UT alumnus fights to preserve the history of obscure film


UT alumnus, Sebastian del Castillo and partner Joe Ziemba work behind the scenes of Austin’s Alamo Draft House located on Lamar.
Photo Credit: Angel Ulloa | Daily Texan Staff

Up the stairs and past the vast array of film projectors inside the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar sits a small office where UT alumnus Sebastian del Castillo and his partner Joe Ziemba cycle through cinema’s strangest and most horrifying creations.

Del Castillo and Ziemba head the American Genre Film Archive, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and distribution of 35mm film prints. It was created by co-founder of Alamo Drafthouse Tim League. What began as League’s personal collection of rare and vintage films soon turned into a whole archive dedicated to obscure horror and outlaw exploitation movies. The nonprofit, which officially formed in 2009, currently holds over 6,000 film prints and trailers, some of which are the only copies in existence. 

“These are non-studio movies that were made by real people, and you’re seeing real creative expressions of these people that you won’t get in big budget movies,” Ziemba said. “They are snapshots of history — of cultural history — and it’s really important that we never forget (them).”

UT radio-television-film professor Kathryn Fuller-Seely said Oscar Micheaux, one of the first African-American filmmakers, was almost lost in time. His films showcased the culture and lifestyle of the African-American community during the silent era. But, they were rarely distributed outside of the black community, and nobody actively focused on preserving this side of film history.

“He made them individually,” Fuller-Seeley said. “No state. No company. No federal agency. No one took responsibility for his films though it’s just by happenstance that a few have been found.” 

The vast majority of organizations that preserve film prints dedicate themselves to either popular or classic movies rather than covering a variety of genres. 

“So, if you were a collector on the top of the money-game like Edison or if you were a self-promoter like D. W. Griffith, (your films) got saved, but there was nobody out there to speak for individual artists,” Fuller-Seeley said. “There is a tremendous inequality in determining what gets saved.”

The American Genre Film Archive is fighting against this inequality by providing an archive that offers an alternative history of film. 

“You like them because they’re genre movies, because they’re over-the-top and ridiculous,” Ziemba said. “But also, a lot of them are just documents of their time.”

Last year, the nonprofit launched a Kickstarter campaign to attain a 4K film scanner in order to transfer the physical film from their collection into a digital version. Due to the campaign’s great success, they have been able to transfer multiple films to digital and are planning to re-release their first film this summer: “The Zodiac Killer” (1971).

“We screen movies that have been through the ringer playing the grindhouse circuit and at drive-ins,” del Castillo said. “But then by scanning them, we can, through color correction, make them actually look really nice. Then we don’t have to worry about the print getting damaged, so we can store it for safe keeping.”

Del Castillo learned about film preservation from his time as a projectionist, a negative cutter and attending UT’s film school.

“I had a lot of film experience at UT because back then we used real film,” Del Castillo said.

Though the majority of UT students now shoot, edit and exhibit their films digitally, organizations like the American Genre Film Archive continue to emphasize that as film ventures further into the future, its history shouldn’t be left behind. 

“Film exists on film, and (it) isn’t going to last forever,” Ziemba said. “(But) it’s always an adventure when you pull a print off the shelf.”