High school, zombies & musicals: Anna and the Apocalypse

Anna and the Apocalypse,
Directed by John McPhail,
Starring Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Ben Wiggins, Marli Siu

High school. Zombies. Hard to tell sometimes which is more horrific. Add Christmas concert, overbearingly strict new headmaster, boyfriend troubles, arguments with parents, worrying about what you’ll do with your future plus a zombie apocalypse and set much of it to music and you have Anna and the Apocalypse.

I’m sure I’m not alone in loving Once More, With Feeling, the musical episode of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer; it was one of those episodes that, on paper, sounded like a terrible idea that would fall flat, but actually it was enormous fun and also moved on the story arc and character developments. There’s a lot of Once More, With Feeling in Anna’s DNA, and a touch of those wickedly satirical musical episodes of South Park too, I think (indeed the opening credits are animated and have a slight similarity to South Park’s style). Here, while the young cast (sensibly) play it all straight, it’s also clear the film-makers are having a huge amount of fun taking the American style high school musical, populated by teens with whiter than white teeth who love in sunny, Californian towns and royally taking the mickey out of them.

The sight of a bunch of Scottish school kids and staff in a wee town near Glasgow bursting into this very US style (complete with teachers and even the dinner ladies dancing) is side-splitting, while lyrics like “not a Hollywood ending” further satirise the American musicals and teen comedies Anna riffs on (although not in a nasty way, you get the impression they like laughing at them but still like them). And as one character comments when the action starts, this sort of thing happens in other countries, not in a wee town in Scotland, and that is part of the fun here.

We have the Usual Suspects – Anna (Ella Hunt) is a gifted, smart, intelligent girl, approaching the end of school and scared to tell her father she’s going travelling before she applies to university (he is over protective after losing his wife), her friends John (Malcolm Canning), Steph (Sarah Swire), Chris (Christopher Leveaux), Nick (Ben Wiggins) and Lisa (Marli Siu). The kooky, daft but loveable one, the “best friend” who is so obviously totally in love with her, the geeky one, the obsessive, intense one, the trying to be a hard-man jock but masking inner feelings one, and naturally a nasty headmaster (Paul Kaye) who would probably have enjoyed teaching at Sunnydale High, the sort of headmaster who clearly hates kids and resents that they may grow up to have a happier life than he has had.

Anna and the Apocalypse takes all of these generic elements but filters them through a small, west-coast Scottish town sensibility, and that’s funny in itself seeing such very American stylings done in a wee Scots school as they prepare for the annual Christmas concert (especially slightly ditzy but delightful Lisa, who plans a somewhat more risque number than she told the headmaster she’d perform). And then, wouldn’t you know it, the zombie apocalypse happens. And at first Anna, John and the others don’t quite notice. Heading out of her house, walking down the rainy winter street Anna is singing and dancing, earphones plugged in, while behind her neighbours flee from their homes pursued by the undead, fires burn, cars lie crashed and she’s oblivious with her phone, singing and dancing away, until she bumps into John dancing and singing his way to school, they duet and, of course, that is the moment a zombie in a snowman costume attacks them (hey, we’ve all been there).

After that it is the quest for survival, Anna and John finding some other friends along the way, trying to sneak across their town to school to find their other friends and families, and because authorities have issued emergency alerts saying the school will be the evacuation point for the town. And as with all such films, it’s a guessing game as to which characters are going to make it, which are going to end up becoming finger food for the ravenous undead who are rapidly over-running their town. And again while this takes the well-known generic tropes, it does so with such a knowing nod and wink – these people are fans and they are in on the joke, they know we are in on the joke and, to be honest, the young cast are so damned likeable that you buy into it happily. Of course the flipside of that is that you know not all the characters you come to love are going to make it. But they may go out with a song!

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(a very happy director: John McPhail talking to the late night film festival audience before Anna and the Apocalypse screened in the Edinburgh Filmhouse)
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This was my final movie of the 2018 Edinburgh International Film Festival, part of the late night strand the EIFF does each year (and don’t horrors suit the late night slot?). Director John McPhail and many of the cast and crew were at the screening, and clearly extremely excited and buzzed to bring their Indy Scottish film to the country’s most famous film festival. As a very delighted John McPhail told the audience, this is their home-town showing, screening to a Scottish audience, and the pleasure and excitement he and the others showed in being allowed to make this film then get to screen it at a packed festival showing was infectious. The festival audience didn’t just laugh at the humour or wince at the (deliberately) OTT violence (very cartoony), the whooped and hollered and clapped along to the musical numbers, it was almost like being at a Rocky Horror screening, and that made it ten times more fun (the festival crowd was also treated to a special sing-a-long segment after the screening).

This is gleeful film-making, loving but also happy to play with the generic tropes of horror, teen drama and musicals, and has future cult film written all over it. Best seen with a group of friends.

McLaren Animation at the Edinburgh Film Festival

I always make a special point of attending the two McLaren short animation strands at the Edinburgh International Film Festival each year. BBC2 and Channel 4 used to have animation seasons, but that’s something that seems to have fallen mostly by the wayside these days (despite each now having multiple digital channels) and the days of a wee short before the feature film in cinemas is long gone, which, for me anyway, makes it more important to support and celebrate when we get to see short animation being highlighted, especially when it is being shown on a cinema screen. We have some remarkable young animation talent in the UK, and this and other festivals are a chance for them to shine, to effectively show their portfolio in order to try and secure more work (be it with an animation house on a film or the bread and butter of music videos, ads etc which help pay the bills) or compete for scarce funding.

Each year the McLarens always impress me with the range of material on offer, both in terms of method (from slick CG animation to traditional hand-drawn or stop-motion work and all sorts in-between), and subject matter (some are funny, some are political, some are biographical, some bring a lump to the throat). This year was no exception. Given the two screenings took in over twenty short works I am not going to go into each and everyone that was shown, but I will pick out some of those that made an impact on me, personally.

Sam Gainsborough’s Facing It was a pretty unusual-looking piece, mixing live action actors with claymation faces overlayed on their heads, producing a strong visual style for the piece. A young man waits for others at a table in a busy pub; he clearly wishes to reach out and be a part of the buzz of vibrant, lively conversation and life goign on all around him, some even invite him to join them, but his crippling shyness halts him, his claymation face morphing, a hand literally growing out of it to clamp around his mouth as he tries to speak to a stranger, while flashbacks show childhood events with his parents which shaped this isolation and nervousness. While most of us don’t suffer from such an extreme I think we have all had moments where we need to interact with strangers or a group and have that anxiety moment before we do. The plasticine animated faces over the live actors works very well, allowing for a range of emotional expression way beyond what even the most facially gifted actor could give; it’s a lovely example of one of those things animation can do so well, using a few simple visual signifiers to show the internal emotions of a character so clearly.

FACING IT – TEASER TRAILER from Sam Gainsborough on Vimeo.

Ian Bruce’s Double Portrait splits the screen into two hand-painted images, changing and coming to life before our eyes, telling the story of a woman, Geraldine, and her first love, of how it all seems so straightforward to them when younger, but how life changed them, parted them, brought them together again. It’s beautifully illustrated with Bruce’s painting, giving a warm feel as we move through their lives across the decades. Jonathan Hodgson’s Roughhouse, a traditionally-drawn animation, tells of a group of pals, friends since childhood, marked by a moment of rough play with a pet that ended badly, later growing up, going away to college, meeting a new flat-mate and settling into student life (complete with messy flat). It’s actually quite a brave film, I think – Hodgson gives us characters who are often not very likeable, and the roughest of them all, the one who never pitches in for the rent but can always pay for drink, seems the least likeable of the group, but Hodgson carefully shows us that under laddish, unthinking jokes and “banter” and bravado there are feelings and even the seemingly strongest and toughest can suddenly crack. It’s a good reminder that under it all everyone is human.

Roughhouse Trailer from Jonathan Hodgson on Vimeo.

Maryam Mohajer’s Red Dress, No Straps draws on some of her Iranian background, with a very young girl living during the era of the Iranian revolution and the awful Iran-Iraq war which lead to scenes reminiscent of the First World War. At home with her grandparents, grandma indulging her beloved grand-daughter by making her a dress like her favourite US pop star seen in a magazine (that has to be hidden from the religious authorities who are busy teaching her and other kids to shout “death to America” each day at school). A red dress, strapless. Meanwhile they have to worry about bombing raids on civilian targets during the war, but she tells us Saddam is not very good at this and they are all okay. It’s a lovely, warm piece evoking a strong feeling of family that any of us can identify with, but despite what she says, everything is not okay, and this is a film that left me with a lump in my throat.

Red dress. No straps. trailer from maryam mohajer on Vimeo.

Lucia Bulgheroni’s Inanimate proved to be my favourite from all the films shown in both McLaren screenings. I love all form of animation, but I have a special soft spot for traditional stop-motion animation. There’s something for me that is truly magical about knowing that everything you see on the screen there has been built by hand, from the characters and their clothes to the tiny sets, furniture, right down to coffee cups, then, through a painstaking alchemy, enchanted into life, one frame at a time, hours, sometimes days to capture a few brief seconds of movement. In Inanimate Katrine is leading her normal life – work, home, shopping, boyfriend. And then things seem to go wrong, to be disconnected, she is doing one thing and suddenly, woosh, she’s rushed from home and finds herself at work with no in-between, then somewhere else and somewhere else. She panics, is she losing her mind, having blackouts?

And then see starts to see the world around her differently, it starts to seem unreal to her, and soon so do the people and then, most terrifyingly, her own body. Her skin looks fake, it peels back and she sees the metal armature of a stop-motion puppet below. She isn’t real. Around her she is suddenly aware of huge figure, flickering at a speed that leaves them almost invisible, changing things around her world and other little worlds nearby. She’s a puppet who has somehow become aware, seen behind the scenes of her little reality, seen the strings and the puppet master. It’s both a story about how we all invent our own little realities to cope, to understand, to get through life, but are often aware there is more, just beyond the edge of our vision, and at the same time it is an ode to the laborious art of stop-motion, those long, long hours to create tiny moments of life in inanimate objects are, from her point of view, fleetingly fast.

It reminded me of Tom Moody at the McLarens a couple of years back, talking about working with found objects which he turns into characters, then brings to life with stop-motion. Tom he talked about the sadness which went with the joy of animation, joy at making something, but the sadness that after all the care to bring these creations to life they only had those few, brief moments of that life, then they would go on the shelves with older creations, never to move again, a rapid, Mayfly experience of the world. I suppose there’s probably a lesson about life in there, somewhere.

Space doesn’t really permit me to go into all the other works, but I must mention Sinem Vardarli and Luca Schenato’s (very long-titled!) The Brave Heart or (The Day we Enabled the Sleepwalking Protocol), which, like the old Numbskulls Brit comic or Pixar’s Inside Out it took us inside the body, with various organs such as the Heart and Brain, carrying out their tasks (or not), in the face of a booze, smoking and fast food blow out (very clever, very funny and rather dirty, especially when this all leads to an emergency “blockage” which I shall not describe here!). Stephanie Hunt’s Marfa took us around an odd wee Texas town, from local bands to local characters and gave a lovely flavour of life in a remote small town.

“The brave Heart” or ( The day we enabled the sleepwalking protocol ) Trailer from Luca&Sinem on Vimeo.

Ben Steer’s Mamoon had a mother and child, shadow figures projected onto polystyrene buildings, pursued by dark shadows – as the light fades so too do the shadows which it projects, which means doom, and the shadow figure mother desperately tries to save her child, while Daniel Prince’s Invaders uses very polished CG animation to bring to life three tiny flying saucers, exploring a human home on Christmas Eve, the smaller one unsure of his place with the larger two, trying to prove himself. There was a strong 80s vibe to Invaders, I thought, and Prince confirmed this in the subsequent Q&A, noting 80s Spielberg and most notably Batteries Not Included as influences. Simon P Biggs’ Widdershins was a delightful tale of a Steampunk, quasi-Victorian future of clockwork and steam automata making everything so perfect our character can’t stand it anymore, and falls for a daring young woman who challenges the system. I also loved it because “widdershins” is such a lovely word and we rarely get to use it…

Mamoon Teaser from Blue Zoo on Vimeo.

In the post-screening Q&As with a number of the animators one of the subjects raised was trying to get funding for short film work, and how much harder it had become. Adding to that, as to many other projects, was the looming spectre of Brexit. The animation director for the festival spoke about manning the British stall at the famous Annecy animation festival and remarked it was “tumbleweed” for them. With so much uncertainty nobody wanted to invest in UK productions or take on distribution. In fact he commented that those from outside Europe were being more actively courted by European partners than the UK team. Jonathan Hodgson told us how he could not get any funding from any UK company or arts organisation, but eventually a French one did agree to help, and he, like others, wondered if that avenue was now being closed to them, a question many in various arts disciplines (and science and business) are asking? This is not the place for a political discussion, of course, but equally it would be remiss not to note the worry of film-makers and others about how opportunities for co-operation, distribution and funding for their future work will be affected, and at the moment none of them have any real answers as to how they will be affected, and I’m sure that is a worry being discussed across the UK film industry.

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(some of the animators doing Q&A sessions in the Filmhouse, post screening of this year’s McLaren Animation strands at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pics from my Flickr)
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It was another great crop of inventive, often emotional, sometimes funny, sometimes touching short film-making by all sorts of different women and men working in different methods and styles to bring still objects and art into flickering life. Often I will see some of the McLaren animators figure months later in the short animation categories for BAFTA and Oscar, and fingers crossed some from this year’s crop will have that success too. Props again to the film festival for continuing to support the McLarens (named for iconic Scots-Canadian animator Norman McLaren, an alumni of the famous Glasgow School of Art which was in the news for the saddest of reasons recently), because it is a chance for these film-makers to have their work seen by an audience (and it is the audience who comes along to support them who get to vote on the award) and by the wider industry, a chance for them to be noticed by possible future employers and collaborators, and we need that kind of encouragement and celebration of creative work in all levels of our film-making if we still want to have such creators in years to come.

The Most Assassinated Woman in the World

The Most Assassinated Woman in the World,
Directed by Franck Ribière,
Starring Anna Mouglalis, Niels Schneider, Jean-Michel Balthazar, Julie Recoing, Michel Fau, André Wilms

Another evening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and another intriguing film, this time from French director Franck Ribière, this partakes of elements of murder-thriller, period piece and delightfully lurid horror. Set in the famous/infamous Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in the Pigalle district of Paris during the 1920s, The Most Assassinated Woman in the World takes real-life settings and historical characters – most notably the theatre’s great scream-queen, Marie-Thérèse Beau, better known by her stage name of Paula Maxa, played by Mouglalis, an actress who was slaughtered in thousands of violent and gorey ways every night on the tiny stage of the theatre. It’s claimed she was “killed” some ten thousand times, and early on her character lists many of the ways, from strangling to stabbing, slashing, burning, boiling, decapitation, being pulverised. And yet, she shrugs, here I still am…

In some ways this listing of nightly horrors enacted on the stage of this notorious theatre (which only closed in the 1960s) and the fact that Paula “survives” it all and keeps going is part of the central theme here: we were told in the post screening Q&A with the film-makers that they were not aware of a violent assault Paula had endured in her younger years, and yet they had written such a scene in affecting her and a sibling, in an uncanny art imitating life moment. They were exploring the nature of horror and violence, how it affects people, even the pretend violence of the horror on stage or in the movies, both those who watch and those who act it out (imagine being an actor having to be killed in inventively gruesome manners every single night). Experimental psychologist Alfred Binet, another real-life character involved with the actual theatre, is also, appropriately, a figure here, helping owner De Lorde construct not just physically awful torments and demises for Paula, but mentally brutal as well, pushing, pushing, pushing, aided by the giant figure of Paul, the special effects wizard (another real life character, apparently his stage blood formula is still used to this day).

Mixed into these factual elements are more fictional dramatic ones – a young journalist from Le Petit Journal, Jean (Niels Schneider), investigating both the moral brigade demanding the theatre should be closed for indecency (forerunners of later “we should control what everyone can see, for their own good” types that burned rock and roll records or the Mary Whitehouse mob) but also a series of disappearances and murders around the Pigalle and Montmartre areas (loved by tourists today, but rather rougher back then). Is the murdered inspired by what he sees on stage, is it driving his fantasies to act them out for real? Who are the figures haunting Paula? Does her work help her excise her own demons or is it all pushing her to brink – and do those in control of the theatre even care or are they happy to push beyond the limit?

The film is set in mid 1920s Paris, but the cobbled back streets, the heels clicking on them through foggy nights, the evening capes, they could all come from a Victorian-set Hammer film, and the gallons of luridly red “Kensington Gore” as the blood flows scarlet stands out against the dark, mostly nocturnal scenes, as vivid a claret as ever flowed in a Hammer film. Interestingly they film-makers told the festival audience that originally this was to be an English language film, set in New York, but as they explored it more, found the historical Paula Maxa, it became clear they really needed it to be a French film, set in Paris. They struggled for funding, but a Belgian film fund stepped up, as did Netflix, who they thought would ask for it to revert to the original English language premise, but instead were quite happy for it to be a period French piece.

In fact Franck Ribière commented on the “Netflix issue” which has come up at quite a number of film festivals around the world, most notably at Cannes, where some are glad of the new stream of funding and distribution while many others are horrified and say it is killing cinema with movies going straight to television streaming and bypassing cinemas. I can see arguments on both sides, but that’s a debate for another article, not a review. I will note that Franck Ribière explained he didn’t see the problem, it was another welcome source of funding for film-makers, and nobody makes a director or writer work with Netflix, it is up to them to approach them about partnerships, and that he is happy to be able to watch films as he wants, in cinemas, on TV, on his phone. Many other directors, I am sure, disagree, but it was interesting to hear him comment.

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(Director Franck Ribière in dark shirt on the right and his colleagues at the post-festival screening Q&A with the audience)

No news on a UK release for this one yet, but as it is co-funded by Netflix I assume it won’t be long before it appears online, so those of you who don’t have a film festival or arthouse cinema nearby will be able to see it too. All in all I really enjoyed this, it offered both the over-the-top horror the Grand Guignol was famed for (and which it has given its name to as a general term in horror now) mixed with a more psychological aspect, and layers of “plays within plays” as we see fictional and real elements of Paula’s life mixed with pretend versions for the film and more pretend but almost real versions on the stage, until we’re left wondering what elements are real, what scenes are what they seem to be and which are theatrical artifice, all shot in a beautifully sensual manner. One of the smarter, classier horrors I’ve seen recently, and yet one which happily plays with elements of classic horror too.

Huge fun in Blood Fest

Blood Fest,
Directed by Owen Egerton,
Starring Robbie Kay, Seychelle Gabriel, Jacob Batalon, Barbara Dunkelman, Tate Donovan, Zachary Levi

It will surprise no-one who is a fan of fun, punk-ethos Indy studio Rooster Teeth their latest live-action film is a supercharged, gleefully genre-mashing and referencing outing with as many laughs as it has splatter (and even the odd quiet, emotional, character moment). Owen Egerton writes, directs and indeed stars as the leering, bloodthirsty showman (I could imagine Alice Cooper playing this role when younger) who orchestrates the eponymous Blood Fest, a festival for horror fans. Within the large, walled grounds (actually a re-dressed Renaissance Fest location in Texas, we were told at the post-show Q&A) there are multiple locations based on horror genre tropes – the high school prowled by a serial killer, the circus with evil clowns, vampire girls seducing drunken lads, zombies and more.

In a film which revels in multiple, loving references and homages both to other Rooster Teeth creations and many horror movies (even the title is a nod to the famous/infamous Blood Feast), Blood Fest opens, rather nicely for an old horror fan like me, with a nod to Carpenter’s Halloween, zooming in on the suburban American neighbourhood on Halloween, and a young boy watching classic Universal horrors with his mum. Until a shadowy figure is glimpsed when she goes to the kitchen for snacks (a scene telegraphed by the tell-tale sign of the room light refusing to come on, a deliberate take on a generic device in slashers). Fast forward and that young boy, Dax (Robbie Kay) is now a young man, and one who has embraced the horror genre as a coping method for dealing with his fears and his horrible experience of seeing his mother murdered in front of him, before being rescued by his father. His father who is a famous psychologist and who blames the entire horror genre for creating the urge for violence that killed his wife (carefully ignoring his own culpability – the murderer was one of his own patients).

Needless to say the father is not going to allow his son to go off with his friends, Sam (Seychelle Gabriel) and Krill (Spider-Man Homecoming’s Jacob Batalon) to the largest, splatterest horror gathering ever, and equally needless to say our plucky teens find a way around dear old dad, who is busy telling network television how horror is to blame for everything bad in society while the kids sneak off to indulge their love of the genre. And I doubt it will surprise any horror fans that (bit of a spoiler alert!) that Blood Fest is not exactly what it seems. When the showman takes the stage for the opening ceremony (Egerton again) and bemoans how stale the genre has become, how mainstream (“we put Freddy on a lunchbox!”) then cries out to his baying crowd that they want to make horror scary again, I think most genre fans will suspect what is coming (and if not the bouncers standing between the crowd and stage, clad in pig-head masks also telegraph trouble in advance). The blood here is not fake, the fans are trapped inside this compound as the showman makes his own demented horror to end all horrors by filming them as they are slaughtered in a variety of horror tropes (this includes zombies with Go-Pro cameras strapped to them to record the carnage!).

I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler though, as this happens very early on in the film and is pretty much the basis of it – also, as I said I think serious horror fans (who are the main audience for this, after all) will guess what is coming, at least for that part. After that reveal and the commencement of the carnage it becomes a battle of survival for our young friends who have to cross the various themed horror locations to try and escape. Along the way Egerton packs in so many references to a multitude of horror films, but this is done in a fast-paced, loving and hugely fun manner – this is the film-makers letting us know they too are fans and winking to us, we’re all in on this together. Who is going to make it, who is going to die, how are they going to die? Egerton and his team take us on a well-paced rollercoaster, gleefully throwing in slapstick as well as splatter, and sometimes both at the same time, as well as delighting in doing a little genre-mashing.

For all the well-paced fun and loving references to the genre’s history, however, there are some serious elements in here; not for the first time horror, that genre often much-maligned by certain groups in society, holds up a distorting mirror to that society. The reactionary elements blame the genre for everything bad in the world – this is not unlike the idiotic Wertham “Seduction of the Innocent” which blamed comics, especially horror comics, for a perceived growth in societal ills. In recent decades is has been horror movies, rock music, rap music, video games and others that are easy to blame rather than turn attention to what is really wrong, what really causes violence in society, and, without giving too much away, there is a later element in this frantic fight for survival where Egerton makes clear that there are other forces in society that we should be far more worried about than horror-inspired slashers, killer clowns and monsters.

It’s clever, fun, well-paced, packed with multiple references for fans to pick up on, laced with dark humour and even a few gentle character moments and emotional elements, it’s pretty much ideal for most horror fans, I think, I can easily see this becoming a future cult horror flick. Egerton and a bunch of the Rooster Teeth family were at the Edinburgh Film Festival UK premiere of Blood Fest, and Egerton especially was on terrific form, full of energy, talking up the crowd both before and after the showing like a delightfully demented horror version of PT Barnum. There was a group of Rooster Teeth fans in the audience and the interaction between them and the film crew, and the other audience members (some of whom were new to RT productions but clearly looking forward to seeing more), was terrific, there was just such a huge, positive, good-natured vibe at this late night festival screening, and Egerton et al seemed more than happy to be invited to such a prestigious film festival and join their long-running roster of late-night horror delights.

One of the Rooster Teeth producers was asked when the film would be getting a UK release; he replied they couldn’t say just yet, but that they would be making an announcement very soon, so keep an eye on the RT site and twitter for more, because this is one horror hounds are going to lap up.

Talking silent movies: Saving Brinton

Saving Brinton,
Directed by Tommy Haines, Andrew Sherburne,
Starring Mike Zahs

Saving Brinton is one of the movies that leapt out at me when I was busy circling the movies I most wanted to try and get tickets for at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival: a documentary about a man, Mike Zahs, in a tiny Iowa farm town, who just happened to have collected, protected and shared some gems from the very, very earliest days of cinematic history. It’s an irresistible subject for those of us who love film.

William Franklin Brinton was an itinerant showman, he and his wife travelled up and down the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, from Texas to Minnesota, with shows which included music, gadgets (some of the existing music boxes are preserved in the collection as well as film), attempts at heavier than air flight (several years before the Wright Brothers managed several seconds in the air), some truly enchanting magic lantern slides and, always a sharp showman with one eye on getting those bums on seats, but another eye always on technological innovation, which fascinated this intelligent, curious man, he was an early adopter of the new miracle of the Victorian era: moving pictures. Some, even innovators like Edison who would contribute to the development of the medium, saw film as a passing fad. To be fair, he was not alone, few could have predicted film would grow to be one of the great art forms and mediums of the following century and into the next, let alone that it would become so entangled with our own lives, our dreams, fears, aspirations and hopes.

Brinton saw more in this infant medium, and in a later, more settled part of his career he managed the Graham Opera House in the small town of Washington, Iowa, which has been showing film pretty much since the birth of the medium, and has now been recognised by Guinness World Records as the oldest continually operating cinema on the planet. There is something rather pleasing that such an accolade goes not to some historic old cinema in Paris, or London or New York, but a wee town in the middle of the great farming fields of Iowa, right in the heart of the vast American continent. Once every town had such palaces of delights, but most are long gone in the US, as here, long since converted to other uses or ripped down and built over. Here though, a slice of entertainment history still lives, still serves its community, and for around three decades it has also seen some of the rarest early film works from the Brinton collection projected on its venerable screen.

Zahs, an incredibly genial, modest and charming man with a mighty beard (he looks like Gandalf crossed with Father Christmas, perhaps), a teacher, historian and collector, has been saving and documenting this collection for years, trying to interest the wider world in these treasures. There is a delicious irony that the small community here has been watching films, some of which cinema historians had, for years, lamented as lost, totally unaware of Mike’s collection. But eventually perseverance pays off, local academics from the University of Iowa work with Mike, and as academics do, they bring in other experts, including the Library of Congress. It’s soon recognised that the collection has remarkable works, such as rare moving images of Teddy Roosevelt, the first known film from Burma (how astonishing and exotic would that have seemed to an 1890s audience in an era before television, internet and easy international travel?), absolute gold: works by the first true genius of our beloved cinematic medium, Georges Méliès. Actually scratch that, Georges Méliès is not so much a genius as a wizard.


(above, Brinton projecting one of his shows, image from University of Iowa’s Brinton collection; below, Mike Zahs and the film-makers at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pics from my Flickr)
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Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Saving Brinton 03

All of this “lost” cinematic history being rediscovered as academics finally take notice, increasingly enthusiastically, of what Mike has been trying to show them for years, would be fascinating enough, and the triumph, from only local folks watching to international recognition of the importance of this collection (complete with showbills, photographs, glass slides for the magic lanterns, projectors and more along with the actual nitrate films) is satisfying: Mike goes from showing the works to his local friends and community to an outdoor film festival screening in an ancient square in Bologna, and the international film festival circuit. But there is much more to Saving Brinton than the rare works saved from vanishing into history: this is a film which is as much about people and about community as anything else.

It’s to the credit of the film-makers that they spend quite a bit of the running time on Saving Britnon exploring this small local community, and Mike is their way into this small farming town. As well as putting on shows with Brinton’s films, magic lantern slides (some very sophisticated, allowing for overlaps and dissolves which are still gorgeous looking even to modern eyes used to CGI wonders), we see Mike planting peach trees on the family farm close to others that go back generation in his family, Mike delighting young kids at the local school showing them all sorts of odd-looking historical artifacts from his collection and engaging them into learning without even realising it (always a good trick to play on kids to enthuse them), even giving a talk to some of the local Amish families on local history. As Mike said himself at the Edinburgh screening, the most important part of the world “history” is “story”, and stories are about people. And Saving Brinton shows how that remarkable collection is more than preserved celluloid frames and ephemera, it has been woven into the local communities since 1895 when Brinton took it from town to town.

At the Edinburgh Film Festival screening we were lucky enough to have the film-makers Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherbune present, as well as Mike himself, who seemed utterly delighted to be showing this work at the world’s oldest continually running film festival (quite an appropriate venue for such a subject, surely), and in person he was as delightful and fascinating as he was to watch in the film. As a bonus, after the film and a Q&A we were treated to ten minutes of these very short works – works that, as is said in the film, were made when the people we now think of as the stars of the silent era, the Chaplins, the Keatons, would still have been children, they are that early. These included the “flying machines” which many in the UK will recognise (created by Brinton’s contemporary Sir Hiram Maxim, still flying at Blackpool today), some truly glorious early 1900s colour film (each frame painstakingly hand-tinted to produce the effect, which still looks magical), and treasure upon treasure, a Georges Méliès film which was thought lost for most of the last century, and here Mike and his small town had been enjoying watching it for the last thirty years…

This is just an utterly enchanting, beautiful film about shared history, community, art, lives. Mike and his wife have donated the collection to the University of Iowa Libraries, where it is being carefully examined, conserved and digitally copied so it can be shared. There is a dedicated site for the Brinton Collection run by the university, which I highly recommend visiting for more information and also to find links to watch some of these incredibly early films online, such as the hand-coloured Serpentine Dance and other little gems that were so nearly lost forever, and the official Saving Brinton site has more information. This is an absolutely magical, warm, smile-inducing documentary that is a must-see for anyone with a passion for film.