Todd Wiener has for 14 years been the motion picture archivist at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, where he researches and supervises the acquisition of new materials and oversees more than 600 programmatic archival loans annually to film festivals, museums, and other venues worldwide. Read more.
Beginning in the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, the UCLA Film & Television Archive acquired several substantial 35mm nitrate and safety film collections from a number of major Hollywood studios. From these founding motion picture donations, UCLA focused its institutional curatorial and preservation activities on the traditionally monocultural, classic Hollywood feature film. Thanks to these efforts, hundreds of beloved cinema classics rightfully enjoyed new life and greatly expanded life expectancies. The decade of the 2000s, however, saw a monumental shift in the film preservation field. With the rise of digital distribution, most studios and distributors adapted a much more “in-house” approach to preserving their own media assets, freeing UCLA and its partners to reassess long-held curatorial priorities. This fundamental change led to deep collection introspection at UCLA and elsewhere—ultimately generating a robust effort to identify and preserve notable orphan and ephemeral films. As to be expected from these intensive searches, films about—and by—marginalized communities are continually revealed to be among the most in need of preservation, due to both a lack of resources and decades-long cultural indifference by the status quo. For the purposes of this piece, I will briefly discuss recent important rediscoveries of films that UCLA has preserved that illuminate the lives of our trans sisters and brothers.
Director Nikolai Ursin’s artful and sensitively executed neorealist student film Behind Every Good Man (1965) is a perfect example of a significant work that was hiding in plain sight for decades in our vaults. In an extremely rare pre-Stonewall depiction, Ursin’s film dares to offer an African American transgender protagonist who runs counter to Hollywood’s long litany of tragic or comedic disparaging LGBTQ representations. Instead, Ursin’s unnamed transwoman is self-confident, romantically hopeful, and prideful—all while navigating the negative forces of public judgment and potential rejection. Another early, important example of trans representation was discovered in the unduly neglected documentary short Changes (1970), from pioneering queer filmmaker and activist Pat Rocco. In the form of a compassionate intimate portrait, Rocco mixes guerrilla-style location footage with insightful interviews with his transwoman heroine. It is a beautiful, life-affirming film that Mr. Rocco had almost forgotten about until we discovered it in his collection several years ago. Both of these landmark films have now been preserved by the Outfest-UCLA Legacy Project.
Given our current political climate and the escalating assaults on the basic human rights of people from many walks of life, especially trans people of color, it is imperative that archivists and curators utilize their institutional privilege and resources to develop increased access streams to the hidden stories of our underserved and under-protected communities. In a hopeful sign of the times, Behind… and Changes now join other restoration efforts that are currently in high demand for museum and repertory screenings, including Queens at Heart (ca. 1965), which follows four transsexual women in New York City. The film is currently touring theatrically with the new restoration of The Queen (1968, Frank Simon), a classic feature documentary that is poignantly ripe for rediscovery.
In a time where traditional photochemical film preservation projects are widely diminishing due to lab closures, corporate consolidation, and the ever-shrinking pool of venues that can offer 35mm or 16mm film projection, the archival community is harnessing newly available digital tools and platforms to make such nontheatrical treasures available to a wide variety of appreciative audiences. Thanks to our many preservation partners, particularly Outfest and Sundance, we are making great strides with new digital access initiatives which will allow previously neglected stories of underserved communities to become part of the moving image canon.