Timing is everything. One week in 1981 after history teacher Michael Zahs got married he filled up a whole room in his house in Washington, Iowa with two truckloads of silent movies and equipment from the late 1890s and early 1900s that once belonged to Frank and Indiana Brinton.
The Brintons were also local residents who had travelled throughout the Midwest showing films from, among others, the Lumiere Brothers, Georges Melies and Thomas Edison’s studio. The films and equipment had been languishing in a basement since the Brintons has died, and Zahs spent the next 32 years unsuccessfully trying to persuade anyone to take an interest in this treasure trove of cinematic history.
This new documentary co-directed by Tommy Haines, and Andrew Sherburne is the story of how eventually academics and historians at the University of Iowa embraced the unique collection of some 8000 pieces of films and memorabilia, but also it is very much a profile of the disarmingly affable Zahs and his lifelong predilection for ‘saving’ old things.
As the film historians making up for lost time, discover that the Brinton’s collection contains many hidden gems that they thought had been lost for good, and so they can hardly contain their excitement. Now after years of being ignored, Zahs and the films are being feted around the world and Festivals are lining up to honour him.
Zahs is a charismatic figure and his passion for the project never ever wanes and now retired from teaching, he is genuinely happy sharing his knowledge with anyone and everyone in his small Midwest town who will listen. In fact, there is one scene where he is being interviewed by a far-from-enthusiastic local newspaper reporter who cannot get away fast enough leaving Zahs bewildered that the man obviously didn’t share his passion.
The movie is a sheer delight for both cinephiles and historians alike and it introduces this whole golden era of silent movies to brand new generations. And as Zahs constantly reminds us throughout the documentary, his story serves as a fine example that one should never give up on a project that you are passionate about. Even it takes everybody else 32 years to catch on.