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Orphan Films: Mining Lost Movies in NYC

Orphan Films: Mining Lost Movies in NYC

When the new print of “Metropolis,” thirty minutes longer than the one you can get now on DVD, was found in Argentina, film archivists made it into headlines. This weekend, at the Orphans Film Symposium at the SVA Theatre in New York City, the Argentinean archivist behind that project, Paula Felix-Didier (whom symposium organizer Dan Streible called the most famous archivist in the world due to the last two years’ events) took the stage to present films from her collection at the Museo del Cine Pablo C. Ducros Hicken. The new “Metropolis” footage was not a part of this presentation. Instead, Felix-Didier presented footage she just discovered of an urban uprising in Cordoba in the late 60’s. Uncut but presumably filmed for a polemical documentary, the footage showed storefronts broken, streets at a standstill with wreckage strewn all over. But all was not doom and gloom, for she then showed several recently restored films representative of Argentina’s illustrious animation industry.

The Orphans Symposium, an event that is organized every two years, is organized around the idea of orphan films, films thought long gone from the depths of history. Orphan films can also be those which never made into the pages of history but which, when found, shed new light on film, cultural, political, or personal history.

The 2010 symposium’s theme, Moving Pictures Around the World, provided an avenue for advocates for particular collections around the world to talk about the struggles of rescuing films from looming decay and death in countries and collections that do not have the means to store films properly, much less convert deteriorating films to new film rolls or digital formats. Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress offered the suggestion that archivists need to be film mules in order to save footage that could be prevented from being saved due to government bureaucracies and strict customs rules. In addition to films from Argentina, films important to the film history of Zimbabwe, Ghana, Georgia, Taiwan, the former Czechoslovakia, and more were shown.

Holes in American film history were also filled throughout the week. Introducing a new print and showing off copies of the marked-up shooting script, film historian Charles Musser choked up when introducing the truly delightful 1948 Union Films parodic Cold War musical short, “The Investigators.” With members of the filmmakers’ families in the audience, Musser teared up as he spoke of the filmmakers’ troubles as victims of the Red Scare.

Introduced as a film whose screenings inspired shouting and police response, Edward Bland’s 1959 Anthology Film Archive-restored “The Cry of Jazz” was screened for the enthused crowd. The Chicago-based film, brazen for its time, shows white women exchange erotic glances and conversation with black men. The group debate the death of jazz, as a form that had come to its culminating point as an art form by 1959. In conversation with Jacqueline Stewart, a historian of Black film culture, Bland recounted the reaction of novelist Ralph Ellison to the film. Respectfully denying Ellison’s claimed musical knowledge and slamming Ellison’s music-based critique of the film, Bland defended his film’s observation of the sad state of jazz in late 1950’s America and implied that he discovered hip-hop.

Other highlights from the archives include a Spanish Civil War fundraising film directed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, a program of American experimental student films from Chris Langdon and Manuel DeLanda, the home movies of film theorist Thomas Elsaesser, a 1946 Czech driving safety film, the “ruined” nitrate film art of Bill Morrison (explored here by indieWIRE’s Eric Kohn), and a bizarre Viennese film in which the owner of a laundry convinced a woman to use his services.

But Orphans is not all about lost-and-found films. Celebrating the life of New Orleans-based animator Helen Hill, who was tragically killed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the symposium honors select filmmakers every two years for their innovative work in animation. This year, two young women from the Northeast took home Helen Hill awards for their work. Danielle Ash and Jodie Mack, both animators showed off works of animated recycled material (cardboard and magazine images, respectively). The two women, both educators inspired by the work of Helen Hill, spoke of the importance of spreading the DIY spirit and aesthetic. As representative of the body of artists, filmmakers, whose work so many in the audience work to preserve, Ash and Mack were grateful, energetic, and inspiring. After screening Ash’s ode to Lower East Side gentrification “Pickles for Nickels” and Mack’s marital woes musical, “Yardwork is Hard Work.” Hill’s widower showed off a film he was working on about a New Orleans amateur dressmaker whose handmade dresses his wife had discovered shortly before her death.

Following organizer Dan Streible’s move to New York several years ago, the festival moved from Columbia, South Carolina two years ago. While Orphans 2012’s location remains to be solidified, archivists will continue to search their shelves and preservationists will continue to save their newfound gems. And in the next few years, issues of digital preservation will become ever more prescient. As preservationists made pristine prints of films sometimes more than 100 years old, Rebecca Baron and Doublas Goodwin made a series of short films by compressing footage from John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Busby Berkeley’s dance sequences. Beauty is in the lost data in these films, but the dancing blocks of similarly shaded pixels remind us of the changing world we live in, one in which the bittorrent sharer may preserve future film history. The game is surely changing, but no matter what methods are used, the consensus remains that films are still worth saving.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Bryce Renninger, an indieWIRE contributor in the New York office, is also the shorts programmer for Newfest and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Media Studies at Rutgers University. He can be reached via Twitter.

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