‘Saving Brinton’ (2017): Heartland doc unearths lost cinematic gold

Buried cinema treasure revealed in the nation’s heartland.

By Paul Mavis

With so many documentaries now flooding film festivals and the various streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, it’s difficult to keep track of exactly what’s out there. I hadn’t heard of Barn Owl’s Saving Brinton until I got a Facebook heads-up from The Donna Reed Foundation’s Mary Owen (she being the daughter of iconic movie star Reed and TV producer Tony Owen), who lauded the doc’s Iowa context (she’s right—the makers perfectly capture that state’s quiet heartland beauty).


Directed by Tommy Haines, John Richard, and Andrew Sherburne, Saving Brinton follows retired junior high history teacher Michael Zahs over a four year period as he finally capped a thirty-plus year struggle to secure some kind of historical recognition for the “Brinton Collection,” a massive assortment of priceless early movies and cinema-related items that were once owned by turn-of-the-century Iowan showman William Franklin Brinton. A cinema verite doc that attempts to tackle not only the significance of the “Brinton Collection” but also the cultural connection between it and present-day Iowa—while at the same time making a docu-star out of Midwestern character Zahs—Saving Brinton may have more on its plate than it can adequately chew, but Zahs is a hoot, and the doc is always Midwestern heartfelt and sweet…which is itself a rarity among so many new docs out there today.

A little background info for Saving Brinton is warranted here…because it’s more than a little fuzzy in the doc itself (always a bit of a red flag when the filmmakers are more concise and informative in print interviews than in their movie). William Franklin Brinton of Washington, Iowa, began giving church and Chautauqua lectures on his and his father’s travels in the Middle East in the late 1870s. He soon branched out into magic lantern and silent movie exhibition, creating a multi-media program of colored, moving slides, filmed “actualities” (shots of people doing various activities, travelogue shots), magic acts and lectures. These shows wowed first-time audiences throughout the American Middle West, and made Brinton a mint.

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When Brinton died in 1908, Brinton’s vast collection of silent films, magic lantern slides, printed programs, movie order catalogs, ticket stubs, photographs, and projector equipment, was kept by his widow, Indiana, until her death in 1955. The 10,000-plus items in the “Brinton Collection” were then stored in the basement of the couple’s executor (in boxes labeled “Brinton crap”), where they languished unseen in the cool dark until 1981. When the executor died, obsessive “saver” Michael Zahs, also from Washington, Iowa, managed to secure three truckloads of the material in an estate sale, which was brought back to his already crowded house…where his bride of one week waited.


Zahs, a junior high history teacher, submitted the actual nitrate prints to the Library of Congress and the American Film Institute in exchange for safety prints, which he used in lectures and recreated programs, much in the manner of Brinton’s original productions. Once Zahs donated the Brinton items to the University of Iowa Library’s special collections department in 2013, proper research of it began, and that’s when people discovered what a remarkable, one-of-a-kind collection it was, containing movies from the Lumiere Brothers, Georges Melies and Thomas Edison’s studio…and how close it all came to being dumped in a landfill, if not for Zahs.


I know it’s increasingly the M.O. of “new new documentary” to go even further than cinema verite and offer little or no formal narrative structure (at least in comparison to the old “voice of God” docs)…nor god forbid anything as prosaic as actually explaining anything directly to the viewer (horrors!). However, there are big things in Saving Brinton that get lost in the admittedly fun shuffle.


Such as…what is Zahs talking about when he says the collection got “lost?” Who lost it after he found it? The Library of Congress lost it? How? Is that why he makes a trip there when the Melies film is “found?” And what part did the University of Iowa play in all this? How did they get it from the LOC? Or did Zahs own it still? Saving Brinton’s structure is more than a little fractured and vague and bouncy (in what I fear is an attempt at “whimsy”), which is fine…but this is a fascinating story, and somehow, for some reason, we the viewers are not given the whole dope.


A case in point: when the doc makers show Zahs going to a livestock auction, it’s vaguely interesting (but on the whole, pointless to the “Brinton Collection” story), but upon reflection it becomes almost annoying: keep the auction scene if you like…but couldn’t you have thrown in an extra two minutes for a viewer-grounding chronology of Zahs and his journey with the collection (even a title card, a la Brinton’s silent movies, would have been a kindness)? If I have to go to a print/web interview, after viewing the movie, to fill in the blanks for such a crucial element of the story as say…the American Film Institute’s role in getting Zahs’ collection to the LOC, then that’s a problem with the doc, no matter how verite is its cinema. Of course any movie or doc has to be cut and trimmed before it’s released, and the directors of Saving Brinton, in several interviews, confessed they had quite a lot of “difficult cuts” here. However, I get a strong feeling they lost a lot of that “rich detail” they also acknowledge is in Brinton’s and Zahs’ intertwined histories.



Perhaps the biggest drawback of Saving Brinton is the lack of Brinton’s work itself. Zahs and the doc makers are trying to tell us how hugely important the Brinton collection is from a historical standpoint, and yet we see a relatively tiny part of it on the screen here. It’s built up for us…and then denied to us. Instead, Saving Brinton seems to be more Introducing Zahs, with the producers hanging the movie on that engaging, homespun history teacher, rather than his historically significant collection.


To be fair, though, that’s an understandable gambit. Zahs is, no question, a lot of fun. In addition to the obvious zeal and dedication he’s shown towards these orphaned movies, he has an appealing, folksy, Midwestern manner, with a sure way around a punchline. Any moviemaker worth his or her salt would meet him and immediately say, “We have to have this character in our movie.” Critically, Zahs’ love and passion for what he does comes through strongly to the viewer, and there’s a beautiful sense of purpose, if you will, to his various talks to school children and historical societies, that’s quite touching. He’s one of those keepers of the flame, now as always in danger of flickering out—an enthusiast who wants to teach us about things we’re told aren’t important anymore.


We are also told every day by an increasingly vocal segment online, in our classrooms, and in our newsrooms, that men like Zahs are not only no longer needed in this brave new America, but that their very being is somehow offensive to today’s more enlightened souls (is it not only a matter of time, thanks to his new-found celebrity, before someone starts complaining that Zahs’ too-positive history lessons—“don’t you realize that all American history is shameful Mr. Zahs!”—are not “inclusive” enough?). So seeing Zahs connect so surely with his audiences during his shows—laughing seniors, serious, intrigued history buffs, and those delightfully curious, energetic schoolchildren, never to be so curious, so energetic again—is a tonic for those of us here in the Midwest who still value men like Zahs who tilt at windmills, just for the love of something long since resigned to obsolescence. If for nothing else than that humbly heroic reminder, Saving Brinton is worthwhile viewing.


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