It’s not very often that issues which resonate with the work of film archives are raised in a Hollywood movie, but that is exactly what Martin Scorsese’s most recent film Hugo (based on Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret) does. Hugo is a young orphan who, in the process of repairing an automaton left behind by his late father, discovers the incredible films of Georges Méliès. Hugo’s fictional story is intertwined with an account of Méliès’ life and work: his passion for entertainment and his curiosity for the then-new medium; his innovative filmmaking methods; the rise and fall of his production company; the financially-driven loss of many of his films and the anonymity that followed his bankruptcy; and finally, the public and artistic recognition of his filmography in his later years.
Prints of Méliès’ works were dispersed around the world through film distribution mechanisms. Australia was one of these destinations for Méliès’ and other French films which were screened in theatres in large centres and on tour around the country as part of travelling variety shows. Méliès produced more than 500 films between 1896 and 1913, but many of them are believed to be lost forever. Although French films of that era were, arguably, the audience favourites in Australia, the NFSA now holds only a few titles. The reason is that in the 1990s, the NFSA undertook an ambitious program to repatriate these films to France because with funds and facilities stretched to the limits, it could not hope to preserve so many films in a reasonable timeframe, so it was better to return them than lose them forever to the ravages of time. During that period, more than 200 French films from the first two decades of cinema were returned to France where, happily, they have been preserved.