Through the lens: The good 'Doc' who saved Polaroid

Dubai - The Viennese biologist was convinced there was only one thing to do — and he bought out the last standing Polaroid factory in the world.


Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Thu 19 Nov 2020, 11:09 AM

Last updated: Fri 20 Nov 2020, 8:30 AM

Viennese biologist Florian ‘Doc’ Kaps famously stepped in to keep the instant camera brand’s last factory from shutting down years ago. Now, his ‘impossible’ feat is coming to a screen near you

Twelve years ago, people said Florian ‘Doc’ Kaps was ‘crazy’. Today, they’re more likely to call him visionary. One suspects Florian might say there’s a fine line between the two. But the fact of the matter is: if you’re looking for inspiration to tackle the impossible, the good Doc is your man.

The year was 2008, and Apple had just launched its first iPhone the year before. Unable to stay afloat any longer, Polaroid finally announced it was downing its shutters for good. The news naturally saddened fans — but it galvanised Florian into action. A lover of all things analogue, the Viennese biologist was convinced there was only one thing to do — and he bought out the last standing Polaroid factory in the world.

The dramatic turn of events has been recreated in the documentary, An Impossible Project, which released in January this year and is screening for the first time in the UAE this weekend.

“I’ve always had a weak point for ‘magic’ things and for things that seem impossible at first,” says Florian, speaking to WKND from Austria. “It was a no-brainer to me that we had to buy the factory. Everything came together one after the other after that.” Although the factory had been sold for scrap, Florian managed to convince the powers that be to give him a chance. He got the go-ahead — one day before the scrapyard workers were due to pick up the material. “We managed to save it, but very last minute. There was a lot of disturbance that day, with the factory workers barring the doors and preventing the scrapyard workers from entering.”

Florian soon discovered a global community of analogue enthusiasts — a lot of whom were youngsters discovering the “magic of the material”. In truth, Florian says, he never had a chance. “I never had a chance to stop doing what I was trying to do, because I was no longer alone. I had 4,000 people joining in our passion to fight for this material… Sometimes, it feels like I didn’t choose the medium; the medium chose me.”

Popular opinion holds that although there is a substantial community of those who swear by all things analogue, they are a dying breed. As expected, Florian begs to differ. From his vantage point, a renaissance is in the offing. “People always tell me that analogue is a romantic trend. I always tell them, on the contrary, it’s digital that is the trend. Human beings are still very analogue in nature. If anything, the rediscovery of analogue film and photography is a sign that people are becoming increasingly aware of the side-effects and limitations of the digital world. I’d say we’re at the beginning of a major rediscovery of the analogue.”

The poster for the film is rather striking, but what especially stands out are three little words in red: “Shot on 35mm”. When director Jens Muerer signed up to turn Florian’s story into film, the latter was sure that “in order to capture the magic of analogue, it would have to be shot on analogue”. This meant constant budget issues, because of which the film was six years in the making — but it allowed its makers to drive a larger conversation. “It shifted from being a film about the Polaroid factory to addressing how digital and analogue can work together.”

Did he ever want to give up during that time? “About twice a day,” Florian quips. “That’s part of the process of doing impossible projects. Nevertheless, you usually use the impulse to fight even harder.” Never waste a crisis — that’s his motto. “A crisis is a time to be used as a positive momentum, a time to think about different approaches and to work harder.”

For the man in the business of dreaming big, the larger picture was to inspire viewers to go after their own seemingly impossible projects. And Florian may have already achieved his goal. He’s already had some of those who watched the screenings earlier this year contact him to pledge support for whatever new, impossible project he wants to take on. “That this is no longer a film to just be consumed, but has the potential to activate people is fantastic,” he declares, happily.

Although he’s moved on from Polaroid, he’s since been involved in a steady stream of other impossible adventures: from a Viennese grand hotel built in 1900 to the largest vinyl factory in Europe — and even a project with German group 25 Hours for an upcoming hotel in Dubai that will feature vinyl and typewriter bars.

Currently, Florian — who spent 10 years studying the muscles in spider’s eyes in his earlier avatar — is on a mission to save peel-apart film. Although all of these projects are steeped in nostalgia, Florian says he’s not looking to keep them alive “like in a museum”. Rather, he’s looking to “convert these treasures into today’s world and even into the future”. Case in point: Phonocut, a vinyl-cutting machine they’ve developed so anyone can produce their own records for the music they download or stream right in the comfort of their own homes. “This is what we mean by innovative ways to combine modern and analogue technology.”

At the end of the day, analogue, according to Florian, is a choice. In fact, he’d go so far as to argue it’s “the most important decision” we have to make as a human race. “The only reason we’re sitting here in this world is because of our five senses. They are in place to protect us and guarantee that we can survive. Digital only gives us a ‘feeling’ of accessibility, but it will always be behind a glass screen. On the other hand, it’s our sense of taste that says something is not good for us, our sense of smell that helps us choose partners,” explains Florian. “All our feelings are very much connected to our five senses. Love, for example, cannot be described with 0’s and 1’s. That’s why I say analogue is completely underrated. It is our only hope.”

(An Impossible Project is showing on November 21 at The Theatre, Mall of the Emirates at 7pm. Tickets start at Dh45.)

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