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The Man Who Resurrects Thousands of Rolls of Undeveloped Film

Levi Bettwieser has developed 5,500 rolls of film he found in thrift stores and garage sales and uncovered a lot of other people's personal moments in the process.

The Rescued Film Project is like one of those earnest, artistic ambitions you make at 2 AM in the kitchen at a house party only to wake up the next morning with no recollection of it. But 28-year-old Levi Bettwieser from Boise, Idaho, actually stuck with the idea and has spent the last few years hunting for forgotten, undeveloped rolls of film in Treasure Valley thrift stores and garage sales, developing them, and, eventually, posting them online.

Bettwieser—a photographer himself—has developed 5,500 images (only a fraction of which have made it to the online archive so far), with a backlog of 1,000 undeveloped film rolls in the vault. The Rescued Film Project started to get real traction after Bettwieser shot a video developing a batch of films he'd got hold of from an Ohio dealer—it turned out they were a collection of negatives from World War II.

As affecting as those images are, with the weight of their historical value, the real glory is in the poetic mundanity of the rest of the archive: a turkey defrosting in a kitchen sink, a smashed windscreen, family hangouts, a day at the beach, an anonymous funeral. The people who took the snapshots may have died or, if they're still alive, forgotten them entirely—we have no idea—but, in being developed this way, they come alive again.

Although there is a voyeuristic aspect to the project—the films contain people's personal moments, after all—Bettwieser maintains that its sociological and anthropological merits overrides the whole snooping-around-in-a-stranger's-past thing. He treats the films like fragile little babies, carefully welcoming them into the present world. We had a chat with him to find out just how much dusty old film rolls have taken over his life.

VICE: Hi Levi. How did this all start?
Levi Bettwieser: I like to thrift shop and, once in a while, I'd find a crappy old camera and see that there was a film inside. I decided out of pure curiosity that, since I can develop film myself pretty cheap, I'd start collecting them. And, if I got enough to justify the chemicals, I'd maybe develop a batch. I finally got about 30 or 40 rolls that way in my local area, but now it's steamrolled into this mission where we're trying to get as many rolls as we can before they're all gone. They'll disappear eventually.

What has the reaction been like?
When I started out it was all film from the 80s and 90s, so people were like, "Are you a voyeur? Are you being creepy?" I get it—family photos from the 90s aren't that far away from how we look now. But the further back in time you go, especially with the old black-and-white images, the more people feel removed from them. It begins feels like "history."

The magic of "found" photographs is that they have absolutely zero context on their own.
Right. If you look at one picture from one roll, you have no context for what's happening. If you look at the entire roll, you might get a little more. 95 percent of the collection is amateur—most professional photographers get their film developed, so everything else is all these moments that weren't ever meant to be anything. They weren't shot for commercial or artistic purposes, they were just personal moments from a time before people took selfies. They took photos for posterity, to share in a photo album with friends and family. I'm not in this to find the Kennedy assassination. Inevitably we've found some quite controversial stuff, but that's really not the point.

What's the success rate with developing these films? How many even have anything on them?
Around one in four rolls. This would probably discourage a lot of people, but when you get one that's amazing, you forget about all the ones that you didn't get anything from. I develop a day at a time—usually a 15 to 18 hour stretch of just developing. I have a spot where I hang up all the film with nothing on that I call "the squid" because, by the end of the day, it's just this massive, curled-up gnarl of empty negatives.

Has anything horrible ever turned up?
We've found some nudity and drug use, but not a huge amount. We have to be careful—we don't want to turn people off from the project. When I initially tell people about what we're doing, that's instantly where their mind goes—they want to know if we've found any weird or fucked up stuff. It's never anything really messed up, though. It's all just honest human experience. If we felt totally comfortable from a legal standpoint, I'd include everything in the public archive. These images are such a tiny part of the of the results, though, that leaving them out doesn't have much impact.

The photograph of the dead lady in her coffin had quite an impact on me.
Yes, that's a very personal moment. In that roll we could see that there were so few people at that funeral, the staff had to help carry the casket. That so few people were there made me think that it was important to include the image of the lady, because so many people out there will have an emotional reaction to it. Rescue Film is very much a historical project, but it's also art. We want to look at it from that perspective and not censor ourselves too much.

Has anyone recognized themselves and got in touch?
Once. We reconnected one woman with a roll of film she was on via our Instagram. Someone was like, "Hey that's my dad," so we emailed her all the images from the roll and she was actually in most of the pictures. She was elated because they were pictures of when her dad surprised her with a Chihuahua puppy, but also totally baffled because she had no idea who'd taken them.

How are you paying for everything?
We've received some small donations that have gone a long way, but it's mostly come out of my own pocket. It's not that expensive to do the developing—the most expensive part is buying the film. People are looking to profit off the films they find. To do a whole batch of black-and-white film, which might consist of 25 to 30 rolls, comes in at about $25 worth of chemicals, so around a buck a roll.

So the more films people send you from around the world, the cheaper the whole thing is for you?
Yes. And honestly, there's only so many rolls of film out there.

What are you tackling next?
Some old cigar boxes full of films from the 50s. I have about 40 of them from the same photographer. Each box contains 20 to 40 rolls of film and they're all meticulously hand labelled and packaged in pristine condition. I'd like to start doing videos bi-weekly, and this will be the next big one.

Follow Russell Dean Stone on Twitter. @rdeanstone