One of the best things about last week’s Orphan Film Symposium (Orphans 7) (and there are a lot of good things to report) was the opportunity it afforded to learn about such a wide variety of preservation projects, discoveries, and scholarly endeavors involving orphan films. In my Pordenone collegium paper (which I am currently revising), I focus on the importance of documenting the collaborative process between archives, scholars, and other institutional entities in film preservation projects. Orphans facilitates such dialogues, drawing together a range of participants with varying interests. To convene an event around the unifying metaphor of the orphan is a fascinating organizing principle. A dynamic concept, some orphan films can be classified in multiple ways, while others would easily vanish from historical record if the term and its supportive community were not there to recognize and recuperate them.
Particularly at a time of rapidly-changing media formats, the possibility of losing materials, or of prematurely investing faith and optimism in yet-unproven forms looms large. Jennifer Blaylock (in NYU’s MIAP program) compellingly (and critically) addressed the optimism associated with digitization efforts across cultural lines, astutely pointing out that well-funded digitization projects often host videos on US-based servers (and that funding follows the materials). She also raised the issue of dramatically uneven internet access across the world, pointing out that Ghana’s digitally-preserved audiovisual heritage is not actually available to the majority of Ghanians.
Simultaneously, however, this symposium’s “Around the World” theme permitted a kind of revelry in the complex circulation of films that might be classified as Orphans. While certainly not parentless in the traditional sense, the Star films of Georges Melies that Matthew Solomon of CUNY Staten Island discussed were nevertheless cast as far more mobile and enduring, given Solomon’s efforts to track their continued presence in a variety of forms. The screening of Rip’s Dream (1905), accompanied by Solomon’s translation of the original spoken narrative, added tremendously to the experience. The spotlighting of several women’s amateur travel films from the first half of the twentieth century continued in this celebration of mobility, offering views of other times and places from perspectives that we rarely get to see.
Orphan films represent a broad and eclectic array of audiovisual experiences, and while it can be argued that many of them hold tremendous historical, cultural, and social significance, many of them are also just pleasurable to watch and could be considered save-able by virtue of their beauty alone. My favorites included the fragment of Helen Hill’s last film, The Florestine Collection (2010), Jodie Mack and Danielle Ash’s animations (Pickles for Nickels, 2009 and Yard Work is Hard Work, 2008, respectively) and a newly re-scored A Trip Down Market Street (1906), which never fails to enthrall me. While I’m on a kick about superlatives, perhaps my very favorite was Rudolf Pfenninger’s Tönende Handschrift: das Wunder des gezeichneten Tones (1932), introduced by Stefan Drößler of the Filmmuseum München. I’d read about it but never expected I’d get to see it, and it was really great.
Read all about the terrific symposium here. I already eagerly anticipate Orphans 2012.