Brazil has a long, proud tradition of filmmaking stretching as far back as 1897, up through the chanchadas of the 30s and 40s, to Cinema Novo of the 60s and 70s, and finally into the present day. Which is to say that they have a lot of film stock to preserve. Yes, you’ve probably heard of the efforts of film preservation enthusiasts like Martin Scorsese to save original prints of old films from spontaneous combustion and inevitable decay, and in Brazil it is the Cinemateca Brasileira of São Paulo that has taken on the task of preserving the country’s fragile cinematic patrimony.
Unfortunately, sometimes you just can’t stop a film reel from blowing itself up, and it seems that’s what happened on the early morning of February 3, when some 1000 original reels of nitrocellulose film stock went up in flames in an still-unexplained fire. Nitrocellulose was the primary film stock used before the 1950s, and it is known for being extremely flammable and prone to spontaneous combustion at certain temperatures. Luckily the Cinemateca has designed their storage areas explicitly to prevent the spread of fire, and countless thousands of rolls were saved when the conflagration was contained to one limited area.
It is not clear which films were destroyed by the unfortunate accident, by the Cinemateca has assured the people of Brazil that copies and digital versions have been made of all the films in their holdings. While the Cinemateca will doubtless have some ‘splaining to do regarding this slip up, this fire is a reminder of the importance of this type of institution in preserving our cultural histories from degradation and decay.