Loosely defined as “all manner of films outside of the commercial mainstream”, orphan works include educational, ethnographic, government, experimental, student, newsreels, industrial, censored, unreleased and pretty much any sort of film that through the passage of time has lost its original provenance. Moving Pictures Around the World”, the 7th Orphans biennial, was hosted by New York University’s Department of Cinema Studies. It  took place 7-10 April 2010 and saw an impressive list of international archivists, academics, curators, collectors, filmmakers and preservationists come together to celebrate these often neglected gems.

The schedule was jam-packed and each of the intense three days ran well over 13 hours. Convener Dan Streible (of New York University) did a remarkable job of locating and squeezing in a diverse set of presenters (almost all of whom showed examples of the films they had uncovered), clearly demonstrating the breadth of this category of moving image history. Overall as a first time “orphanista” I found the schedule gruelling and would have appreciated some extra time to both savour the moments of genuine awe and surprise, or to question some of the claims of lost genius and/or contemporary relevance made by many of the presenters. There seemed to be some sort of implicit acceptance floating around that all films are worthy of re-discovery and deserving of introduction (or re-introduction as the case maybe) to the cannon – yet there was little time to explore this notion in any real depth.

However this is a minor quibble and there were a number of enlightening, joyful and moving moments. The first morning centred around the high order issues of the repatriation of films between national archives and the lengths that some archivists must go to in order to preserve our cultural memory. Paolo Cherchi Usai (formally National Film & Sound Archive of Australia, now Haghefilm Foundation) presented perhaps the most “intellectual” paper of the symposium. Pointing out that there are differences in how repatriation is conceived and practiced between museums, libraries and art galleries (where it is often the result of past injustices), he convincingly argued that nationality is not necessarily a criteria for repatriation within the moving image archive. Suggesting a best practice model for repatriation he argued that a well-articulated collection policy should be at the heart of this process. Vanessa Toulmin (National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield) followed with a horror story (with a happy ending) of the process of repatriating some of the earliest Edison films and the underground network required to make sure the work literally did not disappear before negotiations could be completed. The National Film and Sound Archive was also represented by Meg Labrum as the discussion of repatriation was made real via the Film Connection project.

Another session that I found particularly interesting was titled “Women Amateur Filmmakers Travel”, where my conference buddy (& fellow antipodean) Kathy Dudding revived the excellent paper she presented at the last Film and History conference in Dunedin – Tracing the Flaneuse: New Zealand/Aotearoa. Melissa Dollman (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute) also presented some fascinating home movie footage of missionary Margaret Cook Thomson’s time in China – demonstrating an all together more complex view of the ‘colonialist’ imperative.

I was personally very excited to witness Jonas Mekas introduce as “a work of genius” the recently restored and utterly mesmerizing Edward Bland film The Cry of Jazz (1959). Filmed in the deeply segregated south-side of Chicago the film’s unapologetic polemic politics resonated deeply with the audience – particularly in light of Obama’s assent. Also on the bill that session was Andy Warhol’s Uptight # 3 – David Susskind (1966) presented by adjunct curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum of Art, Callie Angell, and remnants of The Velvet Underground Rehearsals (1965) as unearthed by Esther B. Robinson through the Danny Williams Film Preservation Project. We were also treated to a hilarious episode of community television from 1967 where Warhol teases a very straight reporter curious about the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. It was therefore very sad to receive a recent email from the organisers informing us of the passing of Callie Angell.

Perhaps the most intriguing session was when well-known film scholar Thomas Elsaesser (Amsterdam/Yale) presented some of his own family’s home movie footage. In a carefully crafted presentation Elsaesser meticulously unpacked what on the surface seems like typical family celebrations and representations of “everyday” work and weaves a complex set of interrelationships and intersections with a number of major world events. Seemingly innocent and benign footage becomes poignant portrayals of people trying their best to maintain everyday rituals as the world around them explodes into evil.  Tangentially linked to these themes was the powerful (and final presentation of the symposium) by Bill Morrison, “The Around the World Travel Diary of Mr. and Mrs. Felix M. Warburg and James H. Becker” (1927). Again, in a beautifully crafted presentation, Morrison cleverly reveals the importance of the moving footage shot by his grandfather James Becker as he travelled with the Warburgs through Jewish refugee camps in Eastern Europe between the wars. Although a somewhat sad note on which to end the symposium it was in fact a perfect way to remind us of the importance to the world’s collective memory banks of “orphan” works.

Orphan Film Symposium
7-10 April 2010
Festival website: http://www.nyu.edu/orphanfilm/orphans7/

About The Author

Rachel Wilson teaches media production and research in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University. She attended Orphans 7 as part of her PhD research to establish an online digital archive for student films produced in Australian Universities.