“Saving Brinton,” the 90-minute documentary shining new light on a century-old treasure trove of early silent films discovered in Washington, Iowa, created enough industry buzz to capture 2018-19 Academy Award attention.
Last spring, Eastern Iowa filmmakers Andrew Sherburne, Tommy Haines and John Richard began raising the awareness and funds needed to publicize and secure the showings and reviews in New York and Los Angeles required for Oscar consideration.
They succeeded, staging qualifying weeklong runs in New York City in May and in Los Angeles in June, garnering rave reviews. They also launched a film tour, taking the film’s star and hero, retired teacher Michael Zahs of Haskins in Washington County, along for guest appearances and Q&A sessions.
Zahs realized the depth and scope of the films he found in 1981, stashed in boxes marked “Brinton crap,” stuck in a basement. They hadn’t seen the light of day in 100 years — films by special effects pioneer Georges Melies, inspiration for the 2011 film “Hugo,” as well as others by Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers. They dazzled audiences at the turn of the 20th century, when Frank Brinton and his wife, Indiana, showed them on a tour that included stops in Ainsworth and nearby Washington.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE
The film didn’t make the final cut for the documentaries being honored on tonight’s Academy Awards broadcast, airing at 7 p.m. on ABC-TV.
Even though Sherburne, 39, of Iowa City, won’t be at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, he’ll still be celebrating. A co-founder and associate director at FilmScene in Iowa City, he’ll attend a watch party tonight at the nonprofit indie cinema on the Ped Mall.
“It’s great to be in (Oscar) consideration,” he said.
He’s bursting with pride over the local, national and international attention “Saving Brinton” received. It’s been shown on four continents and has brought home the gold in other ways.
Wesley Morris of the New York Times called it “Celebratory. Poignant. The average documentary would gawk. This one reclassifies.”
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Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times deemed it “endearing, affectionate. Zealots are plentiful in the film history world, but ones as amiable as Zahs are as rare as the movies he doggedly preserved.”
Frank Scheck of the Hollywood Reporter declared it “a cinephile’s delight.”
The Washington Times said it boasts “one of the most unlikely, yet most likable, heroes of contemporary non-fiction cinema.”
“Saving Brinton” received a high-profile boost when it was chosen to participate in the International Documentary Association’s year-end roundup of films deemed worthy of Oscar consideration. As such, it was among about 30 films the association screened in Los Angeles last fall. Sherburne, Haines and Zahs attended the Nov. 14 showing.
“It was a fun ride,” Sherburne said. “It was fun to be part of it. It’s great that a film rose to that level of recognition.”
The competition was stiff, he noted.
“We were one of a record-setting, or near record-setting, crop of documentary films this year ... with some really huge films: ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor,’ ‘RBG,’ ‘Three Identical Strangers’ and ‘Free Solo.’ There are multiple films that made multiple million dollars at the box office, so it was a really good year for documentary film.
“We were one of (about) 167 films that qualified this year, so it was a lot,” he said. “It was pretty strong competition, and ultimately, we were not shortlisted. There’s no real way to know if we were the 16th film or the 60th film on the list of potential nominees. There’s 15 films on the short list and from that 15, that’s where the final five nominees are selected.”
Navigating that road is not cheap.
Sherburne and his colleagues launched a Kickstarter campaign in April to raise $35,000 to promote the film and secure Oscar-qualifying runs in Los Angeles and New York. Donations nearly doubled that goal, with pledges of $52,619. That allowed the team to take the film farther afield and feature more in-person appearances by Zahs and the filmmakers.
“It ran in about 35 theaters around the country,” Sherburne said. “It was a nice nationwide release for the film. On top of dozens and dozens of film festivals, a good percentage of the country got to see the film on a big screen, which is great for a film from a small town in Iowa.”
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It played to sold-out crowds in the Netherlands for its international debut Jan. 25, 2018, and traveled on to London, Edinburgh, Argentina, Greece and Seoul, gathering even more interest and accolades.
“People everywhere universally latched on to this idea of the importance of saving our shared history,” Sherburne said. “Also, Mike’s Iowa really warms people’s hearts — the kind of community he’s created for himself and his neighbors. People recognize that it’s special, and they all see an element of their own upbringing, a family farm they might have or their grandparents might have had, or a small town where they grew up. That notion of ‘community’ people really responded to, as well.
“Of course, there’s definitely an audience that’s just there for these old films. Some cinephiles were just delighted to see all of these old movies on screen for the first time in a century.”
The story isn’t over, Sherburne noted, with scholars interested in writing essays and possibly books about the Brintons. The film also is available On Demand, iTunes, DVD and Blu-ray. It premiered on PBS in January and will continue to show on PBS stations for two years.
“I hope it’s a film that has a lasting impact,” Sherburne said. “In many ways, it’s a story about a very specific moment in time, with the Brintons and what Mike was up to, but in so many ways it’s timeless. I think the film should stand the test of time.”
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