. There are none more isolated than the wives of some men from strict Islamic sects in places such as Luton, Dewsbury and the old mill towns of northern England.

While researching my forthcoming film on radical Islam in Britain for BBC1's Panorama, my researcher, Shashi Singh, and I ended up in Bradford. There we met a woman whom I shall call Shazia. She was covered head to toe in a plain black niqab; we could just see her eyes behind a slit in the fabric. This woman, in her thirties, was deeply unhappy. Born in Bradford, she went to schools there, but at the age of 18 was despatched to Pakistan to marry a cousin. She refused. Returning to Britain, she was in effect forced to marry another blood relative, and for the past 15 years has lived with her in-laws. "You have no idea what I've been through," she said, in a thick Yorkshire accent. "Few people in Britain have any idea of the kind of life [I am forced to lead]."

I had to agree.

Richard Watson is a correspondent for BBC Newsnight. His Panorama film on radicalisation will be broadcast in January. He is the author of "The Rise of the British Jihad", published in the autumn 2008 issue of Granta magazine (http://www.granta.com)

INDIA UNDER SIEGE

  • 01.01.2008 Seven police and one civilian killed in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh (UP). The attackers are suspected members of the HuJI, Sunni fundamentalists who aim to impose Taliban-style government on Bangladesh.
  • 10.02.2008 Six alleged Islamic extremists are arrested in UP on suspicion of planning to attack the Bombay Stock Exchange. Suspects linked to Lashkar-e-Toiba, the same group thought to be behind the recent attacks.
  • 13.02.2008 In Mumbai, the politician Raj Thackeray is arrested for inciting violence, after supporters attack northern Indians throughout the city.
  • 13.05.08 Eight bomb blasts in Jaipur, Rajasthan, kill at least 60 people. A previously unknown group, the Indian Mujahedin, claims responsibility.
  • 25.07.08 Nine bombs hit Bangalore, Karnataka, killing two and injuring 20. The attack is later linked to Indian Mujahedin.
  • 26.07.08 In Ahmedabad, which has a history of violent clashes between the Hindu and Muslim populations, 45 are killed and 161 injured when at least 16 bombs, attributed to the Indian Mujahedin, explode around the city.
  • 25.08.08 Violent clashes in Kashmir are sparked by plans to donate land to a Hindu shrine in a Muslim-dominated area of the disputed province. Five are killed and a strict curfew imposed.
  • 13.09.08 Five bombs rip through Delhi's shopping districts almost simultaneously, killing at least 20 people and injuring about 90; four more bombs are defused. The Indian Mujahedin again claims responsibility.
  • 27.09.08 A bomb in the market district of Mehrauli in south Delhi, kills three. No group claims responsibility.
  • 29.09.08 The day before a major Gujarat festival starts, a low-intensity bomb goes off at an Ahmedabad market. Police report finding a cache of 17 crude bombs.
  • 01.10.08 A triple bomb blast in Agartala, Tripura, is blamed on HuJI. At least two are killed and 100 wounded.
  • 20.10.08 Chhattisgarh police are attacked and 15 killed by Naxalites, a Maoist group described by the PM, Manmohan Singh, as "the biggest single internal challenge ever faced" by India.
  • 30.10.08 At least 18 blasts attributed to HuJI kill around 64 and injure 300 in Guwahati, Assam.
  • 23.11.08 Security forces clash with anti-election protesters around Rajouri in the run-up to Kashmir's elections, a day after paramilitaries kill two youths at an anti-India demonstration.
  • 14.11.08 Gun battles between Maoists and police erupt around Chhattisgarh during the state's elections. At least two members of the security forces are killed.
  • Nick Stokeld

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror

Show Hide image

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.”

****

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.”

****

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.”

****

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.”

****

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 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror