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John Pilger discovers fake faith and epic crimes, from Brussels and Blair

The Brussels War Crimes Tribunal and the newly established Blair War Crimes Foundation are building a desperate future.

These are extraordinary times. With the United States and Britain on the verge of bankruptcy and committing to an endless colonial war, pressure is building for their crimes to be prosecuted at a tribunal similar to that which tried the Nazis at Nuremberg. This defined rapacious invasion as “the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes [sic] in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”. International law would be mere farce, said the chief US chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, the Supreme Court justice Robert Jackson, “if, in future, we do not apply its principles to ourselves”.

That is now happening. Spain, Germany, Belgium, France and Britain have long had “universal jurisdiction” statutes, which allow their national courts to pursue and prosecute prima facie war criminals. What has changed is an unspoken rule never to use international law against “ourselves”, or “our” allies or clients. In 1998, Spain, supported by France, Switzerland and Belgium, indicted the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, client and executioner of the west, and sought his extradition from Britain, where he happened to be at the time. Had he been sent for trial, he almost certainly would have implicated at least one British prime minister and two US presidents in crimes against humanity. The then home secretary, Jack Straw, let him escape back to Chile.

The Pinochet case was the ignition. On 19 January, the George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley compared the status of George W Bush with that of Pinochet. “Outside [the United States] there is no longer the ambiguity about what to do about a war crime,” he said. “So if you try to travel, most people abroad are going to view you not as ‘former president George Bush’ [but] as a current war criminal.” For this reason, Bush’s first defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who demanded an invasion of Iraq in 2001 and personally approved torture techniques for use in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, no longer travels. Rumsfeld has twice been indicted for war crimes in Germany. On 26 January, the UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, said: “We have clear evidence that Mr Rumsfeld knew what he was doing but nevertheless he ordered torture.”

The Spanish high court is currently investi­gating a former Israeli defence minister and six other top Israeli officials for their role in the killing of civilians, mostly children, in Gaza. Henry Kissinger, who was largely responsible for bombing 600,000 peasants to death in Cambodia in 1969-73, is wanted for questioning in France, Chile and Argentina. Yet, on 8 February, as if demonstrating the continuity of American power, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, James Jones, said: “I take my daily orders from Dr Kissinger.”

Like them, Tony Blair may soon be a fugitive. The International Criminal Court, to which Britain is a signatory, has received a record number of petitions relating to Blair’s wars. Spain’s celebrated judge Baltasar Garzón, who indicted Pinochet and the leaders of the Argentinian military junta, has called for George W Bush, Blair and the former Spanish prime minister José María Aznar to be prosecuted for the invasion of Iraq – “one of the most sordid and unjustifiable episodes in recent human history – a devastating attack on the rule of law” that had left the UN “in tatters”. He said: “There is enough of an argument in 650,000 deaths for this investigation to start without delay.”

This is not to say Blair is about to be collared and marched to The Hague, where Serbs and Sudanese dictators are far more likely to face a political court set up by the west. However, an international agenda is forming and a process has begun which is as much about legitimacy as the letter of the law, and a reminder from history that the powerful lose wars and empires when legitimacy evaporates. This can happen quickly, as in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of apartheid South Africa – the latter a spectre for apartheid Israel.

Today, the unreported “good news” is that a worldwide movement is challenging the once-sacrosanct notion that imperial politicians can destroy countless lives in the cause of an ancient piracy, often at a remove in distance and culture, and retain their respectability and immunity from justice. In his masterly Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, R L Stevenson writes in the character of Jekyll: “Men have before hired bravos to transact their crimes, while their own person and reputation sat under shelter . . . I could thus plod in the public eye with a load of genial respectability, and, in a moment, like a schoolboy, strip off these lendings and spring headlong into the sea of liberty. But for me, in my impenetrable mantle, the safety was complete.”

Blair, too, is safe – but for how long? He and his collaborators face a new determination on the part of tenacious non-government bodies that are amassing “an impressive documentary record as to criminal charges”, according to the international law authority Richard Falk. He cites the World Tribunal on Iraq, held in Istanbul in 2005, which heard evidence from 54 witnesses and published rigorous indictments against Blair, Bush and others. At present, the Brussels War Crimes Tribunal and the newly established Blair War Crimes Foundation are building a case for the former prime minister’s prosecution under the Nuremberg Principle and the 1949 Geneva Convention. In a separate indictment, a former judge of the New Zealand Supreme Court, E W Thomas, wrote: “My predisposition was to believe that Mr Blair was deluded, but sincere in his belief. After considerable reading and much reflection, however, my final conclusion is that Mr Blair deliberately and repeatedly misled cabinet, the British Labour Party and the people in a number of respects. It is not possible to hold that he was simply deluded but sincere: a victim of his own self-deception. His deception was deliberate.”

Protected by the fake sinecure of Middle East envoy for the Quartet (the US, EU, UN and Russia), Blair operates largely from a small fortress in the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, where he is an apologist for the US in the Middle East and Israel, a difficult task following the bloodbath in Gaza. To assist his mortgages, he recently received an Israeli “peace prize” worth $1m. He, too, is careful where he travels; and it is instructive to watch how he now uses the media. Having concentrated his post-Downing Street apologetics on a BBC series of obsequious interviews with David Aaronovitch, Blair has all but slipped from view in Britain, where polls have long exposed a remarkable loathing for a former prime minister – a sentiment now shared by those in the liberal media elite whose previous promotion of his “project” and crimes is an embarrassment, and preferably forgotten.

On 8 February, Andrew Rawnsley, the Observer’s former leading Blair fan, declared that “this shameful period will not be so smoothly and simply buried”. He demanded, “Did Blair never ask what was going on?” This is an excellent question made relevant with a slight word change: “Did the Andrew Rawnsleys never ask what was going on?” In 2001, Rawnsley alerted his readers to Saddam Hussein’s “contribution to international terrorism” and his “frightening appetite to possess weapons of mass destruction”. Both assertions were false and echoed official Anglo-American propaganda. In 2003, when the destruction of Iraq was launched, Rawnsley described it as a “point of principle” for Blair who, he later wrote, was “fated to be right”. He lamented, “Yes, too many people died in the war. Too many people always die in war. War is nasty and brutish, but at least this conflict was mercifully short.”

In the subsequent six years, at least a million people have been killed. According to the Red Cross, Iraq is now a country of widows and orphans. Yes, war is nasty and brutish, but never for the Blairs and the Rawnsleys.

F­ar from the carping turncoats at home, Blair has lately found a safe media harbour – in Australia, the original Murdochracy. His interviewers exude an unction reminiscent of the promoters of the “mystical” Blair in the Guardian of more than a decade ago, though they also bring to mind Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times during the 1930s, who wrote of his infamous grovelling to the Nazis: “I spend my nights taking out anything which will hurt their susceptibilities and dropping in little things which are intended to soothe them.”

With his words as a citation, the finalists for the Geoffrey Dawson Prize for Journalism (Antipodes) are announced. On 8 February, in an interview on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Geraldine Doogue described Blair as “a man who brought religion into power and is now bringing power to religion”. She asked him: “What would the perception be that faith would bring towards a greater stability . . . [sic]?”

A bemused and clearly delighted Blair was allowed to waffle about “values”. Doogue said to him that “it was the bifurcation about right and wrong, that’s what I thought the British found really hard [sic]”, to which Blair replied that “in relation to Iraq I tried every other option [to invasion] there was”. It was his classic lie, and it passed unchallenged.

However, the clear winner of the Geoffrey Dawson Prize is Ginny Dougary of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Times. Dougary recently accompanied Blair on what she described as his “James Bond-ish Gulfstream” where she was privy to his “bionic energy levels”. She wrote: “I ask him the childlike question: does he want to save the world?” Blair replied, well, more or less, aw shucks, yes. The murderous assault on Gaza, which was under way during the interview, was mentioned in passing. “That is war, I’m afraid,” said Blair, “and war is horrible.” No counter came that Gaza was not a war, but a massacre by any measure. As for the Palestinians, noted Dougary, it was Blair’s task “to prepare them for statehood”. The Palestinians will be surprised to hear that. But enough gravitas; her man “has the glow of the newly-in-love: in love with the world and, for the most part, the feeling is reciprocated”. The evidence she offered for this absurdity was that “women from both sides of politics have confessed to me to having the hots for him”.

These are extraordinary times. Blair, a perpetrator of the epic crime of the 21st century, shares a “prayer breakfast” with President Obama, the yes-we-can man now launching more war.

“We pray,” said Blair, “that in acting we do God’s work and follow God’s will.”

To decent people, such pronouncements about Blair’s “faith” represent a contortion of morality and intellect that is a profanation of the basic teachings of Christianity. Those who aided and abetted his great crime and now wish the rest of us to forget their part – or who, like Alastair Campbell, offer their bloody notoriety for the vicarious pleasure of some – might read the first indictment proposed by the Blair War Crimes Foundation: “Deceit and conspiracy for war, and providing false news to incite passions for war, causing in the order of one million deaths, four million refugees, countless maimings and traumas.”

These are indeed extraordinary times.

www.johnpilger.com

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue

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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 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue