For the past few months, I've been re-mastering This-That in close collaboration with the film's author, Jacob Barua, who lives in Kenya. To recap, This-That was made in 1989 when we were both third year Film and Literature students at the University of Warwick. It is a fictional drama about an alienated student who finds transcendence in a stone figurine. It was my first involvement in a film project and a great all round experience on the acting, editing and production front.
The film was screened twice at the university in 89 but was shown more as a rough cut. We had not devoted enough time (days rather than months) for the edit process and a key animation sequence, shot by a security guard on 8mm film, could only be included after the end credits for the second screening. The film was seen by about 100 people on a 10,000 plus student campus. As there was very little feedback, we always assumed it left those select few stunned in a cinematic stupor. It received more rigorous scrutiny when projected at Lodz film school where Jacob subsequently enrolled. One Prof likened it to a visual tone poem in the style of T.S. Eliot's Waste Land.
It has taken us a full 26 years and the occasion of the 50th anniversary celebrations at the University of Warwick to do justice to a film that gave "students and classics a bad name" according to one apocryphal review.
The master VHS tapes were stored in the perfect micro-climate of Nairobi. Natural deterioration of the magnetic tape has resulted in some contrast loss and discolouration, especially noticeable in shots of the sky. Jacob attempted the first digital transfer at a Kenyan edit suite but the DVD files he sent me were poor. The tapes were then couriered over and I had a Kodak lab transfer them into AVI digital files or such was the theory. Despite several efforts, this lab could not perform a professional service and the files either had an interference signal or no sound, and even more lamentably, were unable to open up in Mac as Kodak were using Windows based systems. Refund time. Third time lucky and another lab was able to get a clean digital transfer from the VHS. They also cropped in slightly to remove the flickering decay at the edges of the 720x576 video resolution format.
While we may have attained a state of grace with the imagery, the sound track is still a work in progress. There are plans to completely re-score the film and this will hopefully be accomplished next year, perhaps as a commission for a young music student or budding composer at the University of Warwick.
I believe the film holds up incredibly well and this is testimony to the mystical cinematic talent of Jacob. The biggest challenge however were the labyrinthine sequences shot at the student union and fancy dress ball. This rightly gets the scissors treatment and is now more tightly interwoven with the preceding and concluding scenes of dream and spiritual release. Both Jacob and I wondered whether Him (the name of my character) should speak in the new version; we could have added an interior monologue. Sensibly we have stuck to the original conception and have maintained a quality of enigmatic silence. I only utter one "rosebud" word in the film.
This-That is very personal and akin to watching myself through a looking glass. There is some loss of light transmission (not digitally induced) but it is strangely reassuring to see a twenty-six year younger version of your self. I am dressed throughout in 1940s suits and trilby; that was my fashion throughout the 1980s and 90s. I was and still am haunted by Greek mythology (it is in my cultural DNA after all) and this is offset by events on the political stage. Those events of 1989 involved the collapse of communist walls and the abortive student-lead Democracy Movement in China. How did the young of that world react to their elders? In the film, we have an off-key portrait of a student, a budding writer who is literally lost for words. For him there is no solidarity with peers or the possibility of creative action, whether individual or collective. The figurine he reaches out to grasp contains some unknown or primal connection to a past-present-future. If there is a message at the close of the film (no spoiler alerts here), perhaps it is that our everyday actions and infrequent visions do not need to be held in temporal check by a freeze frame or fade out. We can edit and we should direct our own lives. I sincerely hope there are not too many alienated students amongst the current generation at Warwick that numbers in excess of 25,000. How many of them will be experiencing This-That?
This-That will be screened in Spring 2016 at its spiritual home. Event details.
Digital restoration has been supported by a grant from the Centre for International Theatre Development.