Preservation Drives Susan Oxtoby

The senior film curator at BAMPFA credits Ingmar Bergman with her interest in filmmaking, so the yearlong Bergman retrospective makes total sense.


Photo by Rosa Furneaux

It’s something of a paradox that the formative moment for so many film buffs — that rarefied strata of aficionado who insists that the only way to experience a movie is in a theater — involves a television. As for the life-changing title itself, it’s often a genre picture that leans toward spectacle or melodrama more than art. Susan Oxtoby’s catalyst, though, was the work of a master: Ingmar Bergman.

“My memory of my first foreign film is seeing The Silence broadcast on TV in Toronto in the early 1970s,” BAMPFA’s senior film curator recalled. “I was all of 11 years old, and I distinctly remember the opening sequence of the two girls with the young boy on the train. I was so impressed by the use of silence and the imagery of the landscape and armored tanks passing by. A few years later I was fascinated by Persona and intrigued by its radical form. When I aspired to be a filmmaker, I was trying to make something inspired by Bergman.”

Oxtoby went on to make a couple films, All Flesh is Grass (1988) and January 15, 1991: Gulf War Diary (1992), and worked as a researcher, archivist, sound recorder, and picture editor for experimental and documentary films. The Canadian native then gravitated to film programming, and planned, prepared, and presented retrospectives and themed series at Cinematheque Ontario for more than a decade before joining BAMPFA as senior film curator in 2005.

Her signature accomplishment in Berkeley — measured by thematic scope, logistical difficulty, and the gutsy determination to spotlight lesser-known art — is the massive Discovering Georgian Cinema series that spanned the fall of 2014 through the following spring. But that’s ancient history in the programming world, and BAMPFA’s campus and community constituency has been treated to a stunning array of the cream of world cinema since moving into its new building in downtown Berkeley in January 2016.

Oxtoby’s current shining achievement is the yearlong Ingmar Bergman retrospective, which is organized into five installments. The wide-ranging series doubles as a crowd-pleaser and the closing of a circle for its curator.

For it was Bergman, along with Michelangelo Antonioni and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who ignited Oxtoby’s passion to study the history of cinema at the University of Toronto and to pursue a degree in film production. His experiments with narrative filmmaking in pursuit of fearless emotional honesty had touched her early on, and they never relinquished their grip.

“We were a typical family that had a super 8 camera, and I come out of that home-movie film generation,” Oxtoby explained. “The type of filmmaking that I enjoyed working on was that kind of very independent, very personal cinema, where I was doing my own camerawork. But I knew that wouldn’t cover the rent,” she said, laughing. “So I moved into distribution and then programming.”

BAMPFA owns a significant collection of prints, particularly from Russia and Japan, is actively engaged in film restoration and preservation, and houses a library utilized by biographers, scholars, critics, and authors from all over. Exhibition is just one component of BAMPFA’s film mission. But it’s the cog that drives Oxtoby’s engine.

“Our ability to work with the world’s archives means that a lot of time we’re showing things that are buried and bringing them to light,” she explained. “BAMPFA and other institutions like us play that role of keeping film culture alive, because you need to unearth areas of film history. In any given year, there are many works that only BAMPFA could bring to the Bay Area.”

Bergman fans can catch “Bergman 100: The Early Years” at BAMPFA through May 6, screening Crisis on April 6 and 8, A Ship Bound for India on April 13 and 15, Music in the Dark on April 20 and 22, and Thirst on May 4 and 6,