Sunday, July 18, 2010

Fundacion Carmen Toscano: The role of a family-run archive in preserving a nation’s visual memory

by Alejandra Espasande Bouza

Michael Friend and Octavio Moreno Toscano. Los Angeles, July 2, 2010. Photo by Fabricio Espasande.

In 2010 the nation of Mexico will commemorate two centuries of its independence from Spain, and a century of its revolution. In consequence, the government has established, at a Federal and regional level, different funding sources that are being, and will be, invested in the organization of cultural projects related to these historic dates. 
Among the projects considered for funding if any should receive extra consideration it is the preservation of the films held at the Fundacion Toscano Film Archive, and the restoration of the documentary film “Memories of a Mexican (1950)” directed by Carmen Toscano from footage archived by her father, filmmaker Salvador Toscano Barragan. 

This essay documents the film preservation efforts of filmmaker Salvador Toscano. It will shed life in a family’s work toward the preservation of moving images that have been, and are being, lost due to the decay of time, but most importantly, the lack of the necessary funding to safeguard one of the most important historic moving image archives, the Fundacion Toscano film Archive. 

The birth of Mexican Cinema: The arrival of Le Cinématographe Lumière 

Gabriel Veyre (1871-1936)

French man Gabriel Veyre arrived in Latin America as a representative of the Lumière brothers bringing with him Le Cinématographe. He arrived in Mexico in 1896 where he was soon filming President Porfirio Diaz, a leader who early on understood the power of the new invention. Veyre operated both as exhibitor of the Lumière Films through presentations he organized throughout Mexico, and as filmmaker, shooting scenes of Mexico that he was soon to showcase throughout the many cities that he was to visit during his life. 
That same year Veyre was invited to the Chapultepec palace to present a screening of his films, those from the Lumière catalog as well as those he had filmed in Mexico. As illustrated by the film program, the showcase took place on Thursday, August 27 of 1896, and it was presented as a screening by the Cinematógrafo Lumière and dedicated by C.F. Bon Bernard and Gabriel Veyre, on behalf of August and Louis Lumière, to the President of the Mexican Republic, General Porfirio Diaz. The film that opened the showcase was composed of scenes shot of President Porfirio by Gabriel Veyre, and titled “The President of the Republic back horse riding in the Chapultepec forest” (1896). 

In 1897 a young engineer named Salvador Toscano Barragan purchased one of the Lumière cameras and changed the course of his professional life. The arrival of the camera marked the end of a promising engineering career that led the young and inexperienced Toscano into the adventure of filming and exhibiting films throughout Mexico. This enterprise gained him a place in the history books where he was coined “The father of Mexican Cinema.” 

Salvador Toscano (1872-1947)
SALVADOR TOSCANO BARRAGAN was born in 1872 in Zapotlan, (Mexico). In 1896 he opened a movie theater named “Cinematografo Lumière,” located in the 17th block of Jesus Maria Street, at close distance from the National Palace. Through a number of business associations he went on to showcase film programs in cities throughout Mexico and the US. Toscano spent many weeks on the road where he developed an ongoing correspondence with his mother to whom he shared the headaches and pleasures of the life of an itinerant film exhibitor. Fortunately, these letters were preserved and published by the Toscano Film Archive in collaboration with the Filmoteca UNAM. 

Excerpts of letters from Salvador Toscano to his mother

In the following letter, dated August 26, 1900, Toscano shares details about his U.S. film exhibition itinerary. From Galveston he was to visit Saint Louis, Chicago and New York: “The Cinematografo [Lumiere Film Camera] is not such a good investment around here, nonetheless it makes enough to keep going. The Americans had never seen such a thing. They are quiet taken with the “vistas” [films], but still, the people here do not spend as much as in Mexico.”

The letters apart from documenting the tenderness of a mother and son relationship, give insight into the business relationship the two shared. Many of the letters would be indications to Refugio detailing what to do regarding sending an “express” film print to an exhibitor that was awaiting for it, on to how to run the finances of the business. In spite of the gradual success of the film business, Refugio pressed her son to make use of his studies and return to engineering. This request Salvador addressed in a letter: “Regarding your desires that I return to engineering, I give you my assurance; but not until I cancel all my debts.”

Documentary films VS. Fiction films

Toscano’s decision to find a more profitable profession was due to the fact that by 1912 “the competition of movie theaters was fierce to the point that entry fees were ridiculously reduced.” This accounted for his selling of the Salon Pathe, one of the many locations he had acquired to run film exhibitions.

That same year Salvador began working on one of many engineering projects that would curtail any future opportunities to return, full time, to the business of filmmaking and exhibition. In due time documentary cinema would lose favor with the audiences that found new perspectives in the production of fiction films, and their accompanying film stars. As explained by historian Angel Miquel: “non-fiction films experienced a transformation. In 1917 several film companies began the production of fiction films, in consequence the documentary film would fall back (…) Some documentary filmmakers, such as Rosas and Ocañas, would go into the production of fiction films, but many others, like the Alva brothers, Echaniz, Toscano, Abitia, etc., were not interested or incapable to jump into the making of fiction films. The future of documentary cinema would fall into the productions made by private newsreel firms, or Government funded projects.”

The decision was not welcomed by Carlos Noriega Hope, one of Mexico’s most noteworthy of film critics. The following quote by Noriega Hope was rescued by historian Angel Miquel in his Toscano biography: “Unfortunately, destiny took him away from the field that he was to pioneer and today, instead of being a rich film magnate, his days and evenings are spent in front of a desk in the business of paperwork. Maybe at times, Salvador Toscano in remembrance of his past life comes to feel nostalgia and a certain load for his current life.”

Fortunately, in his spare time, Salvador did return, though never full time, to several projects related to filming, and the editing of already shot footage for the making of documentaries. During this time Salvador began the meticulous process of preserving his film collection, made up by his films and those that he purchased or were donated by his film colleagues. He had assembled a collection of great materials with the intention of producing a documentary of the Mexican revolution. Unfortunately, Toscano would not live long enough to accomplish it.

Memories of a Mexican: from newsreels to National Film Treasure 


Carmen Toscano (1910-1988)

One can only imagine an aging Toscano contemplating the vastness of his archive with the uncertainty of who would continue its preservation. The answer was delivered by his daughter Carmen Toscano who picked on her father’s footsteps following his death 1947. The passing of Toscano placed the responsibility of securing the survival of the film archive to Carmen and the whole Toscano family. The documentary film about the Mexican Revolution would be made by his daughter.

Memories of a Mexican (1950) was Carmen Toscano’s greatest accomplishment and tribute to her father’s legacy in filmmaking and film preservation. For the making of this film Carmen classified, organized and selected over fifty thousand feet of footage shot from 1897 to 1929. In order for the footage to adapt to sound speed Carmen arranged to make prints with a number of duplicated frames to match the 24 fps. Also, during her father’s lifetime, from 1942 to 1945, Carmen brought footage to Los Angeles' film labs in order to process optical work.

She succeeded in assembling her father’s materials into a documentary film that was guided by a fictional narration, based on a script she wrote after the film was edited, and a very detailed sound design that captured in 110 minutes the scope of Salvador Toscano’s film treasure. The historic value of Memories of a Mexican (1950) was recognized by the Mexican Government when it was awarded the unusual honor of being named a “National Film Treasure.”

The documentary film features moving images of the protagonists of the Mexican revolution: President Porfirio Diaz, Francisco I. Madero, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregon, amongst others. The film also showcases rare glimpses of Mexican historic moments that include the “Celebrations of Mexico’s Independence” (1908), the “Tragic ten days” (1913), “The invasion of Veracruz” (1914), and moments in the life of everyday people.

The film premiered in 1950 at Mexico City’s Chapultepec Theater with an audience that included the likes of painters Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, philosopher Jose Vasconcelos and actor Pedro Infante. In 1954 it was exhibited at the Cannes film festival and in many other venues. In 2008 a print of Memories of a Mexican was featured at the first International Preservation Film Festival in Prague and at Los Angeles' Million Dollar Theater.

This clip was edited by Fabricio Espasande

Fundacion Toscano

For some time the Cineteca Nacional held the Toscano film archive without taking any steps for its preservation other than its storage. Due to this lack of action, the family took measures and recouped the archive. Luckily, this was done on time to avoid the fire that was to account for the loss of lives and that of thousands of films. 
As stated by Octavio Moreno Toscano, son of Carmen, and grandson of Salvador: “When the Cineteca Nacional exploded the Toscano archive was saved because the government did not want it. It was saved by not being there.”

The Toscano Foundation was officially established in 1992 with the purpose of preserving the Salvador Toscano Historic Film Archive and the film archives donated by Jesus H. Abitia, Alberto Licerio, Ezequiel Colin Garces, Concepcion Tafoya, and archives documenting the Mexican Presidency. As a result the Carmen Toscano Foundation has established itself as a film archive specialized in preserving newsreels and documentary films related to Mexican history. The Foundation, in collaboration with the Cineteca, has also instated the tradition of recognizing the legacy of prominent Mexicans in the arts by establishing the “Salvador Toscano Medal,” the first of which was given in 1983 to Joselito and Roberto Rodriguez, inventors of the Rodriguez Sound System.


As a nonprofit film archive, one of the main sources of funding has come from donations but also from the Foundation’s commercial department in charge of licensing footage and the production of CD’s/DVD’s/books that help meet part of the expenses. In 1996 the archive launched a DVD of “Memories of a Mexican that included the extras options of English subtitles and, as part of its menu, a timeline of the Mexican revolution helpful to those less familiar with the historic events and personalities presented in the documentary. Due to ravages of film piracy, the archive is very protective of the copies it distributes. In fact one of the less “expected” sources of funding comes from court actions that have been taken against individuals and corporations that have made use of the archive’s moving images without clearing the rights. 

The freedom of an independent film archive

The archive’s independence gives freedom to its board members to voice opinions and make suggestions too politically conflictive for other such institutions that are partly or fully depended on government funding (i.e. Filmoteca UNAM / Cineteca). 
Such was the case when Octavio Moreno Toscano voiced a suggestion, perhaps too controversial to be attained but, a daring step in such a politically censored society. The suggestion had to do with the massacre of Tlatelolco, a dark chapter in Mexico’s history wherein a large number of people were murdered by the police in an effort to halt marches against the 1968 Olympic Games. Moreno Toscano, who himself had attended the March that fateful October 2nd of 1968, made the following remarks regarding the possible existence of footage that documented the massacre: 
“The footage can be in many archives, like the National Film Archive (Archivo General de la Nación), or private film archives, like that of the former President. What we offer is our headquarters which are neutral, non-governmental and aloof from conflictive passions, in order to preserve them temporarily for their study. If this man [Garcia Pineda] has decided to speak up, the moment has come for that footage to come out. We guarantee the security of those films, until proper copies can be made for their safe keep.”

It is yet to be seen if the Tlatelolco footage ever sees the light of day. Still the liberty of expression of Octavio Moreno Toscano is something difficult to have in a country where censorship still plays a major role thus the convenience of running an independent institution.

The future of the Fundacion Toscano Archive

The lack of proper cataloging measures during the lifetime of Salvador Toscano, has made it difficult for historians to identify the authorship of some of the “newsreels,” held in the archive. Still, based on information provided by primary sources: letters, documents, film programs, posters, photographs, held at the Toscano Archive, historians Aurelio de los Reyes and Angel Miquel, among others, have been able to determined a precise list of Toscano’s film work.

The primary sources held at the archive are invaluable in understanding the vastness of an archive with many reels yet to be appraised. This point was pin pointed by Dr. Veronica Zarate Toscano, granddaughter of Salvador: “We have many reels that need to be rescued. We have introduced other images that are not included in the documentary film, like the funeral of Zapata or footage of gum exploits in Quitana Roo, or images from a trip of Francisco Madero. Though these images have been saved there is a lot of material that needs to be rescued. It is in cans inside a vault at “Los Barandales,” the country house that serves as the archives headquarters.“

On the skirts of the commemorations of the bicentenary of the Mexican independence, and that of the centenary of its complex revolution, the Toscano Film Archive is getting ready to re-launch “Memoirs of a Mexican” with a new DVD version that will be subtitled in English, French and German. Apart from that, the Larousse publishing house will present an edition aimed at documenting the Mexican revolution that will feature over three hundred photographs from the Toscano Archive, and the insight of noteworthy historians Enrique Krauze and Josefina Vazquez.

There is much to be done, like in many other film archives, the Fundacion Toscano Film Archive faces a race against time. Within its holdings many are the scenes yet to be resuscitated. Proper funding is key to the realization of this endeavor, that of saving the moving images that were taken over a century ago. This will indeed entail major fundraising work.

Considering the internal conflicts the Mexican nation is experiencing, in contrast with the historic celebrations that is soon to commemorate, it will be unavoidable for the nation to reflect upon its place in history by contrasting its present to its past. That past is a glance away, stored in the Fundacion Toscano film vault, the survival or disappearance of these moving images will be that nation’s sole responsibility.