By Gary M. Kramer
The lovingly made documentary Saving Brinton, which received its World Premiere at the recent AFI DOCS festival, introduces viewers to Michael Zahs, an Iowa man who found a treasure trove of old films exhibited by Frank and Indiana Brinton in his Washington County basement next to a coal-stoking furnace. After trying for 32 years to convince someone of the films’ value, his efforts were recognized — and appreciated — by folks at the University of Iowa as well as film historians, like Serge Bromberg in Paris.
Zahs’ collection included a rare George Méliès film, The Triple-Headed Lady, which is considered a miracle given how many Méliès’s films have been destroyed over the past century. Saving Brinton shows how Zahs tirelessly worked to support the exhibition of his “found” films.
Co-director Andrew Sherburne, who runs FilmScene, a non-profit cinema in Iowa City, and the documentary’s Director of Photography, John Richard, spent three and a half years to make Saving Brinton. They talked about telling Michael Zahs’s story, and what they discovered chronicling this man and his buried treasure.
How did you learn about Michael and his films and how long did it take to make Saving Brinton?
Sherburne: We’re based in Iowa City, and Mike’s just about 15-20 miles south of us. He’d been doing these shows in small towns in rural Iowa for 15, 16 years. Word spread out to where we live. A mutual friend tipped us off that there was this guy down in Washington County who has this amazing collection of films he found in his basement and we should go check it out. We went down and met Mike and saw one of his shows and it was clear from the very beginning, he was the real treasure.
Richard: Being from Iowa, a lot of my friends who were into film have moved to the coast, so those of us who have stayed, people who have ideas for films, or especially characters who would be good subjects for documentaries, filter down to us.
What is the appeal of films about films and filmmakers?
Sherburne: As a documentarian, I was fascinated by these old films myself. What has changed and what has stayed the same over a century? Looking at them — they call them “actualities” from 110 years ago, I love that you can still see the filmmaker’s sense of wonder. They are very simple films, but the way they are taking in the world with the intention of bringing it to other audiences was cool to see: the same sense of wonder and purpose we have in our filmmaking really hasn’t changed at all.
Richards: One thing I was interested in was how today we are saturated with moving imagery, and moving towards more immersive virtual reality experiences. We can imagine long ago, before there were photographs or movies, what that first moment was like when people came off the farm, and were put in a darkened room and shown places around the world and saw magic tricks that they had no idea how they worked. What was it like to be transported into another place they way that books and still photographs can’t really do?
How did you identify with Michael? He comes across as very aw shucks, and self- deprecating. “I didn’t create anything. I just had a good shed.” What made you need to tell his story?
Sherburne: He does have this authenticity and humility. He is such an earnest person. His love for history and community really stood out to me. There is a sense of community that is really strong in Iowa, and this sense of caring for legacy, both what’s come before us, and what’s going to come after us. Mike personifies that, and the lengths he’ll go to to make sure that that endures was something I was really drawn to.
Richard: He doesn’t have a cell phone, or a computer, or a credit card for that matter. He was sitting under a tree for 45 minutes with his own thoughts. It’s not a big deal, but it’s so rare these days that someone can be completely comfortable in his own mind, living at that pace.
Michael Zahs likes to save things. He says he’s a saver, not a collector. Do you share that quality?
Richard: No, I’m a minimalist.
Sherburne: Oddly, so am I. I’m not precious about newspaper clippings.
Richard: I collect anecdotes, and photographs, and I like old things. I have objects that have no real value, but are precious to me in my life. Mike is obviously the extreme of that. In the opening scene, he talks about a cat that came to his house and multiplied, or that the gazebo came back, and then…. It’s a cycle where he’s become the person in the community, that if anyone is on the border on whether they should throw something away, they should give it to Mike.
Sherburne: Because I’m not a pack rat, I was that much more appreciative of the work Mike has done to preserve that. I do value history and I love legacy…being able to hear these stories and know these things from the past. Without people who are so dedicated, it wouldn’t survive.
Richard: We were a little reticent to show scenes in his house. People asked if he was a hoarder. I really don’t think he is. It’s more a matter that he has so many collections and not enough room for them.
Sherburne: I don’t think he’s a hoarder either. He’s saving things to share with other people. He takes them out to the community and does multiple presentations a week. It’s the community’s collection. It just happens to live with him.
Richard: A lot of the objects he has, he would say, that there’s very little difference between priceless and worthless. What makes that difference is a person that is able to create a story around the object.
Sherburne: A cracker-holer putter-inner would be pretty worthless if you couldn’t tell what it was used for.
He is also described as a bit of a Don Quixote in that he battled for 32 years to make his treasure known. Can you talk about that aspect of his work? Why did it take so long for someone to acknowledge his treasure?
Richard: part of it is his humility. When he was trying to get people to understand, I don’t think he made too many phone calls or sent too many emails
Sherburne: He was looking for someone who had a little more expertise than he did to know what to do with it. People had saved this collection in various forms for decades. First Frank Brinton’s wife for 30 years, then their neighbor for 30 years, and then Mike got it and he had it for 30 years. There’s kind of this progression. People understood the value but still didn’t know what to do with this collection. Mike was looking for that one extra bit of help to identify what is this and what is its significance.
Richard: As [Mike] says in our film, the movie Hugo brought consciousness back to some of those early silent films.
What was your reaction to seeing the films and multimedia shows Michael screened?
Sherburne: I was blown away. What was really took me was the fact that Mike’s films had been copied and assembled on to larger reels, so it was an hour of films all back to back. They would play straight through. Because they were silents, and he hadn’t any music behind them, he talked the entire time. I was struck by his humor as well as his way of educating people with these amazing observations about the films and the filmmaking and the people in the films. It was fascinating what he picked up on. I think about how shots are composed, the cinematic qualities, but Mike is observing life as it’s portrayed on screen 100 years ago. He sees the saddles on the horses are the right kinds of saddles.
Richard: He’s almost a stand-up comedian. He has a strong voice—the way he speaks, and his sense of humor—he can read an audience and work a room.
Sherburne: He’s a campfire storyteller. The way he can spin a yarn and build a world inside your head is something magical and rare.
Saving Brinton is very rooted in Iowa and the local culture. Can you discuss this aspect of the film?
Richard: In my mind, there’s so much more to Iowa than we display in the film. We wanted to show the Iowa Mike knows, which is rooted in a particular rural Iowa community. It’s a part of Iowa that is important and unique.
Sherburne: When people dismiss Iowa as a flyover state, they say that there are more pigs than people, so we wanted to build Iowa and these people up. What is something really special about those communities, and that pace of living that you don’t get in a lot of places in the U.S. When we think about cultural hotspots in America, we think of New York, or San Francisco, or L.A., but the particular kind of culture that exists, that Mike has built, you can’t get that anywhere else because it’s so deeply rooted in community.
Richard: There definitely were some people in the community who thought he was weird, but that was part of his connection to the Brintons. In these rural communities, you are insulated from some ideas. As conservative as Mike was in some ways, he was also very open-minded.
Sherburne: Like Frank Brinton, he was fascinated by the world. He was open to new ideas and different kinds of people
Richard: He eschews modern technology. He keeps his cell phone off until he needs to make a call. But he’s fascinated by this turn of the century technology like other people are excited about the new iPhone.
You have scene of Michael caring for his mom, and teaching/presenting but few with his wife. Can you talk about how you presented him and why you showed what you did?
Richard: She forbid Mike…she didn’t want us to film at their house. We had to do it while she was at work.
Sherburne: She’s protective of Mike, and rightfully worried about how all this would be portrayed. The first day I met Mike, for him to take us in—he was truthful—no other people had been in that room. He recognized our interest and he felt a kinship and was willing to trust us and bring us into that house. Julie was a little skeptical in the beginning. For Mike, this validated his work for so long.
What will happen with the collection? Will it go to the university of Iowa or The Library of Congress?
Richard: He’s gifted it to the University of Iowa, but it won’t fully transfer until he passes away.
Sherburne: The Library of Congress has all the original nitrates in their nitrate vaults now and what Mike has now are both 16mm and 35mm copies of the films as well as been high-resolution digital copies that were scanned.