December 1, 1999

Saving Orphan Films: A South Carolina Symposium

Frame enlargement from <em>The Orphans </em>(1911, Selig Plyscope), one of three film versions of the French stage drama produced before D.W. Griffith's epic reinvention of the story for his French Revolution melodrama <em>Orphans of the Storm</em> (1921).

“The [National Film Preservation] Foundation's primary mission is to save orphan films, films without owners able to pay for their preservation. The films most at-risk are newsreels, silent films, experimental works, films out of copyright protection, significant amateur footage, documentaries, and features made outside the commercial mainstream. Orphan films are the living record of the twentieth century.”

—from Title II of the National Film Preservation Act of 1996


The ephemeral quality of motion-picture film has received considerable attention in recent years. Few media consumers today have not seen a report on the alarming number of films lost to history because of nitrate decay or on the efforts of restoration experts to save a Hollywood classic whose colors have faded to a shocking pink. With the historical retrospection brought on by the millennium, an audience well beyond the corps of professionals in film preservation has taken interest in the status of the moving image as the documentary record of the twentieth century. Fortunately, this has amounted to more than nostalgic and self-congratulatory listings of the 100 best Hollywood movies ever made. In fact, film preservation has reached a new period of meaningful application, with institutions learning not only how to save moving images but how to give historians, scholars, and filmmakers access to them.

This creative spirit was in evidence during the recent symposium, "Orphans of the Storm: Saving 'Orphan Films' in the Digital Age," hosted by the University of South Carolina. The gathering was unique for two reasons. First, the conference focused on the new governing metaphor in preservation, the so-called "orphan film," meaning that Hollywood features were de-centered for a change. Second, the symposium brought together several overlapping groups, each of whom has a strong interest in cinema as artifact, but who seldom get a chance to converge in an organized way. This was the most exciting and successful part of the orphan film project: witnessing the camaraderie, serendipity, and productive dialogue emerge as archivists, curators, producers, collectors, programmers, conservators, historians, academics, technical experts, librarians, students, museum administrators, writers, documentarians, and experimental filmmakers met for three days of intensive interaction. By all accounts, the alchemy worked. Bound by the common desire to save and use all manner of motion pictures that have been neglected by their parent culture, this eclectic group found a common language with which to talk about orphan films.

To understand how "Orphans of the Storm" happened, one needs a bit of background about the development of film preservation as a profession and project. Points of origin might include two coincidental events from 1938-39: the founding in Paris of FIAF, the International Federation of Film Archives, which remains the central organizing force for major archives; and, at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, Howard Walls' initial salvaging of thousands of rolls of pre-1912 motion pictures that had been printed on paper for copyright deposit. The conversion of these early "paper print" films to 35mm safety stock continues to this day, but their preservation and circulation since the 1950s helped spark widespread interest in the earliest generation of cinema. Seen with eyes trained by Hollywood productions, these short fragments from a forgotten past seem as often mysterious or opaque as they do documentary. No better example of their inspirational qualities can be found than in The Film of Her (1996), a poetic rendering of Walls's re-discovery of the paper rolls. Filmmaker Bill Morrison constructed this beautiful work out of fragments from the Paper Print Collection. His presentation of the film at the final "Orphans of the Storm" panel confirmed for many of us how much preservationists, historians, and film artists have in common: An appreciation for the cinematic image, both found and constructed; a desire to know the past; a zeal to protect images and the past they represent and document.

This jump cut from the 1930s to the 1990s parallels a leap forward in the preservation world itself. In the last ten years, film preservation has matured as a profession and, in the United States, as a national project. As Gregory Lukow of the UCLA Film and Television Archive pointed out in his address on day one of the symposium, the first federal legislation to deal with film preservation appeared in 1988. Other National Film Preservation Acts followed in 1992 and ’96. The first act mandated that the Librarian of Congress create a National Film Registry, identifying works of lasting value that merit special preservation initiative (not that the Congress funded any way to accomplish this). A National Film Preservation Board was created to advise the Library. And, at last, in 1996, the Congress chartered a private-sector Foundation to raise money and coordinate efforts to save endangered films. Within two years, the NFPF became a major agency in the preservation movement. In 1999, it received (from the White House's "Save America's Treasures" project) a million-dollar endowment to preserve silent-era films.

Two other major signs of growth in the ’90s were the creation of graduate schools of film preservation and the formation of a professional association. In the past year, both the George Eastman House and UCLA have begun the country's first masters-level programs to train specialists. The 1990 founding of the Association of Moving Image Archivists added what was arguably the most important momentum to preservation activity. AMIA has had almost exponential growth in its membership, bringing together a network of hundreds of video and film professionals.

The orphan film symposium was born at the University of South Carolina—home to a Newsfilm Library that includes 11 million feet of Fox Movietone newsreel outtakes—but it was nurtured by AMIA. At the organization's 1998 meeting, key people and institutions excitedly endorsed the idea of a conference devoted to the orphan phenomenon, films without owners or caretakers that are at the highest risk of disappearing. David Francis (who coined the term “orphan film” at a 1993 Congressional hearing) leant his support as head of the Library of Congress motion picture division, making it possible for South Carolina to host the Library's National Film Preservation Tour leading into the symposium. Representatives from the National Film Preservation Foundation became natural allies, since saving orphan films is a key part of their mission. Rick Prelinger immediately signed on to screen excerpts from his invaluable archive of "ephemeral films."

Finally, a new AMIA group interested in bridging the gap between archivists and academic researchers helped extend the reach of the symposium into scholarly circles. They called for more interaction between the "keepers of the frame" and those who want to study it. Members of this interest group, Paolo Cherchi-Usai of Eastman House, Jan-Christopher Horak from Universal Studios, and film historian Eric Schaefer, became featured speakers at "Orphans of the Storm."

So it was that nearly a hundred individuals convened to hear forty experts talk about what can and should be done about orphan films. The symposium commenced with two panels most directly concerned with preservation per se, one addressing the technological frontiers of the issue (digital or traditional analog?), the other tackling a definition of the orphan rubric. "In the beginning," as Paolo Cherchi-Usai reminded us in his keynote address, "all the films were orphans."

Before the standardization of film distribution around 1908, motion pictures producers "sold their children," never expecting to see them returned to their "parent" company. Rather than debunk the metaphor as a melodramatic fundraising gimmick, Cherchi-Usai hyper-extended it. Diagramming how a first-generation "mother" negative produces multi-generation prints, he clearly illustrated how a confusion of films gets created and perpetuated. Among the confounding factors, he highlighted the shifting entanglements of copyright law, warning of an impending disaster if the new standards of GATT are ever enforced. Films which have been in public domain for years could suddenly be reclaimed by descendants of long-dead filmmakers. The dutiful foster parents (archivists) would be powerless to prevent their orphaned prints from the clutches of their new legal guardians, who would exploit but not care for them. Gregory Lukow followed with an analysis of how the "politics of orphanage" have affected preservation policies. This governing metaphor, he argued, threatens to reinforce the division of labor between public and private institutions, leaving the underfunded public sector with the burden of caring for the entire "orphan library."

As for technological solutions to such big problems, the consensus of opinion was that digital formats are still no substitute for 35mm film. Tom Benjamin, a geologist [!] from Iron Mountain Film and Sound Archives, demystified the cold storage process, giving a slide lecture on how films are stored in vast, Strangelove-like bunkers and mines. Robert Heiber, a leading restoration expert, provided a brilliant demonstration of how technicians must still creatively use both digital and traditional solutions to make the best available restorations and preservation prints. And Karen Lund's demonstration of how the National Digital Library uses the oldest of paper print films on its website brought the future and past together. To make the best available digital versions of an Edison film from 1899, one must still have new 35mm prints struck.

The concluding two days of the symposium featured an eclectic mix of panels devoted to the many genres included under the orphan umbrella. We heard from specialists in newsreels, experimental cinema, African-American history, silent cinema, exploitation movies, as well as television and video. It became clear as we heard about specific projects to preserve and disseminate neglected films that the line separating those who work to save the physical artifacts from those who work to explore cinema's historical contexts and meanings is impossible to define. The enterprises are finely interwoven. The practitioners understand this and were obviously glad to have the disciplinary borders dissolved.

The emblematic moments from the symposium, therefore, are not best reported with an account of the many superb individual presentations. Rather it was the unexpected interchanges. Robert Haller of Anthology Film Archives, to take just one example, screened Project Apollo (1968), a provocative experimental documentary by the late Ed Emshwiller.

Working with the Emshwiller estate, Haller has been able to document the film's uses by its filmmaker, but had been interested to learn more about its existence as a project for the US Information Agency (making it eligible only for overseas distribution until a change in the law in 1990). With National Archives veteran Bill Murphy on hand to respond to Haller's presentation, the symposium was treated to a new avenue of understanding about the 11,000 films made for the USIA, most of which are available in the Washington archive. Far from being only a repository of government propaganda films, the collection also includes works by some of America's most innovative documentarians, who George Stevens Jr. commissioned when he directed the USIA film office.

Ultimately, it was this return to the moving image on the screen that animated the three days of dialogue. Even after hearing about the physical properties of celluloid and the pragmatics of preservation, one can still believe that film has an aura—at least when properly re-animated. Rick Prelinger presented an amazing trio of "industrial musicals" and "heartland noir" from his archive of ephemeral films, while Joe Lauro of Historic Films curated an ingenious hour of early sound films that constituted a celebration of American music nearly lost to history. Nico de Klerk of the Netherlands Filmmuseum curated a entertaining collection of theatrical shorts from the 1930s that reminded us of how many genres and films have been neglected because they fall outside of the feature-length format.

The symposium was made complete by the filmmakers who—like Bill Morrison did in The Film of Her—take orphaned material and fashion it into new works of art. As is evident in their films, they too are archivists, historians, and preservationists. Carolyn Faber, a full-time archivist at the WPA Film Library, showed Iota (1998), in which she used an optical printer to transform a found home movie fragment into an abstract, impressionist canvas.

From the field of documentary, Alan Berliner and Péter Forgács both presented short films which might be dubbed "experimental" and followed them with innovative documentary features which are both personal and historical. Berliner's early shorts, such as City Edition (1980) use his collection of found sounds and images to construct interesting and funny strings of montage. With The Family Album (1982) his work deepened in theme, weaving together anonymous black-and-white home movies around family rituals of birth, marriage, death, and rebirth. But it was his recent masterpiece, Nobody's Business (1996), with which he ended.

The film uses its found footage for comic counterpoint to the touching mix of Berliner's own 8mm home movies and original interviews shot of his father, who resists the documentary project at every turn. The work of Hungarian artist Péter Forgács made a fitting and elegiac conclusion to the symposium. Having established the Private Film and Photo Foundation in Budapest in the 1980s, Forgács has made a lasting contribution to film archiving, social history, and cinema aesthetics. He has amassed an important collection of home movies and amateur films shot in central and eastern Europe from the 1920s through the Cold War era. The "video opera" which ended the program, The Maelstrom (1997), is an hour-long episode from the series of "private" films he continues to produce. Providing enough historical context to make the original home movies "legible," Forgács re-animates the footage with creative embellishments: freeze frames, ghostly dissolves, slow motion, and graphics. Ethereal, minimalist soundtracks bring out the ghosts in the images. The effect is both beautiful and devastating. These are the ultimate orphan films—home movies of a family destined for Nazi death camps.

The orphan film symposium proved a rewarding exploration of the unmined riches that lay beyond the Hollywood vaults. The orphan rubric takes in a diversity of films and film experiences that require much further study. Further mutual excavations by archivists, filmmakers, scholars, and others in the preservation community are obviously in order. Toward that end, the University of South Carolina has committed to hosting another such symposium in the spring of 2001.


Dan Streible is assistant professor of film studies at the University of South Carolina and organizer of "Orphans of the Storm." Write to,or visit