In just a few weeks—April 6-9, 2016—the Packard Campus will host the tenth edition of the Orphan Film Symposium, an international gathering of (as the web site puts it) “archivists, scholars, curators, preservationists, technical experts, artists, and media-makers” to discuss and celebrate orphan films. “Orphans X” is presented in conjunction with New York University Cinema Studies and its Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program.
So what are orphan films?
While there is no singular definition, the term “orphan film” has developed over the past twenty years into a handy metaphor to encompass an eclectic variety of films abandoned by their rights holder, of uncertain provenance, or otherwise in some state of neglect. This page on the Orphans 5 web site has some particularly useful definitions and links.
The theme of Orphans X is “Sound,” both with and without moving images. The presentations and presenters are eclectically fascinating. You can see the full lineup at the Orphans X web site, but to call out a few highlights:
- Evan Meaney presents his new video about digital decay, Big_Sleep™
- Anke Mebold with Deutsches Filminstitut’s restoration of German musical films from 1908, resynchronized to their original 78 rpm discs
- Early synch-sound shorts made in 1913 with the Edison Kinetophone, with newly remastered cylinders from the Thomas Edison National Historical Park reunited with the motion pictures preserved by the Library of Congress
- Blake McDowell presents Venus and Adonis, an amateur surrealist film from 1935 with a score by Paul Bowles, jointly resurrected by the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art
- Newly preserved films from the newly established Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
- Harvard Film Archive’s rediscovery of Robert Flaherty’s lost film, Oidhche Sheanchais (A Night of Storytelling, 1935), which was also the first Irish language talkie
- Film restoration legends Robert Gitt and Bob Heiber with an evening’s tour through “A Century of Sound” as heard throughout film history
- Speakers from Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Kosovo, Mexico, the Netherlands and elsewhere
The Library of Congress has a long relationship with the Orphan Film Symposium, dating back to its origins at the University of South Carolina in 1999. NAVCC Chief Gregory Lukow gave a keynote at the inaugural event, which also featured screenings from the Library’s National Film Preservation Tour. Several of my colleagues have attended and presented at multiple editions. The single thing I enjoy most about the OFS experience is the sense of community—I refer to it as being in the “Orphans bubble.” There are no breakout sessions. Everyone attends the same program. Other than Friday night (which is dinner-on-your-own), meals are communal. All this fosters a lot of cross-disciplinary conversations, preservationists talking with media producers, producers interacting with scholars, scholars collaborating with archivists, and on and on. I’ve been to more conferences than I can count and there’s nothing better than an Orphan Film Symposium for the sheer variety of attendees—a movable feast in every sense.
Over the coming weeks I’ll be highlighting some of our collections that have resonance with Orphans X presentations and maybe even offer a sneak peek or two. I’m delighted to start with a terrific film we recently discovered, The Immortal Voice, a Bray Studios production from 1923. It’s a fabulous explanation of how phonograph discs were recorded in the acoustic era. For this web debut, pianist Ben Model created an impressive score.
See you at the Orphan Film Symposium!
The Immortal Voice (Bray Studios, 1923)
There is an orphan film I’m especially interested in–the 1930 film, “Journey’s End,” directed by James Whale and starring Colin Clive. It was co-produced by Gainsborough, in England, and Tiffany (the studio where it was filmed) in the US. The British Film Institute’s print is now unavailable, so the only version that can be shown theatrically is about half of it that was pieced together by William K. Everson and is now in the custody of Eastman House. There may be an Amercan-release print somewhere in the archives of the Library of Congress. If so, it deserves to be made more available as a superb stage-to-screen transferral; Whale directed both, and Clive was the West End star as well. It is also a fascinating sample of their work together before they collaborated again with “Frankenstein.”