Crate Digging: The Orphan Film Symposium

When the Orphan Film Symposium assembles in April for its seventh biennial meeting, it will review more than 40 hours of footage over the course of four days. The OFS plays host to films and videos that have lost their contextual home: newsreel outtakes, educational and industrial films, experimental shorts, home movies, fragments, and other strings of image and sound that defy even the most obsessive taxonomy. The selection shown last weekend at Union Docs was necessarily incomplete, a small survey of the available material. The “Oprhans” label was coined by film archivists to describe works with an ambiguous copyright status. Prints often turn up in archives with no indication as to who owns the rights. More often than not these films languish in the vaults, because even if someone is interested in paying to have it restored, they would be reluctant to invest the money without a clear permission from the rights holder. When Dan Streible started the symposium 10 years ago at the University of South Carolina, he expanded the definition to include any movie that has suffered some form of neglect; films that badly needed restoration, or had, for whatever reason, gone undistributed. Alongside the vernacular and specialty genres huddled under the ‘orphans’ umbrella, Streibble could add things like a once-aired East German tv interview with filmmaker Emile de Antonio, and Helen Hill’s animated shorts, which were left without representation after her murder in 2007.

Saturday night’s show, curated by critic Cullen Gallagher, was devoted to Robbins Barstow. Since the mid-1930s, Barstow has produced almost every variety of amateur film you could imagine, projecting them on jury-rigged screens for friends and family around Hartford, and providing live narration. In the early 90s, Barstow began transferring his 16mm projects to video, and committing his road-tested voiceovers to tape. He has risen to some degree of prominence over the past few years within the amateur film community, screening his work at Home Movie Day, and on the internet, by making a selection of his films available on The Library of Congress added his 1956 Disneyland Dream to the National Film Registry in 2008. The film is an account of the Barstow family’s contest-won trip to Disneyland. Mixing his travel footage with staged reenactments and voiceover commentary, Barstow documented his family for a mass audience that did not materialize until more than 50 years after the fact. Animated by his enthusiastic small-gauge aesthetic and lively, Jean Shepardish voice, Purchase Disneyland Dream is an authentic articulation of the kind of upbeat 1950s nuclear family that has elsewhere been hollowed out by pastiche and parody. Barstow honed his craftsmanship through decades of microproductions, but his particular sensibility and talents are apparent from his first narrative film, Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge (1936). Made when he was 16, and starring his brothers and neighborhood friends, Barstow’s Tarzan variation makes tangible all the excitement and vigor that went into its production. Gallagher’s lineup also included Order Youth and the Future, an earnest but lighthearted response to FDR’s ‘Four Freedoms” speech that Barstow made with settlement house teenagers in 1943, and a recent making-of video companion to Disneyland Dream, whose stiff editing and strange compositions suggest that film is really Barstow’s medium.

Apart from their naive charms, Barstow’s films provide a unique visual trace of vanished milieux; Disneyland in its first year of operation, 1940s Chelsea, the growing Connecticut suburbs. Places such as these may be present in big budget movies shot on location, but their details are usually obscured by the dictates of story and star. Over the weekend, Streible remarked that one of the things that drew him to orphan films was their “documentary evidence of place and time”. He exercised that appeal on Sunday’s show, organizing the program around the idea of oprhan as documentary. The nine films he screened surveyed more than a century’s worth of such evidence taken around the world. Newsreel outtakes comprise a sizable fraction of orphaned material, and it is largely thanks to such footage that Streible’s program had the temporal and geographic range it did; from the front of the Spanish Civil War with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to downtown New York’s old Radio Row. Seeing these images removed from their original current events or human interest context gives them a sort of avant-garde diffidence, their silent repetitions taking on a structural gravity. Another highlight was trilogy of propaganda films James Blue made for the US Information Agency to promote the Alliance for Progress overseas. In narrating each of the pieces, all shot in Colombia, Blue attempts to undercut any imperialist strain carried by the project by emphasizing the work being done by Colombians themselves. While he doesn’t entirely avoid the tones of noble savage paternalism, Stevan Larner’s photography earns Blue’s claims to humanism, his dense grayscale detailing the faces of the Colombian cast, and capturing the landscape in all its particularity. Sunday Order , directed by Blue’s contemporary Dan Drasin in 1961, begins with idyllic scenes of a weekend morning at the park before narrowing on its real subject: a demonstration by neighborhood Folk singers and admirers protesting the denial of their request to perform in the park. For a while it seems like a quaint portrait of the incipient counterculture on the cusp of being radicalized, but things suddenly turn ugly when the police officers who were initially just gruff and dismissive begin pushing and fighting with the crowd of upright, mostly white, middle-class folkies. Streible pointed out that Drasin’s film served as a template for many of the brash, partisan protest movies that became so common later in the decade. When the outsized brutality of the police response here puts an ironic, angry spin on the complacent serenity of Sunday‘s opening, it is easy to how Drasin’s work echoes in later portrayals of Vietnam demonstrations, and student takeovers.

The risk of Streible’s broadmindedness is that it could make the ‘orphans’ category so wide as to be meaningless from any standpoint other than the archivist’s. While these films should certainly be restored and made available, there’s something essentially quixotic about the enterprise. “Orphan films” is capacious enough a definition to include every errant scrap of celluloid or bit of scanline. It is the same problem faced by the descriptive linguist intent on accounting for every last speech act: given a finite amount of time, it is neither possible nor desirable to will away judgment or exclusion. During one of his introductions, Streible said that his early experiences combing through archives taught him how little he knew about film history. But are we really talking about the same history? Can we compare overexposed turn-of-the-century surgery footage and The Rules of the Game on even broadly similar grounds? Streible’s strong, varied program suggests that we can. He chances incoherence in the service of a richer understanding of the medium, and a denser historical purview. Documentary, far more than fiction, is greater than the sum of its parts. Almost of all of the films screened this weekend are interesting in their own right — not just out of archaeological obligation, they are entertaining and engaging for even a casual viewer — but they are most exciting when they begin to fill the gaps in both our filmed history and our history of film. Streible gives us access to spaces we have never seen and genres whose existence we were only dimly aware of; he expands and deepens our understanding of the documentary tradition, stimulating our sense of possibility in each of its instances. The eccentricities of the Orphan Film Symposium do not unravel our ability to discuss the form, they make the conversation worthwhile. Cheap