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Behind the Irish crisis

The new coalition government portrays the crushing defeat of Fianna Fail as a cathartic, revolutiona

The beginning of the economic transformation of Ireland announced itself to me one morning when I was living in Mexico City in 1995. It was there in a headline in the New York Times: "Irish economic growth lifts hopes". The article mentioned rapid growth, booming exports and high rates of new jobs - not what I usually associated with the country I'd left behind eight months before.

Mexico, too, had been the object of worldwide acclaim for its economic performance. Sweeping aside the protectionism that it had championed throughout its 60 years in power, the Institutional Revolutionary Party had opened Mexico to globalisation. The country was booming and millions got hold of a credit card for the first time. Mexicans thought they were about to realise the dream of becoming a first-world country. Watching from the White House, George H W Bush said that Mexico was rising again like the Aztec eagle. The man credited with this wonder was President Carlos Salinas. But just as his six-year term was ending, in 1994, Mexico crashed into crisis: the value of the peso plunged and millions of investors pulled their money out. The International Monetary Fund intervened with a huge bailout. Salinas was blamed for the disaster. His humiliation was so great that he was forced into exile. He chose to live in Ireland.

A few months after settling in Dublin, Salinas gave an interview to the Irish Times, in which he enthused about his new home. He remarked on two national characteristics of his hosts that particularly appealed to him. One was how easily they put their faith in people. "They trust a lot, the Irish," he said admiringly (or perhaps incredulously). The other trait was the strength of the country's desire to be sovereign, which reminded him of Mexico. Sovereignty has a long pedigree in Ireland but, contrary to the impression of the exiled former Mexican president, people often saw it as fragile or unreal. In the New York Times article advertising what was to become the "Celtic Tiger", a young engineer at an American-owned computer chip company in the west of Ireland confided that it was only in the previous decade that the Irish had become "increasingly aware that we control our own destiny".

No longer. The major economic decisions to be taken by the new Irish coalition government will be framed by the interests of the IMF and the European Union, which, between them, have loaned Ireland €85bn. Trust has disappeared - trust in the banks but most of all in Fianna Fail, which used to regard itself not as a mere political party but as a national movement. (Éamon de Valera's granddaughter Síle told a party meeting in the early 1980s: "We all have our very special Fianna Fail faith, as it were, in which we all believe.")

Fianna Fail was so accustomed to power that, on the rare occasions it was consigned to opposition, it was, in the words of the historian Joe Lee, "psychologically orphaned". Nobody has been forced into exile but the scale of the defeat of Fianna Fail - Ireland's own institutional revolutionary party lost 51 of its 71 seats in the election on 25 February - is comparable to the scale of Salinas's humiliation in Mexico.

What is left? Even if the new government succeeds in renegotiating the interest rate on the IMF/EU loan (almost 6 per cent), the Irish will have to endure what Enda Kenny, the new Taoiseach, referred to during the election campaign as "an interminable night" of higher taxes, wage freezes, unemployment and emigration.

At the special conference where the Labour Party decided to join Fine Gael in coalition, delegates were forewarned by their leader, Eamon Gilmore, that at future conferences they would have to pass through "a forest of placards" because of the harsh policies the government would have to implement. Several speakers in favour of coalition recalled how people they had met while canvassing had broken down in tears as they attempted to describe how the crisis had affected their daily lives. Gilmore urged that Labour had to go into government for the sake of "the people who came on the doorsteps to us and cried".

Fine Gael presented the election as catharsis. Kenny described the result - his party's best ever - as a democratic revolution. It was an attempt to capture the zeitgeist, to insinuate that the removal of Fianna Fail from power was akin to the end of the Mubarak regime in Egypt. But the suggestion that what happened on polling day in Ireland amounted to an overturning of the established order was far from the truth.

Leaving aside gains for Sinn Fein and a loose alliance of left-wing independents, as well as Labour's strong showing, the major winner was a conservative party whose general outlook for most of the past 78 years has been barely distinguishable from that of the party it defeated. This is all the more puzzling because the crisis in Ireland, although part of the worldwide market failure in finance, had particular local roots. The major cause of the collapse of the Irish banks was not sub-prime mortgages or abstruse financial instruments, but reckless lending to property developers who, as a class, have long-standing connections with politicians. Given the depth of betrayal by the bankers and the fusillade of polemics against the political system over the past three years, why has the Irish electorate been so conservative?

The Irish economic crisis has been documented as a collective calamity affecting the entire population. Photo spreads of the ghost estates, shells of unfinished houses abruptly abandoned by builders when the money ran out and stories of those who remortgaged modest properties to buy now worthless apartments in Bulgarian resorts have suggested that heavy losses have touched everyone. They haven't.

During my visits to Dublin over the past three years, I have been puzzled to see fashionable restaurants still full not only on Fridays and Saturdays but on Sunday evenings and weekdays as well. Such resilience suggests that there is a stratum of Irish society for which the recession is an inconvenience, rather than a catastrophe.

In the last week of the election campaign, I spent an evening canvassing with Lucinda Creighton, a young, articulate, high-profile, right-leaning member of parliament for Fine Gael for the seat of Dublin South-East. In pre-boom Dublin, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the large Georgian houses in Belgrave Square in Ranelagh were given over to student flats. Now, one after another, they have been lavishly restored with polished granite steps, gleaming varnished doors and shining brass knockers. The front yards are strewn with tasteful gravel and likely to have parked in them BMWs and Jaguars. Fine Gael's eager body of canvassers attacked these streets with energy.

What was remarkable about that evening was how we heard no anger on the doorsteps. Nobody cried or broke down with a tale of burdens or hardship. At one door, a man in a pink shirt assured Creighton that she would get his vote even though he had previously voted for Fianna Fail. The candidate began to assure him that she understood it must be a hard decision. But he looked at her as if she were naive or misguided: to jump from Fianna Fail to Fine Gael would cause him no torment at all, he said.

A personal story opened a window on this serenity. It is the way of Irish politics that voters use their parliamentary representatives to solve their home problems, so the Fine Gael candidate was often presented with stories of individual difficulties. One man said he had heard that Fine Gael was proposing to introduce capital gains tax on house sales. He explained that he had recently developed epilepsy and would not be able to look after himself when his adult children finally left home. To pay for a place in a nursing home, he would have to sell his house. But a capital gains tax might deter him, and then where would he be? Creighton assured him not to worry; a capital gains tax on homes was not in the manifesto.

This man had bought his house in 1986. Despite the collapse in asset prices, anybody who bought a house in Ireland in the 1980s or 1990s is still sitting on a lot of wealth. Irish house prices quadrupled between 1996 and 2007. Just as many of those who survived the famine of the mid-19th century prospered and became more powerful among a greatly reduced population, this time there will be a substantial class of people who will benefit from the Irish crash.

The winners from the famine - strong farmers, the Catholic Church - formed the bedrock for the conservative society that Ireland is today. Because modern Ireland was born in difficult economic times, Irish politicians failed to develop an idea of what a wealthy Ireland should look like. Irish independence coincided with the destruction of a globalised economy during the First World War: it was the age of autarky.

The men who took power in the first gov­ernment in independent Ireland in 1922, the founders of Fine Gael, had given all their attention to political and cultural independence but little thought to the economic goals of the new state. For ten years, they ran Ireland with Vic­torian austerity, pursuing balanced budgets and sound money. Then came Fianna Fail, with its credo of self-sufficiency. Éamon de Valera, who was to dominate Irish politics for the next 30 years, questioned whether the standard of living in western Europe was "the right and proper one" and committed his country to what elsewhere would be regarded as righteous poverty. It was a policy that, for a moment, captivated John Maynard Keynes. In a celebrated lecture in Dublin in 1933, attended by de Valera, Keynes affirmed: "Were I an Irishman, I should find much to attract me in the economic outlook of your present government."

But the rapid advances all over Europe after the Second World War left Ireland falling farther behind. While the masses on the Continent had fridges, washing machines and Vespa scooters, in Ireland, as the visiting German writer Heinrich Böll noted, they made do with the Mass, movies and cigarettes. In 1956, the Irish Times summed up the differences in economic policies between the two civil-war parties for voters as: "You can drink a little more under Fine Gael or smoke a little more under Fianna Fail."

As the political scientist Tom Garvin argued with some brio in his provocatively titled book Preventing the Future: Why Was Ireland So Poor for So Long?, published in 2004, Ireland was held back by inadequate education, a reactionary Church and the dead hand of class and vested interests.

By the end of the 1950s, Ireland's population, at fewer than three million, was the lowest ever officially recorded. With hundreds of people leaving small towns every week to take the boat to England, contemporary commentators worried that the Irish nation might survive, as one writer put it, "only as an enervated remnant in a land occupied by foreigners".

In 1958, the Irish government made a momentous policy shift, opening the country up to trade and foreign investment and preparing to apply to join the European Economic Community. The man to carry out this policy was Seán Lemass of Fianna Fail. He was almost 60 when he came to power, having long laboured in the shadow of de Valera. In July 1963, a month after John F Kennedy made a journey to his ancestral home, Lemass appeared on the front cover of Time magazine. He was credited with "lifting the Green Curtain", as if the opening up of the Irish economy was the equivalent of a peek behind the Iron Curtain.

In prose that prefigured the future Celtic Tiger era, Time marvelled at the "new factories and office buildings, the Irish-assembled cars fighting for street space in Dublin, the well-dressed people shopping in supermarkets" and "the waning of national self pity". Even the movies were forcing change. The then justice minister, Charles Haughey - Lemass's son-in-law - revealed that sex had become so frequent on screen that the censors had been told to go easy with the scissors "or else our cinemas won't get any films at all".

The 1960s brought television and free edu­cation, as well as more titillating nights at the pictures. The decade also marked a watershed in political culture. Lemass, as one of his contemporaries from the independence struggle remarked, came into office a poor man and was poor when he retired as Taoiseach in November 1966. In a recently published study of his career, there is a photo of Lemass, son of a draper, looking dapper on his way to work in a dark woollen overcoat with white flecks.

In another picture from four years later, taken in the grounds of Stormont on the morning of his historic and unannounced visit to Belfast in 1965, the first by a prime minister from the Republic of Ireland to the North, he is wearing the same overcoat.

Such unconcern for style would never do for his son-in-law. Haughey epitomised a new relationship between politicians and men on the make; "the men in the mohair suits" became a catchphrase for those who occupied the intersection of politics and business in the 1960s. When he finally became Taoiseach, in December 1979, Haughey was as famous for the monogrammed shirts that he bought in Paris, with "donations" from his friends in business, as for any of his other accomplishments.

A pattern had been established in that first boom of the 1960s. Ireland had been so poor for so long, so consumed with issues of identity, sovereignty and language, that it neglected to develop a philosophy of the money culture.

In 1964, a year after Time's profile of Lemass, a young historian and future politician named David Thornley noted the death of the policy of economic nationalism. "What is remarkable to the point of incredibility," he wrote, "is the passiveness with which this change has been accepted inside a single generation."

Five years later, Conor Cruise O'Brien returned from the United States to contest the 1969 election for the Labour Party in Haughey's Dublin seat. During the campaign, he regularly drew attention to Haughey's dubious finances but the issue had little traction.

“I don't think my attacks on him did me any good or him any harm," O'Brien recalled later. "The electorate doesn't take in a thing like conflict of interest. They thought it was a straight case that I was envying this rich man - it seemed a kind of standard political exchange within
the system."

At the turn of the new century, when the Irish economy had experienced several years of remarkable growth, a celebratory book of interviews was published with business leaders who had made their mark. It was the moment when the boom - which was based on the convergence of sensible policies with a fortuitous demographic moment, when most people were of working age - was drawing to a natural close, and before the artificial boom that was based on property took off. Sober appraisal of fortuitous circumstances was out; self-congratulation was in.

The editor of the collection, a business consultant named John J Travers, praised "a distinctively Irish enterprise spirit"; one could only conclude, therefore, that its signature traits of "ability, imagination and passion" were in short supply in other nations. He put his faith in the morality of entrepreneurs: "While a government framework of regulation and law is essential in achieving the balance between individual and community interest," he wrote, "the ultimate determinant of that balance will be the culture, beliefs and value systems of the individual members of a society."

The events of the past few years have exposed how much of this faith was misplaced. The overwhelming sense in Ireland is that the wealth of the boom years that was not creamed off by a golden circle of initiates has been wasted and lost for a generation that should have inherited it. Regulation, law, culture and value systems all proved inadequate to prevent the elite from making spectacularly poor judgements.

Ireland faces years of austerity to pay off the debts of its banks. Some kind of managed default may yet be the only option, because it is difficult to see how ordinary taxpayers can continue to carry the burden. Ireland has limited options for generating wealth: it will have to continue to be open to the world, which is why keeping its corporate tax rate at 12.5 per cent has become such an unlikely symbol of sovereignty. Ireland's aim for 2016 - the centenary of the Easter Rising - is, according to Kenny, to be "the best small country in the world to do business in". But can the country's politics be reconstituted on the basis of such a narrow obsession?

The nearest thing to an articulation of the economic philosophy of the government that presided over the boom and bust was in a speech made in July 2000 by Mary Harney, then deputy prime minister, to an audience of visiting American lawyers in Dublin. Geographically, she said, Ireland was closer to Berlin than Boston but: "Spiritually, we are probably a lot closer to Boston than Berlin."

The Irish economy that her government had shaped, Harney said, was created primarily to appeal to corporate America. "We have cut taxes on capital. We have cut taxes on corporate profits. We have cut taxes on personal incomes. The result has been an explosion in economic activity and Ireland is now the fastest-growing country in the developed world. And did we have to pay some very high price for pursuing this policy option? . . . The answer is no. We didn't. This model works. It allows us to achieve our full economic potential for the first time in our history as an independent state."

In his Dublin speech in 1933, in which he flattered de Valera, Keynes remarked that the Great Depression had made people disillusioned "not because we are poorer . . . but because other values seem to have been sacrificed unnecessarily". His words capture well a sense of the way many people in Ireland feel about their current ruin.

It is fashionable to ridicule de Valera for his pious notions about a frugal society and what Garvin called his anti-economic views. De Valera's Ireland was impoverished, Garvin argued, because its leaders thought "in static and rural ways and in ethical rather than scientific terms". It was necessary to jettison this thinking for Ireland to become rich. It may be necessary to think in ethical terms for Ireland to work out how to be rich once more.

Maurice Walsh is Alistair Horne visiting fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford and teaches at Kingston University. His latest book, "The News from Ireland: Foreign Correspondents and the Irish Revolution", is newly published in paperback (IB Tauris, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

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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.

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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.”

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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 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special