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Past perfect (2)

By Chen Nan (China Daily)

08:56, May 07, 2012

He says the original film prints, stored by the BFI National Archive, are so fragile that it's impossible to project them, while the Beijing films have only recently been digitized.

"We really hope audiences in Beijing can enjoy seeing their city 80-100 years ago and marvel at both the similarities and the changes," says Xie Meng, a Beijing native and manager of UCCA's Education &Public Program.

The films reflect the perspective of whoever is behind the camera. It is interesting to contrast the home movies made by a Chinese family in 1932 with those of a British Methodist missionary in 1925.

"Both are, in fact, quite similar as you can see both filmmakers delighting in being in a beautiful city for the first time. They are both keen to capture the famous sights of Beijing on film - from the Summer Palace to Beihai Park," he says.

The curator visited Beijing once in 2010 and says it is fascinating to note the transformation. "The center of Beijing has clearly changed much more than that of London," he says.

The main thing that strikes the curator is that traffic is just as bad more than 100 years ago as it is today. A short film from 1903 called Old London Street Scenes shows the traffic, mainly horse-drawn omnibuses, to be chaotic and quite terrifying.

"Film is a great thing, which takes viewers from ancient times to the future," says Baker, who has worked as a film programmer and archivist for more than 20 years.

He says he loved film as a child, and the first movie he saw at a cinema was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1968.

"I love the way that films such as these help audiences to create a real connection with the past - watching them is as likely as we're going to get to time travel."

The BFI is just beginning research into its collection of films about China, Baker says. As this research develops, he hopes to make these films of old Beijing available to audiences across the world.

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