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The first thing you notice when you walk into the back of Erickson Archival Telecine is the Russian film cans. They’re a dull, grayish-green metal that looks practically indestructible. Heavy fasteners and clunky clasps protrude everywhere, giving the containers the appearance of overengineered circular lunchboxes. Even amid the odd collection of equipment that crowds the Beltsville, Md., film-restoration company’s workroom, the 10 canisters seem relics from an alien time and place.

“We have a lot of experienced film people come in here, and everyone stops and says, ‘What is that?’” says proprietor Jim Erickson with a laugh. “Each film can is like a little time capsule.”

“Some even had notes in them from whoever was taking care of them, commenting on damage at the end of the reel or imperfections,” adds Leah Hertz, the 52-year-old entrepreneur who’s responsible for the canisters’ presence here.

Hertz picks one up as if rediscovering a favorite childhood toy. She studies its Cyrillic-lettered labels and begins to remember: This one’s from Belarus; that one’s from the Ural Mountains; the one back there is from Moldova. She crouches on the floor to get a good look at the ones on the bottom shelf; she wants to find one of those precious notes. “There’s a real King Tut’s-tomb aspect to this,” she says. “It’s poignant to be carrying on someone else’s work.”

For the past nine years, Hertz has done just that, preserving the work of Russian directors by helping their forgotten films find a new audience in the United States. Through her Glen Echo-based home-video company, Portable Festivals, Hertz has subtitled, restored, and—at last—released the first set of four films in her Unknown Russian Cinema collection.

All the films were made in the ’80s; some aired only on Russian television; others played at Soviet-bloc film festivals. But none have ever been seen by substantial Western audiences, and all, according to Hertz, shatter the image of Russian cinema.

“It’s a really interesting problem…this idea that there is a body of foreign films out there that have never had a theatrical release and American film lovers don’t know about them and will never see them,” she says. “They struck me. I said, ‘Gee, these are a lot better than some of the things that are shown here.’…There’s a stereotype of Russian films being ponderous things, and these were not that at all.”

Unfortunately for Hertz, the process of bringing these films to a new audience involved a lot more than just transferring the original reels to video. She spent years negotiating with Russian studios for the right to distribute the films. She took a class to learn how to use subtitling equipment, then spent weeks trying to find the most appropriate translation for each line of dialogue. Then she and Erickson spent several months in the editing bay, going through each film frame by frame to erase every speck of dirt, scratch, and tear, and to correct coloration problems that had made for green faces and dull scenery.

When Hertz looks at a finished video now, the process seems a little unreal. “It looks so simple,” she says. “Thousands of hours, years of effort, thousands of dollars, and I’m holding this thing in my hands and thinking, This is all there is? It all comes down to this? You have no way of fathoming what goes into this little cassette.”

A Los Angeles native who studied

Russian and French at Oregon’s Reed College, Hertz came to Washington in 1975 to work as a translator for the Defense Department. (“If you were a language major, you could either drive a cab or work for the Department of Defense,” she jokes.) In 1980, she became a DOD foreign-trade analyst specializing in Eastern Europe and the Far East. She immersed herself in the culture of the areas she studied, reading their newspapers, watching their TV shows, and viewing their films. After a few years, she began to notice just how many great movies the Soviet bloc never exported here.

As Hertz’s appetite for Soviet cinema increased, she found herself zeroing in on films from the ’80s. Filmmakers in that period, she says, faced less governmental control than in the decades that preceded it—but they also maintained a level of artistic quality that was somewhat abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“Russians have always led in all the arts, but movies, especially during the Soviet era, were considered by many to be propaganda, [as well as] slow [and] depressing,” Hertz says. “And, well, a lot of them were. But there was this hidden body of work that wasn’t like that. If you come across a little historical treasure that has fallen into obscurity unfairly, you want to bring it out.”

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Hertz began to visit mom-and-pop video stores in emigre communities in search of more movies. She found a few in the area—on Rockville Pike, on Capitol Hill, in Prince George’s County—that had small collections of movies the proprietors had taped from their TVs back home.

Hertz rented everything she could get her hands on locally and then followed leads to more, eventually contacting shops in Georgia, Florida, and California. One store in San Francisco was a gold mine: “It was like going to a dress shop and every dress is your size and your taste,” she recalls.

Even after seeing a lot of duds, Hertz soon found herself overcome by a desire to prevent these films from being lost and forgotten. She also saw a business opportunity. So, in 1994, she quit her government job and founded Portable Festivals. Relying on freelance translating work to keep up her cash flow, she recruited an accountant friend to help manage her finances and a friend at the State Department to lend a hand with some of her overseas negotiations.

All the while, she continued tracking down films, keeping an eye out for the ones she thought would translate best for an American audience. Hertz figures that over a five-year period, she watched at least 400 movies—she ended up with a wish list of 12 to track down, fix up, and sell.

First, though, Hertz had to locate the studios that had produced the films. In some cases, it took two or three years just to make contact. She sent scores of faxes and e-mails to the studios that she could actually find, but most were never answered. Other studios had vanished; still others had fallen on hard times with the breakdown of the Soviet government. Some of these didn’t have e-mail, and a few didn’t even have the capability to make international phone calls.

“One thing you have no control over is the domestic situation. It’s very volatile,” Hertz says. “You’re getting in the middle of entities that are changing, and they’re fighting themselves, and you’re in between. Sometimes it’s like Family Feud.”

Because it wasn’t within her budget to travel overseas herself, Hertz sometimes relied on the contacts she’d established when she was first looking for Soviet videos to watch. Some people brought film reels back with them from vacations. In one case, some of her acquaintances knew the director of one of the films Hertz was after and agreed to sweet-talk him while they were visiting their homeland.

Usually, however, Hertz was able to build up enough of a rapport with skeptical studio representatives and producers that they eventually agreed to send their films directly to her, in those antique cans now housed at Erickson. Whenever an original print arrived, it was such a victory that it didn’t even matter what shape the thing was in.

“It was very ironic,” Hertz says, “because I would go to some of the postproduction facilities in Washington, and they thought the quality was terrible. But of course I thought it was great.

“They were comparing it to the high-definition stuff that originates here, and I was comparing it with an emigre tape that was probably the 50th version of a tape taken from someone’s TV screen. I thought it looked marvelous. I didn’t know why they were so disappointed.”

Hertz is anxious to show off some the restoration issues she’s had to deal with, so she asks Erickson, “Can we see the beginning of the original print of The Town of Rosi?” It’s as if she’s made an inside joke, and Erickson smiles as he goes to retrieve the print and cue up the film, one of those included in Hertz’s first series.

As the print unspools, the monitor in the editing bay fills with murky shades of sepia. Rosi looks like an American stereotype of a Russian movie: heavy, boring, and depressing. But when Erickson puts in the newly restored version a few minutes later, it seems as if we’re watching a completely different movie: There are colors. There’s vibrancy. The upbeat soundtrack makes sense. The film, about a father trying to find wives for his sons, looks like something that might even show at the local megaplex. “See!” Hertz cries joyously. “They didn’t mean for it to be that dark. It’s really so charming!”

Rosi represents the most dramatic of Hertz and Erickson’s work together. Though Hertz isn’t trained on the kind of equipment that was needed for the bulk of the restoration, she oversaw every step of the process. “You would have thought that she had written, directed, and starred in these movies,” Erickson says. “These are her children.”

It took 18 months after Hertz acquired her first film to transform it to restored home video. Now she’s got the process down to six months. Next she plans to put her first set of four movies onto DVD. She’s also at work trying to negotiate deals for the remaining eight films on her list, but it’s slow going. “I’ve been trying for a year to get some of these films,” she says. “It’s the same process all over again—you’re just knocking on doors.”

In the meantime, she’s focused on spreading the word about her movies. In October, Hertz began retailing the videos for $25 a copy. She placed ads in the New Yorker, Russian Life, and the Christian Science Monitor, targeting publications with a readership interested in international issues, politics, and the arts. So far, she says, the reaction has been encouraging, if somewhat limited.

A few individual cinephiles and some video stores have placed orders for her films, but Hertz expects it will take a little more time for them to garner a real audience. “I know they’re out there,” she says. “We just have to find them and let them know these films exist, because there are definitely people interested in this. It’s just a little bit like matchmaking to find them.”

Of course, there are some things Hertz simply can’t control, no matter how hard she works at it: “Generally the response has been great,” she says. “But there’s one of the films that some people love and some people hate. I had one friend watch it and she essentially said it stank! That’s a thing I have to take in stride.” CP