How did some of cinema’s greatest films end up in an Iowa shed?

A heartwarming new documentary tells the story of the history teacher who stumbled upon the Brinton Collection, a unique archive of films from the earliest days of moving pictures

Michael Zahs examining film reel
 Michael Zahs outside the barn where he initially stored the Brinton Collection

Michael Zahs thinks of himself as a saver. “I like to save things,” he says, “especially if it looks like they’re too far gone.” This retired history teacher from Iowa, now in his 70s, has amassed quite a collection over the years: stray animals, farm implements, even a church steeple. He can trace the lineage of the peach trees in his yard back to 1800. Nothing he has saved, however, has been quite as remarkable as the Brinton Collection – a mammoth set of films, lantern slides, posters and projection equipment from the first years of cinema, and even earlier. There are two exciting things about these artefacts. One is that during the more than three decades after Zahs took delivery of the collection and stored it on his property, he has been showing its treasures to local people and keeping the tradition of the travelling showman alive. The second is the discovery that the collection contains very rare material – films by the French cinema pioneer, George Méliès that were once thought to be lost.

Saving Brinton, an absorbing new documentary by Andrew Sherburne and Tommy Haines, tells the story of Zahs and the collection he saved. Between 1895 and 1909,one Frank Brinton crossed the Midwest with his wife Indiana and his travelling show, welcoming locals for a ticket price of just a few cents. At first he showed magic lantern slides, some of which “dissolved” between two static images to create an illusion of movement. When moving pictures arrived, Brinton jumped aboard, ordering many films from distributors in France, one of the most prolific and creative producers in the early period. He also became the manager of the Graham Opera House in Washington, Iowa, which is now known as the State Theater and has been certified by Guinness World Records as the oldest continuously operated cinema in the world. Brinton’s programme included trick films such as those by Méliès, which used in-camera special effects to create fantastical spectacles, and many hand-coloured movies where the dye is applied directly to each frame. Projected in the dark, these vivid, bizarre images have lost none of their original impact.

A still from The Triple-headed Lady, a 1901 film by the early French pioneer George Miélès
 A still from The Triple-headed Lady, a 1901 film by the early French pioneer George Miélès that was missing until it turned up in the Brinton Collection

Everything the Brintons used was passed down through the family until 1981, when it arrived at Zahs’ front door. He packed all the ephemera away into what he calls his “Brinton room”, while the films themselves were sent to the Library of Congress, which duplicated about two-thirds of them, quickly and simply, and sent the 16mm copies back to Zahs. The remaining third they apparently sent back to Zahs through the US mail, in a box labelled “explosive”. Those original nitrate films, which are highly flammable, were stored alongside the 16mm films in a shed. It’s amazing that they survived.

The 16mm copies were safe to project, and so Zahs did. He started the Brinton film festival in Ainsworth, Iowa (population: about 600), where he would show the slides and the films to audiences that might never otherwise have dreamed of watching a silent film projection. It is typical of Zahs’ commitment to not just preserving but sharing history, says Sherburne. “That’s how he engages people, by giving them the genuine article, putting it in their hands, or putting it in front of their eyes. It’s his way of transporting them to a different time.”

A poster advertising one of Frank and Indiana Brinton’s original shows
 A poster advertising one of Frank and Indiana Brinton’s original shows Photograph: PR

While touring the documentary around the US, Sherburne has met many of Zahs’s former history students, who remember his distinctive hands-on way of teaching. “We see Mike as kind of a campfire storyteller,” says Sherburne. “He really knows how to piece together a story and to make things compelling.” And although Zahs is very modest, and questions whether he is a historian or a storyteller in the film, he knew, quietly that there was something special in his shed – films that hadn’t been seen for a century.

In the past few years, more people have taken an interest in what Zahs had in his shed, a process that Sherburne credits to the growing revival of interest in silent cinema. Even experts who were perhaps initially sceptical were surprised by what they found. Some of the documentary’s most enjoyable sequences involve the early film historian Rick Altman gleefully flipping through a box of glass slides, or the emerging grin on the face of Serge Bromberg from Lobster Films when Zahs shows him a previously lost Méliès film on his laptop: “We have a new one!”

“It’s been wonderful to watch,” says Sherburne, “because Mike really admires their expertise and they really admire Mike’s dedication to preservation. It’s kind of a celebration every time we go to a festival and screen the film. People are just so happy that all of this has transpired.” In the film, Zahs is visibly thrilled by the interest taken in his collection, and his work. The two previously missing Méliès films, The Triple-headed Lady(1901) and The Wonderful Rose Tree (1904) have now been restored and shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna and the Pordenone silent film festival. It means a wider audience for these films, which have been so lovingly preserved, but also a stamp of approval for Zahs and his collection.

Saving Brinton plays its own part, too. Sherburne and his co-director Haines are Iowa locals, who went to visit Zahs when they first heard about his stash – he only lives a short drive away. There’s genuine warmth to the documentary, because the story of the Brinton hoard, and of Zahs’ efforts to protect it, is a heartwarming tale. And like all feelgood movies, there’s a lesson at the end, says Sherburne. “I hope that those people who see our film will carry on Mike’s love of history and his love of community and his love of saving the past – and carry it forward.”

Or, as Zahs says when he projects a 19th-century magic lantern slide on to a screen and twists the lens to make the patterns dance: “It’s OK to ‘wow’.”

Saving Brinton screens at the Edinburgh international film festival on 22 and 23 June, and at the ICA, London, on 26 June. In addition to a Q&A, Michael Zahs will present a 10-minute selection of silent shorts with live narration after each screening.

“Saving Brinton” is an endearing, affectionate documentary, an examination not so much of film exhibition pioneer Frank Brinton and how his life’s work was saved but of the genial and humane eccentric who did the saving.

That would be Mike Zahs, whose family has lived in rural Washington, Iowa, for generations. White-bearded and self-aware (“I know what this looks like, like I’m one of those obsessive people”), Zahs is not in the habit of throwing things away.

He shows off venerable tools for constructing houses, vintage Victrolas, even the enormous steeple of a local church he plans to repurpose as a gazebo for the corner of his house.

“I like to save things,” he says, “especially if they look like they’re too far gone.”

Among the many things Zahs has saved are the roughly 8,000 items that comprise the lifetime archives of Brinton. With his wife, Indiana, Brinton barnstormed the heartland from Oklahoma to Minnesota in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bringing movies to a wide swath of the Midwest.

Overflowing from any number of boxes, at one point labeled “Brinton C-R-A-P,” this invaluable collection includes posters, newspaper clippings, magic lantern slides and an original pre-1900 Pathe catalogue that somehow made it from Paris all the way to rural Eastern Iowa.

When Indiana died in 1955, the trove went to her executor, and when he died in 1981, Zahs took it all in, placing everything in a sturdy shed on his property. And there it stayed for more than 30 years as Zahs tried to get other folks as interested as he was.

The crown jewels of the collection are the 130-plus early films, more than five hours of nitrate print viewing time, that the Brintons exhibited in their travels.

These include what are perhaps the earliest moving images from Burma, newsreel footage of President Theodore Roosevelt, and, most significantly, some early shorts by France’s Georges Méliès, one of cinema’s founding fathers, shorts that had been thought forever lost.

While Zahs had shipped the originals nitrate negatives to the Library of Congress in 1981, for decades, nobody really knew what they contained. Until 2013, that is, when Humanities Iowa and the Special Collections branch of the University of Iowa Libraries took an interest.

Co-directors Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherburne began to film “Saving Brinton” around this time, following the engaging Zahs around, starting with his home base of Washington, Iowa, and continuing around the nation and then the world as some of the films he saved started to get their due.

We see Zahs, in Culpeper, Va., looking in on his films at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus, hanging out at the Mostly Lost festival for identifying silent films, and meeting the energetic Serge Bromberg, whose Lobster Films is a key force in restoring silent films and who is delighted to find a Méliès picture he didn’t know still existed.

That film, 1902’s “The Triple Headed Lady,” gets its world premiere at the prestigious Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy, and “Saving Brinton” is on the scene to record Zahs’ gratified presence.

This fly on the wall approach inevitably makes some of the facts of Zahs’ life and work more elusive than they should be, but it compensates by providing strong access to the man’s warm and accepting personality. Zealots are plentiful in the film history world, but ones as amiable as Zahs are as rare as the movies he doggedly preserved.


‘Saving Brinton’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Monica, Santa Monica

Review: In ‘Saving Brinton,’ an Inveterate Accumulator Finds Treasure

By Wesley Morris

It’s clear five minutes into “Saving Brinton” that the line between hoarder and preservationist really is fine. It’s also clear that you need sensitive, humane filmmaking to insist that one is very different from the other. The average documentary would gawk. This one reclassifies: One person’s pack rat is another’s collector. And Michael Zahs, this movie’s sturdily built, mighty bearded subject, does indeed collect.

An entire room of his rural eastern Iowa home is full of, among many other things, antique-looking carpentry tools. Another contains a file cabinet crammed with precious entertainment memorabilia, and, to open it, Mr. Zahs has to wedge himself between it and a larger piece of loaded shelving. He’s got stuff stored at his mother’s farm. And don’t ask about the gazebo, felled out front, demurely sheeted by snow. It wasn’t his — until it was.

But there’s something loosely exalted about Mr. Zahs. He actually doesn’t collect, per se. His relationship to possessions (and animals) is more cosmically passive. A lot of what he has he’s accumulated. Even his pets found him. In a sense, so did that enormous trove of memorabilia, which includes reels of early silent short films by pioneers like Georges Méliès. It all once belonged to a local couple, Frank and Indiana Brinton, who traveled around long ago, dazzling people with what at the time would have been popular culture’s future. And, for years, Mr. Zahs has been as delighted to share the magic of popular culture’s past. (He bought the collection in 1981 from the Brintons’ neighbor.)

This is a man who prizes his material — old prints and projection equipment, but also photographs, posters, instruments, sheet music, hand fans and flipbooks — and, when we meet him, is in the process of handing it over to the University of Iowa. (Martin Scorsese, whose “Hugo” was about Méliès, expressed some interest in the collection, but apparently that went nowhere.) Mr. Zahs and his undiscovered Méliès film from 1901, however, do sufficiently impress both the Library of Congress and the filmmaker and historian Serge Bromberg.

So we get not just film preservation but also a livestock auction, classroom visits, a trip to Europe, a reunion event and several stops at the nursing home where his mother resides. What’s most stirring (after the silent movies) is the piecemeal emergence of vibrant small-town life and the pride Mr. Zahs takes in it. But that feels more incidental, since Mr. Zahs might be the romantic ideal of that life.

The movie’s hands-off approach does often amount to something poignant. In sharing what he’s accrued over the decades, Mr. Zahs manages to share a lot of himself. He’s a nearly biblical, certainly biblical-looking, caretaker — of people, places and things. But this movie might want too much to take care of him. That affection means a film that’s happier to present than to interrogate, although I wish somebody had asked about the photo of a man, who might be Mr. Brinton, seated, holding a mandolin, in blackface. (In lieu of inquiry, the soundtrack gives us a rendition of “Old Folks at Home,” one of Stephen Foster’s minstrel-era classics.)

But the trouble is that despite how earnest and committed Mr. Zahs appears to be, the story of what’s in the collection might be more be more fascinating than the man who’s collected it.

IOWA CITY, IA (August 31, 2017) — The first movies ever shown in Iowa are back. Announcing Saving Brinton‘s “Barnstorming Brinton Iowa Tour,” an eight-city screening tour for the acclaimed film.

Saving Brinton is the story of Michael Zahs, an eccentric Iowa collector who uncovers five hours of film from the early 1900s that once belonged to Frank Brinton, one of America’s most successful barnstorming moving picture exhibitors.

Watch the trailer for the film or visit the official website at

Produced by Iowa City filmmakers Tommy Haines, John Richard and Andrew Sherburne, the film premiered at the American Film Institute’s prestigious AFI Docs festival in June. Now the film is touring it’s home state beginning September 17 in Washington, Iowa at the World’s Oldest Movie Theatre.

Each of the nine screenings will be followed by a live Q&A with film subject Michael Zahs and the filmmakers. Select screenings will feature an additional presentation of restored silent films from the collection from such famed filmmakers as Thomas Edison, the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès.

Saving Brinton is fully produced in Iowa by Barn Owl Pictures, a collaboration between Northland Films and Bocce Ball Films, with support and assistance from Washington County Riverboat Foundation, The Frank and Ina Brinton Educational Charitable Trust, Humanities Iowa, Iowa Arts Council, Produce Iowa, Trish McDonald, John and Kay Hegarty, The Gilchrist Foundation, FilmScene and the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections.

For a list of dates and venues, visit our screenings page.

It’s official! Saving Brinton’s World Premiere happens at the AFI Docs Film Festival in Washington DC.

Tickets on sale for the general public on May 15.

Public Screenings at AFI Docs

Saturday, June 17 at 4:15 PM
AFI Silver Theatre – Theater 2
8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD 20910
In-person: Directors Tommy Haines, John Richard and Andrew Sherburne and film subject Mike Zahs

Sunday, June 18 at 4:15 PM
Landmark E Street Theatre – Theater 7
555 11th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004
In-person: Directors Tommy Haines, John Richard and Andrew Sherburne and film subject Mike Zahs

Read the full AFI Docs slate announcement.