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2008 Orphan Film Symposium: Preserving Our Cultural Past

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2008 Orphan Film Symposium: Preserving Our Cultural Past

When I first read about orphan films, in an email newsletter from Thom Powers, what caught my eye was not so much the orphans as their foster dad. Dan Streible was a good friend of mine in film school but we’d lost touch in recent years. He was teaching film history in South Carolina last I knew, but he’s in the city now, teaching in NYU’s cinema studies department—and he brought his orphan film symposium with him.

Orphans are neglected films. Many are not under copyright, or their copyright status isn’t clear. That covers a tremendous amount of ground, of course, and that seems to be the point: Dan and his fellow “orphanistas” find and preserve newsreels, educational and propaganda films, home movies by gifted amateurs, personal movies too quirky or short to ever be shown commercially, and more. They love movies, but they’re also working the same vein as the historians who archive old diaries, newspapers, and other documents of daily life: They’re studying shards from our cultural past.

The symposium’s been meeting every two years for about a decade—the one that just ran at NYU’s Cantor Film Center, from March 26 through 29, was Orphans 6. Like its founder, it’s academically rigorous without being too wonky, catholic and often quirky in its tastes, and welcoming in a good-humored, open-minded sort of way. Most of the people it attracts are filmmakers, archivists, or academics, but it also attracts one-offs who are passionate about film preservation—people like ur-accompanist Dennis James, who supplied historically appropriate soundtracks for several of the silent films that were shown and stuck around to watch all the other movies.

Ah yes, the movies. Our Day was a smartly self-amused, beautifully shot home movie of a Brahman family in Depression-era Kentucky acting out their “typical” day. “Back by popular demand,” Ro-Revus Talks about Worms was a creepily campy 1971 educational short that warns against the dangers of parasitic worms. It got big laughs in Orphans 5—and 6. And then there was a pair of gorgeous films by Naomi Uman, one about life on a dairy farm in Mexico and the other about the changing seasons in the Ukraine.

Uman, who won one of the symposium’s first two Helen Hill prizes in honor of “independent filmmakers whose work embodies the spirit and creativity of the late animator Helen Hill,” is a truly independent spirit, a lively woman with funky shoes and a sanguine companion dog who spent the symposium in her lap or her tote bag. “Landscape with content is sort of where I start,” she said in a Q and A between her two screenings.

“I probably shouldn’t say this,” Uman told me afterward, but she sees her films as a way to get grants, making movies to live rather than the other way around. What counts, for her, is the journey.

In a nice little bit of poetic justice, Uman’s lack of careerism actually seems to make her work better, since the time she spends immersing herself in a particular place and community enriches her films. Her intensely personal portraits of a particular place and the people and animals who live there have the same relationship to standard documentary that a bouillon cube has to a Lipton Cup O’ Soup. Kalendar, an exuberantly color-saturated work-in-progress that she showed at the symposium, was shot in the Ukraine simply because that’s where she’s living at the moment, in a small town she picked in order to experience life as an immigrant (Uman was born in the U.S., though her family came from the Ukraine). She has shot only about two hours of film during her two years there, but she’s creating four movies from those two hours.

The orphan film world is a pretty small one. Most of the people at the symposium are part of a network of crisscrossing professional connections and friendships (Uman knew Helen Hill, for example, though the people who gave her the award didn’t know that at the time). Dan limits attendance to just 300, and the spots sold out early this year, most of them going to people who’ve attended past symposia.

The full-immersion experience also fosters a sense of community, as the group gathers from 9 in the morning to 11 or so at night, and heads out for lunch and dinner in a series of small clumps.

The result is a lighthearted, mutually supportive, DIY vibe, like a Michel Gondry film come to life, or an extended family whose members genuinely like one another. Come to think of it, it’s a lot like the people in Our Day, who gathered at the end of the day in that pre-TV era to create their own fun, playing piano, card games, and croquet.

Each symposium has a theme. This year’s was The State, so there were a lot of movies about war. If My Country Should Call, a propagandistic 1916 melodrama, trumpets the story of a mother who tries to protect her gung-ho son from going to war before she comes to her senses. La Venganza de Pancho Villa, an examination of the great rebel leader made from film assembled—and, in a few cases, shot—by a Mexican film exhibitor and one of his sons, is a fascinatingly ambiguous portrait of Villa and his men, though it’s not clear whether the contradictions stem from the filmmakers’ point of view or just the limitations of working with footage from many different sources.

Nos Maisons d’Enfants is a 1949 film produced by the Jewish Labor Committee “before the holocaust became the Holocaust, capital H,” as archivist Gail Malmgreen noted in her introduction. The JLC made it to show its members how their contributions were being used to house children who survived the Holocaust—including the young Marcel Marceau—in a French orphanage.

Lana Turner Fries a Steak, which was about just what it sounds like, is a charming short made by the U.S Army Signal Corps as part of its Command Performance series, short films in which civilians fulfilled requests made by U.S. military men serving in WWII.

One of the symposium’s highlights was a newly restored print of the film that Sam Fuller called his first, V—E+1 May 9, 1945 (at right: Fuller’s widow, Christa, shows the 16mm Bell & Howell camera he used to shoot V—E+1). Beautifully composed and paced, the 22-minute film documents what the young soldier saw after his unit liberated the Falkenau concentration camp. People from the nearby town had claimed not to know what was going on at the camp, although, as Fuller’s panoramic pans clearly establish, they could not have failed to see it. To make them come to terms with their complicity in the Nazis’ crimes, Fuller’s commanding officer ordered the townspeople to bury the emaciated corpses his men found at the camp. Fuller’s magisterial film documents the process as the townspeople gingerly clothe the bodies, load them onto covered wagons, and pull them through the town to bury them in a mass grave.

V—E+1 was never screened commercially, since Fuller didn’t want to release it. But as long as my memory continues to function, I’m sure I’ll never forget it. No wonder these orphanistas keep coming back for more.

Elise Nakhnikian is a contributor to Time OFF.