The Redeeming Tale of 'Saving Brinton' (2018)

Following one of the most devoted collectors of curios since The Little Mermaid’s (1989) Ariel and her fork-comb, the sublime Saving Brinton (2018) dives deep into a haul of celluloid treasures that have been stored in an Iowa basement for decades. Tracing these objects back to turn-of-the-century cinemas run by the eccentric Brinton family, makeshift local curator Mike Zahs opens his home to thousands of their old belongings and finds endless joy in brushing off the dust from underappreciated things. One core discovery made by the folksy hero promises to leave global audiences spellbound; that is, the resurrection of unseen movies by world-famous French magician-turned-film pioneer Georges Melies (1861-1938). Over the course of the documentary, we are charmed by Zahs’ efforts to gain a deserving reception for the works he has been entrusted with.

A story reimagined by Spielberg's blockbuster Hugo (2011), Melies suffered from great dejection and sorrow in his later life – moving him to set fire to a lifetime of work brimming with illusions, ingenuity and visual effects. Accordingly, Saving Brinton (2018) incorporates archival footage that is tenderly showcased and expertly translated into digital formats complete with hand-painted frames, contemporary compositions and narrations by Zahs. Journeying from Community Hall Luncheons in Iowa to the Pathe Paris Headquarters, we watch Zahs’ public reputation evolve from the family man with a house full of junk to the historian with something priceless to share. Additionally, we feel the seasons of his life change through losses and gains that are echoed in country landscapes of white snow and warm hay bales.

Despite its obvious value for film lovers, Saving Brinton (2018) is a rare privilege to witness for several other reasons. After sharing a coffee with Zahs following the UK premiere, I was able to reflect on some of the production insights he offered. As a project, the film engages with rural towns and closed communities like Amish settlements while resisting the modern judgement that traditions are best left in the past. I suspect that this is only possible because the documentary was made by Haines, Sherburn and Richard – referred to by Zahs as “three great local guys who live just 20 minutes away [from me]”. With no shortage of natural enthusiasm, Zahs is the inevitable heart that brings the project to life, though he sheepishly admits "I didn’t realise the film would also be so much about…me”. Quaint and dedicated, Saving Brinton (2018) earns its place in the archives.


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