This documentary focuses on Michael Zahs, a retired history teacher in rural Iowa who was responsible for rescuing rare nitrate films from the beginning of the 20th century that once belonged to William and Indiana Brinton, a pair of pioneering cinema exhibitors. The Brinton collection consisted of 130 films plus numerous magic lantern slides, and it also included a long-lost fantasy work from Georges Méliès called “The Triple-Headed Woman.”
Zahs is a charming and dedicated individual, not only to the cause of film preservation but also to his community and his family – he is seen coordinating a high school reunion and visiting his mother at a nursing home. He is also remarkably patient: he initially donated the Brinton films to the American Film Institute for preservation at the Library of Congress, but most of the films remained unidentified for more than 30 years.
Three directors – Tommy Haines, John Richard and Andrew Sherburne – are credited with directing this film, which may explain why it proceeds in lethargic fits and starts and goes into too many detours that are irrelevant to the central celebration of the historic and cultural value in the Brinton films. Indeed, at least 20 minutes could have been trimmed from the film in order to make it a tighter and more focused endeavor. Even worse, we barely get to see much of the Brinton collection – and what is shown is mostly unidentified – so the viewers are left mostly clueless about what Zahs saved.
Still, Zahs’ perseverance and indefatigable spirit are to be commended, and the handy-dandy fast-forward button is helpful in zooming by the too-many dull patches in order to plumb the true nitrate gold.