Adoption, Archival Style: The Orphan Film Symposium 2010
by Livia Bloom

A masked train robber from The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), Australia's first known feature-length film

A masked train robber from The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), Australia's first known feature-length film

“Many people would walk twenty miles to see the same film ten, fifteen, twenty-five times,” Ishumael Zinyengere said. His audience cheered and hooted in support—softly, for they were academics, but cheers and hoots just the same. The ardent film fans he was describing were Africans during the 1960s and 1970s, and the movies they would trek to see are now considered “orphan” films that have largely been lost, uncatalogued, damaged, or otherwise rendered inaccessible. Of Zinyengere’s orphans, some are educational films, using characters like “Mr. Foolish” and “Mr. Wise” to offer instruction on hygiene and farming. Others are broad and goofy episodic comedies like Tickey Tries to Helpand Tickey the Waiter(one slapstick scene ends with a figure gesturing in exaggerated frustration with a pineapple).

Among other distinguishing features, these movies, which Zinyengere terms “colonial films,” were largely silent, even though sound technology was readily available at the time of their production. Instead, they had musical soundtracks, and were taken to rural areas in “cinema vans” (trucks with a screen affixed to their rooftops) accompanied by a live narrator. Colonial films were used to lure crowds to screenings of state or opposition propaganda. Paradoxically, the Tickey films were shown first on behalf of the anticolonial opposition, and were then later used by the government to encourage opposition to the opposition. The films were made with little editing—not for artistic purposes, but because the quicker cutting of European films was considered too difficult for African filmgoers to comprehend.

As they listened to his description of the holdings of the National Archives of Zimbabwe, Zinyengere’s audience was rapt; when they learned of a fire, which devastated rare holdings and already limited equipment in Ghana, they groaned in agony. He was addressing many of the world’s leading moving-image archivists and scholars, a group that gathers biannually for the Orphan Film Symposium. Several of those in attendance at the conference had traveled with Zinyengere, one of Africa’s only trained archivists, to help train new local archivists and save as many orphan films as possible; still others had orphan film projects of their own. This year’s edition featured eighty movies, seventy presenters, twenty-two panels, and films in over a dozen formats, according to the conference organizer, Dan Streible, of the New York University Cinema Studies and Moving Image Archiving and Preservation (MIAP) programs; he also served on the board of the Associate of Moving Image Archivists, and currently sits on the National Film Preservation Board.

Depending on who you ask, the footage that these “orphanistas” rescue is either worthless or priceless. In the U.S., only twenty percent of films made between 1910-1920 still exist today. Many were lost, tossed, or recycled for their silver nitrate and, as one archivist reasoned, “Who was watching anyway?” In Zinyengere’s world, the stakes are even higher. “Last year there was a huge outbreak of cholera, so to start preserving a film...,” he laughed softly.
Yet despite the formidable odds, these archivists and scholars are doing some extraordinary, invisible detective work, rescuing films from rain, mold, ignorance, and other agents of destruction. As the orphanistas shared their stories at the conference, each more remarkable than the last, the argument for the “priceless” categorization grew clearer and stronger.

Australia, home of the first known feature-length film (The Story of the Kelly Gang, 1906), conducted a film search in the 1980s: a guy with a caravan drove around the countryside examining and gathering people’s holdings for the national collection. In one instance, an old-timer named Blue turned out to have an extensive collection of nitrate films in a shed in his yard. For the current film connection Australia-America Collaboration with the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF), the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, coordinated by senior curator Meg Labrum, identified a number of American silent films in the collection that were previously believed to be lost. “As a national film archive, we practically spent our entire budget on the restoration of films that hadn’t even been acquisitioned yet into the collection, and many more remained to be saved,” Labrum confided—and the crowd nodded in approval. Her work yielded the discovery of early American films, many which were not known to still be extant or, in some cases, to ever have existed at all. The films were preserved, copied, digitized, and repatriated to the U.S., with copies kept at the donating archive.

Meanwhile, Vanessa Toulmin, director of the British National Fairground Archive and a professor at the University of Sheffield, located the collection of an “absolutely terrible fairground showman” named George Williams. What he lacked in commercial success during his lifetime has undoubtedly made up for in his posthumous success in the archivist world: Williams’s collection included a group of eleven unique films made at Edison’s Black Maria studio between 1894-1896. These were screened for the first time at the Orphan conference and, with a handshake, officially repatriated to the U.S. in the person of Mike Mashon of the Moving Image Section at the Library of Congress. Each of these films is less than twenty seconds long, and none had previously known to be extant. The haul includes alternate versions of famous works likeSandow (No. 2) and Carmencita (No. 2) by Thomas Edison, as well as a symposium favorite, this film documenting a remarkable boxing kangaroo! 

These orphans’ journeys home made a lecture by Paolo Cherchi Usai on the issues of film repatriation all the more fitting. The topic raises issues of intellectual and physical property, financial obligation, film transportation and digitization, and the possible separation of the object from the work itself. Cherchi Usai framed the discussion of returning works to their country of origin as a moral rather than a legal question, even as a potential “act of justice.” This has become more complex with recent technological advances; points of transfer already include sale, resale, theft, duplication, abandonment, and exportation through invisible or transparent borders. Yet at the same time, new technical capabilities offer the opportunity for the preservation and dissemination of rescued orphan films and make their availability to viewers exponentially greater.

Some orphans were historical: ghosts peering at future generations from Russia in the 1930s, from an all-girls school in China in 1931, from American battleships in 1914-1915, from farms in Jamaica during the 1950s, from a local TV station in Nicaragua during the 1980s, from workers in the Passaic Textile Strike in 1926, and from a re-creation of conflict on the Mexican border in 1914, during an ammunition smuggling mission. Home movies and “family snaps” shown by several presenters offered intimate versions of history, creating and reinforcing local, familial, or personal mythologies. A program of travelogues made by women offered amateur ethnographic studies of places as far away as India and as near as Maine. Occassionally, these tourists encountered the famous, like Mahatma Gandhi or Henri Cartier-Bresson; more often those they captured on film are historical phantoms as forgotten as the films in which they appear.

“I’m not an anarchist,” says Orson Welles in a 1955 television episode of Orson Welles’ Sketchbook, “But...” He then launches into a zany narrative, illustrated with line drawings that he makes on the spot. The biweekly broadcast, originally shot on 35mm, was surprisingly popular upon release, then fell into obscurity before its recent discovery, adoption, restoration, and screening at the conference, courtesy of Stefan Drössler and the Filmmuseum München.

In addition to television shows, experimental films can also be orphans. The Helen Hill Award commemorates the legacy of the “camera-less” filmmaker and author of the influential “film cookbooklet” Recipes for Disaster (2001) who was tragically killed in New Orleans. Wonderful, dryly humorous films made in the 1970s by Andrea Callard include a short film starring herself, some birds, a copy of the phone directory, and a National Geographic magazine. The edgy, punk sensibility of the underappreciated filmmaker Chris Langdon was on display in a program of films including Bondage Boy (1973)—and in its trailer. Based in Los Angeles, Langdon made trailers for her films which, as Mark Toscano of the Academy Film Archive explained, inject some “popcorn and soda” into the experimental works and serve “as a reminder of that world and its proximity to the avant-garde.” The trailers are little gems in their own right, enticing viewers with tag lines like, “See palm trees as you’ve never seen them before!”

Projecting a wide variety of digital and film formats to fit into the many different presentations was a herculean task, accomplished handily by a team including conservator and projectionist Katie Trainor of the Museum of Modern Art. Likewise, several top-shelf musicians were on hand to provide live musical scores for silent films, including Marty Marks and T. Griffin. It is difficult to imagine a silent film and its score more outstandingly paired than the piece that Donald Sosin created and performed to accompany the newly restored Edison film Origin of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (1909). To match the film, which tells the story of the composer’s supposed inspiration to write the piece (the name was actually given after Beethoven’s death), Sosin used a number of actual Beethoven piano works. When the film depicts Beethoven working at his desk and piano, bits of the second movement were played (and hummed). Then, while strolling down a nighttime street, the Beethoven character recognizes more of the composer’s real music—written prior to the “Moonlight Sonata”—coming from a garret apartment. The player is discovered to be an impoverished blind woman, to whom the composer wishes to convey the experience of the moonlight. In the interval within the film where he composes the piece for her, Sosin played the entire first movement of the sonata, fit precisely to the length of the shot. “It is clear that the sequence of slides was created to accompany a live or recorded performance of this piece,” Sosin explained to me. “When the film is projected at the correct speed, it would have been easy for a pianist of the time to match the screen images to his or her performance.” The subject matter of the film and the scholarship behind the piano recital integrate seamlessly.

Arguably one of the most deeply disturbing films—not only at the conference, but in recent history—isBud Pollard’s Kilroy Lives Here (1946), a stunning short that inadvertently packs all the racism of a country into just ten minutes. The line “Kilroy was here” was a ubiquitous graffiti tag popular with the American military during WWII. The film imagines the mysterious tagger, Kilroy, as a black toddler living in Alabama. In addition to a character named “Mammy” shown in the kitchen making flapjacks, it depicts a devilish little boy of about five years old eating watermelon, smoking a rolled cigarette (really), and picking cotton (yes, really).If one bright day, there is ever any doubt as to how bad racism really “wuz” in America, this filmshould clear that up in a jiffy. The Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum’s copy ofKilroy, held at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, is a testament to the callousness of African American images as recently as sixty years ago.

“Oh—it looks like a film!,” said director Edward Bland when asked by Northwestern University’s Jacqueline Stewart about the restoration of his film The Cry of Jazz(1959), another orphan which brings thorny questions about race to the fore. Framed by an interracial meeting of a jazz appreciation society in which a poised black man schools his white friends about the origins of “the musical expression of the Negro triumph of the human spirit,” the film features lines like, “Well, Faye, many years ago, after many Negros had left the inhuman South and entered the more cleverly inhuman North...” It provoked a heated response by Ralph Ellison, Nat Hentoff, and other intellectuals when it played on February 24, 1962, at Amos Vogel’s famed New York City film society, Cinema 16. The restoration was done by Anthology Film Archives, and, in an introduction, Jonas Mekas enthused, “It’s almost not saying enough to say that it’s a masterpiece.” 

The conference closed with a marathon screening that ran into the wee hours of the evening. Elaine Summers was present for her film Another Pilgrim, an experimental work incorporating dance, Central Park, and a seemingly normal church service; the film will be a religious experience for those who pray at the altar of art. Legendary collector Rick Prelinger presented the 1906 film A Trip Down Market Street [available here], a long take documenting the San Francisco boulevard from the windshield of a cable car with GoogleMaps fidelity and prescience. Stephen Parr showed Chuck & Vince: Wedding of the Year, April 9, 1978, the colorful documentation of an early gay wedding. And the filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh showed her film The Third Body (2010), which stitches together footage from a hallucinogenic religious film with early computer generated NASA video from 1980s virtual-reality tours. The two pieces connect like long lost brethren; the film is funny and gorgeous to look at, offering a gentle juxtaposition of mysterious footage from the realms of faith and science. Like the other work in the Orphan Symposium, the context in which the footage was born adds to its poignancy, and when you want to see it ten, fifteen, or twenty-five times, now it will be there.

Livia Bloom is a film curator. Her writing and interviews regularly appear in the film journals Cinema Scope, Filmmaker Magazine and Film Comment. She is the editor of the book Errol Morris: Interviews.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.