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Special investigation: a charter for torture

In Afghanistan, British forces hand over prisoners with only flimsy guarantees they will not be abus

What is striking about the history of torture in Afghanistan is that no matter which regime is in power - the communists, the mujahedin, the Taliban and now Hamid Karzai's western-supported government - the methods remain the same. From the 1980s to the present day, electrocution and beating have been the principal weapons used against those the state deems dangerous or undesirable.

A former jihadi recently told the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the similarity in treatment between his arrests in the 1980s and in late January 2009. "In Afghan­istan, some types of torture are common and these are beating and electric shocks, given twice a day," he said. "I was tortured at nine in the morning and again from two to three o'clock in the afternoon.

“They kept me in a toilet, kept me thirsty and hungry, and used to hang me upside down for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. I was frequently threatened with death. I was not allowed to meet my family during either imprisonment."

He was released after 25 days, once the elders of his tribe had paid the equivalent of £2,000 in Pakistani rupees.

In another case we investigated, a father was forced to listen to the torture of his 20-year-old son and 16-year-old nephew. The family's ordeal began at 3am one day in early March this year, after a team of Afghan and foreign intelligence operatives broke down the door to his home in a village in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. They took Shamsuddin (not his real name) and his son and nephew, put black hoods on their heads and accused them of being insurgents. Shamsuddin told us that his brother, the father of his nephew, had been killed by a Taliban bomb just eight months earlier. He said it was "impossible" to have the idea that they could be Taliban fighters.

The three men were taken to the area of Kabul where most foreign agencies and missions are sited, including the US embassy, the centre for Nato forces and CIA headquarters.

He described being handcuffed, hooded and beaten over several days, but said that for him this was not really torture. The unbearable thing was to hear the agony of his son.

“There was a window like a hole in the door. I was trying to see what was happening to my son. You know a parent always longs to know what is happening to his child. I could hear the sound of the instrument beating my son. I felt his pain as if it was my own, and I heard my own son shouting and screaming.

“I wasn't normal. Hearing your son shout and scream and call on God. From the sound of the instrument they used to beat him, it wasn't wood or a fist, but sounded like a length of rubber or electric cable. It lasted for an hour each time. They were asking questions, but I couldn't hear what they were asking. I could just hear the sound of him screaming and the sound of rubber or a cable whipping him."

Shamsuddin has since been released, but his son has not. His fate is unknown.

What makes many of the reported cases of torture in Afghanistan so disturbing is not just that the western invasion was supposed to end such practices, but that the Allied forces have, in effect, been colluding in such treatment.

Last year, the high court in London heard testimony from ten men accused of insurgency, all of whom had been beaten by members of the Afghan authorities after being surrendered to them by British or American forces between 2007 and 2010. Their stories make grim reading: "Prisoner X said that metal clamps had been attached to parts of his body. He gestured to his forearms, upper body and chest . . . he had been electrocuted six times. He said that he had been beaten with an electric cable, about a metre long and one inch thick. He was beaten by the commander, a small fat man. He still had marks on his back."

It is also alleged that Prisoner X was raped by a senior Afghan officer at the detention facility in Lashkar Gah. Other stories heard in court included those of Prisoner A, who spoke of being hung from the ceiling and beaten, and Prisoner D, who was electrocuted while blindfolded. Prisoner E told the court that "every night of the 20 days of investigation at Lashkar Gah he had been beaten".

Counsel for the UK Ministry of Defence (the period of investigation covers the tenures of John Hutton, Bob Ainsworth and Liam Fox) has admitted that some of these allegations are "credible" - and even the high court judgment warned that they should not be dismissed.

And yet, a joint investigation by the New Statesman and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism shows that the world's most powerful military nations have responded not by trying to right these wrongs, but by attempting to sweep away the fundamental provisions of the Geneva Conventions.

The problem is simple, yet horrifying. British troops regularly hand over suspected insurgents to the Afghan authorities, even though torture and abuse are rife in Afghanistan's detention facilities. They do this, too, knowing that it is a breach of international law to transfer detainees to the custody of another state where they may face a risk of torture. This is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Convention Against Torture of 1984, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950).

“The prohibition to transfer a person to a jurisdiction where he or she may be tortured is absolute in international law," says Dr Juan Méndez, United Nations special rapporteur on torture. "The operative part of this prohibition is not the torture itself, but the very risk of torture." And although there has been an official response to allegations of this sort, you could be forgiven for not having heard of it. Called the Copenhagen Process, it has received little publicity. Its meetings are closed. Its full membership is secret. Human rights groups such as Amnesty and other interested non-governmental organisations have been excluded.

What we do know is that it is led by the Danish government and it involves 25 nations (including the US and UK), as well as Nato, the EU, the African Union and the UN. Since 2007, these players have been pushing to establish a common framework for detainee transfers in Iraq and Afghanistan. In grim committee-speak, it aims to produce an "outcome document", which it hopes will receive approval from the UN and individual countries.

The starting point for those around the Copenhagen table is that, while the principles of humanitarian and human rights conventions may be set in stone, 20th-century law is out of kilter with 21st-century conflict. Military nations need a get-out clause from the Geneva Conventions.

Thomas Winkler of Denmark's ministry of foreign affairs is leading the charge. "The dil­emma is . . . [you] have a huge body of law but, when you have to apply the law in these types of conflict or operations, we have met a number of challenges . . . that you detain somebody and that you believe that the individual either is a security threat or a criminal, how do you then deal with it?" he told the Bureau.

Winkler maintains that the Copenhagen Process meetings have been "closed" to encourage openness by the states and organisations involved. He says that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is now attending meetings, and NGOs will be invited to contribute later this year, once the final draft outcome document has been drawn up. The ICRC distances itself from this assertion. A spokesperson says it was invited to participate in the process, but purely as an observer.

The present military rules in Afghanistan say that Nato-led forces have to hand over anyone they capture to the Afghan authorities within 96 hours. So far, the forces have attempted to comply with their human rights obligations by obtaining written assurances from the Afghan government, known as memorandums of understanding, or MOUs. The aim of the Copenhagen Process is to codify these assurances into international law.

As the high court testimony from the ten detainees shows, it appears that these MOUs are not always successful in protecting detainees from torture. Prisoner A told of multiple night-time beatings in an underground cell. Prisoner C recounted being hung from a ceiling for three days and nights. A common theme is the men's inability to identify their abusers - the beatings often took place under cover of darkness, or with the men blindfolded - but in those cases where identifications were made, senior officials were implicated.

“The use of memorandums of understanding is among the worst practices that states are currently engaging in," says Matt Pollard, a senior legal adviser at Amnesty International. "In effect, it is resulting in states bypassing their obligations not to transfer people to risk of torture. Basically states say: 'Yes - I'm not supposed to transfer a person to you if you're going to torture them - so please just promise me you won't torture them.' We've said categorically that that type of practice is actually undermining the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment and other human rights obligations. It's one of the worst practices in terms of its effect on the system of human rights protection as a whole at the moment."

Juan Méndez agrees. "Diplomatic assurances do not relieve the sending countries of their state responsibility for having committed a serious breach of an international obligation." He argues that changes to the way MOUs are used "are unnecessary if the receiving country is not a torturing state and are utterly meaningless if the receiving country is known to engage in a pattern and practice of torture".

Then Méndez goes further, and makes a statement that is remarkably forthright for someone in his position. "In the course of the so-called 'global war on terror', countries have been transferring prisoners not despite the risk of torture, but precisely to facilitate torture - and to obtain the dubious intelligence thus gathered. I fear that an agreed-upon regulation of these transfers will be seen by some [prisoner-] sending countries as a way of legitimising what is clearly wrongful conduct on their part. If so, the agreement will not succeed in curbing torture and may well provide a veneer of legitimacy to it."

It's a view echoed by Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, who says that the detainees' well-being is put second to western armies' convenience. "The US, UK and others with troops in Afghanistan want to be able to capture real or alleged insurgents and interrogate them," he says, "but they do not want to build or run detention centres in Afghanistan. So they do the expedient thing and hand them over to the Afghans. For the most part, they have no idea what happens next.

“It's a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil policy of wilful blindness to the risks to detainees. And, to make matters worse, we know that many people detained in Afghanistan turn out to be completely innocent."

The organisation to which detainees are handed over is the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan's external and domestic intelligence agency. Its track record is deplorable and the evidence of torture at its detention facilities is overwhelming. Since 2005, there has been a raft of reports detailing how torture is rife in it and other state institutions.

In 2007, the UN high commissioner for human rights reported that the NDS's use of torture and other forms of ill-treatment was frequent. Every year since then the same concerns have been reiterated.

In 2009, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that "torture was commonplace among the majority of law-enforcement institutions". It identified 398 victims and detailed the methods of torture: sexual abuse; branding with iron bars; use of tools, a lawnmower, tyre rods, staplers; flogging with electric, iron and plastic cables on the back, waist, feet, head, face and other body parts; beating with rods while blindfolded with hands and feet tied; use of electric shocks; victims continuously chained and shackled. The report concluded that no one had been prosecuted for any of these cases.

Even the US state department country report on Afghanistan published in 2010 referred to methods of torture and abuse. These included, but were not limited to, "beating by stick, scorching bar, or iron bar; flogging by cable; battering by rod; electric shock; deprivation of sleep, water and food; abusive language; sexual humiliation; and rape". Against this backdrop, a memorandum of understanding seems a flimsy safeguard indeed.

In 2009, the Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin created a storm when he revealed that, despite an MOU, Canada did not monitor detainee conditions in Afghanistan, and that detainees transferred by the Canadians to Afghan prisons were probably tortured. "According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured," Colvin said. "For interrogators in Kandahar, it was a standard operating procedure."

He said his reports were ignored and eventually senior officials told him to stop putting his concerns in writing. Denmark's Winkler accepts that MOUs are not sufficient in themselves. Central to their success, he explains, is "aggressive monitoring": to try to ensure that the host nation - through the Afghan authorities - sticks to its part of the bargain. "We need the monitoring of not just the individuals transferred but also supervision and the co-operation at a general level with the receiving state in order to ensure that the facilities are there," Winkler told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. "If the receiving state or entity does not fulfil the obligations as part of the MOU, then you cannot transfer."

This is where the central thesis of the use of MOUs by the Copenhagen Process starts to unravel. The UK - which is held up as an example of best practice - signed a bilateral MOU with the Afghan defence ministry in April 2006. Its intentions are laudable: "Ensure that participants will observe the basic principles of international human rights law such as the right to life and the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment pertaining to the treatment and transfer of persons by the UK [armed forces] to Afghan authorities and their treatment."

However, a high court case brought last year by the peace activist Maya Evans exposed the fundamental failings of the agreement. At the time of the hearing, 418 UK detainees had been handed over to the NDS (the number is now more than 600). The main detention facilities are NDS Kabul, known as "Department 17", NDS Kandahar and NDS Lashkar Gah.

The judgment pointed out that "written assurances in themselves do not take matters very far . . . actions speak louder than words". It continued: "UK officials in Kabul reported that despite advice from London, the MOU was meaningless locally. The NDS did not recognise the authority of the Afghan minister of defence to promise anything on behalf of the NDS."

It continues that, because of deficiencies in the monitoring system, "the possibility of other cases of abuse which the monitoring system has failed to identify cannot be dismissed". However, the British judges refused to rule that the transfer of detainees was illegal. Transfers to NDS Kandahar and NDS Lashkar Gah could continue, "provided that existing safeguards are strengthened by observance of specified conditions".

That seems unlikely to happen: the Afghan­istan Independent Human Rights Commission has repeatedly been denied proper access to NDS facilities. During one visit in 2007, detainees were hidden on a roof.

The judgment also described the position at NDS Kabul as "particularly troubling". As it stated: "Little occurred by way of UK visits before the NDS refused all access to the facility in late 2008." Access to NDS Kandahar was limited. At NDS Lashkar Gah, visits were cancelled for security reasons and the character of visits was described as falling "well short of best practice"; guards were present during the interviews, and it was only possible to see detainees in groups with the guards still in earshot.

It was only through the high court hearings that the allegations of torture and abuse came to public attention in the UK. If those in charge of the Copenhagen Process have their way, the accusations are unlikely to surface again.

In the meantime, however, British troops continue to hand over detainees to their Afghan counterparts. The UK Ministry of Defence argues that, with better supervision, the situation has improved, but confirms that accounts of abuse continue to surface.

“We take all allegations of abuse seriously and consider these in all future transfer decisions," an MoD spokesman says. "We can confirm that there [has] been a very small number of allegations received since the judgment was handed down, but cannot give full details as they can only be passed on with the permission of the detainee and may be subject to an ongoing investigation, either by UK or Afghan authorities. Where permission is given by the detainee, an allegation will be passed to the Afghan authorities for further investigation."

As Nato-led forces plan to pull out from Afghanistan, the focus on how western armies can hand over detainees without breaching international law has intensified. Before the "war on terror" the west made great play of trying to engage with torturing regimes in an effort to get them to change their ways. Now, it stands accused of complicity, the result of a cynical attempt to erode the basic principles of the Geneva Conventions, international human rights and humanitarian law.

Angus Stickler is chief reporter at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit organisation based at City University London

Kate Clark is a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network

This feature article was produced in association with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold

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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 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold