“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.
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes