“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.

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‘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 www.savingbrinton.com.

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.