Eyes wide open

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 June, 2009, 12:00am

Did I tell you the story about [director] John Cassavetes?' asks Martin Scorsese. Without pausing for an answer, he begins to spin the tale from nearly four decades ago. 'He and [actor] Seymour Cassell were drinking one night, and they got a little drunk, and they decided it would be funny to go into the cinema downtown on Canal Street [in New York]. The Chinese cinema. They were sitting there watching this film, and apparently it's a kung fu film. It was 1968 or 69, before Bruce Lee. They were so excited that they were whooping and hollering.'

And? 'They were thrown out,' says Scorsese, doubling up with laughter at the thought of two of his best mates, by then major figures in Hollywood, being expelled from a cinema. '[The manager] was like, 'You two, leave, you don't belong here'. And they were going, 'Hey but look at that, this is amazing!' '

Leaning forward in his seat, Scorsese has many more such stories to tell. Today, it's not the Oscar-winning Hollywood player who's talking, but the veteran cinephile who has made film history documentaries such as My Voyage to Italy (1999) and who can regale his audiences with his experiences as an avid filmgoer, such as his memories of watching his first Japanese film on late-night TV (Kenji Mizoguchi's 1953 film, Ugetsu Monogatari) and how Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light - a mesmerising 2007 film set in a Mennonite community in Mexico - presented 'entertainment, but in a different vision'.

And his exposure to Indian culture. 'When I saw Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali [1955] it wasn't about two people in a palace in New Delhi or Calcutta - they were in a forest, they were in a hut, they were sitting on the floor, and these were people. And you begin to hear about this writer Tagore, and all of a sudden you begin to hear this music, and it was like, 'What's this instrument?' It's a sitar, that's Ravi Shankar, and I found the album and bought it. And the next thing you know, Pather Panchali, Aparajito [1956] and The World of Apu [1959] were shown together at Carnegie Hall - 51/2 hours in one go - and I saw all three of them.'

Our meeting - at an empty bar in Cannes' Carlton Hotel on a Saturday afternoon during the city's film festival - has been arranged to allow Scorsese to talk about his work as president of the World Cinema Foundation, an organisation he founded two years ago to advocate and facilitate the preservation, restoration and screening of films from around the world.

The evening before we meet, Scorsese introduced a special festival screening of a new, restored print of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes [1948], a film that he said changed how he saw the world when he first watched it as an eight-year-old. An hour after our conversation, he's at the Palais des Festivals again, attending the presentation of Shadi Abdel Salam's 1969 classic The Mummy, being digitally restored under the aegis of Scorsese's foundation.

His story about Cassavetes' Chinatown misadventure reveals how cinema can encourage interaction between different cultures. 'You have to understand that it was so cut and dried back then ... even though we would cross Canal Street and we were in the Chinese section, there was no communication, there's no way of knowing each other,' he says. 'And that changed, and it's through cinema - and the next thing I saw was King Hu's A Touch of Zen [1971], the first Chinese film that I saw.

'Then you had the great renaissance [in Chinese cinema] - I was in China in 1984 at a symposium, and by 1987 you had Red Sorghum, Ju Dou and Yellow Earth. These are the films that changed things like neo-realism did to Italian cinema - oh, and Horse Thief , Tian Zhuangzhuang's 1986 film. These films just gave us new life. And then out of Hong Kong, John Woo - and John was influenced by American films and Sergio Leone and Jean-Pierre Melville; and somehow [later] Infernal Affairs [2002] got made, and then I remade [that in 2006, as The Departed],' he says, laughing.

'Someone might disagree with me on this, but this is a re-energising and new way of seeing the world. The main thing is that people get to understand and accept the values of other cultures - even if that's of a tribe in Mali in [Souleymane Cisse's 1987] Yeleen.'

Tian and Cisse have since been recruited to Scorsese's film preservation project and now sit on World Cinema Foundation's filmmakers' board alongside fellow luminaries such as Wim Wenders, Abbas Kiarostami, Abderrahmane Sissako, Cristi Puiu and Wong Kar-wai. Since the organisation's high-profile inauguration at Cannes in 2007, 10 restored films have been presented at the festival; along with The Mummy, this year's slate also includes Edward Yang De-chang's A Brighter Summer Day (1991) and Redes, a 1936 Mexican film directed by Emilio Gomez Muriel and Fred Zinnemann about a group of fishermen rebelling against their exploitative masters.

Scorsese says the foundation's objective is not merely to show films at prestigious events such as the Cannes festival.

The body is working with The Auteurs, an internet portal dedicated to film, to showcase rehabilitated works in digital form. To mark the start of this collaboration, four of the films the foundation restored - Djibril Diop Mambety's Touki Bouki (1973), Metin Erksan's Dry Summer (1964), Ahmed el-Manoouni's Trances (1981) and Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid (1960) - can be viewed for free at The Auteur's website (theauteurs.com).

Scorsese says the internet offers a new way of seeing films which, although not as fulfilling as the cinema, allows more people to see movies outside the mainstream. Such changes are nothing new, he says. 'One of the different ways [of watching films] in the 1950s was television. You could hardly see the image - but we saw all the United Artists pictures, Rossellini movies, I saw the Italian New Wave films on television when I was five or six. So the films got to an audience that would not normally have gone to the cinema to see these films - films which were made in 1933 and would no longer be shown.'

But Scorsese admits there's a limit to the foundation's aspirations; some might see the group as an American institution sweeping into less developed film cultures and demanding things be done their way. He is adamant the foundation's objectives have always been to work with filmmakers and film historians, and that the different parties working on the restoration projects are always to be on an equal footing, and their ultimate aim is to disseminate know-how.

'In certain parts of the world, governments are in flux ... people have to be cared for, to be fed, so their priorities ... film archives ... are low on the list. There's no reason we can't continue to try - but it takes a lot of patience to keep pushing.'