Historian Mike Zahs stands outside the historic opera house in Ainsworth, Iowa. — photo courtesy of Andrew Sherburne
Saving Brinton, a Northland Films documentary that was awarded an Iowa Arts Council grant last year, has just received an honor of another sort: The film has been invited to make its world premiere at the prestigious AFI Docs Film Festival this June.
The documentary has been a labor of love for filmmakers Tommy Haines, Andrew Sherburne and John Richard. It follows the fascinating story of Washington, Iowa’s Mike Zahs, a former junior high history teacher and film aficionado who unearthed, curated and had restored a phenomenal collection of early cinematic treasures once owned by W. Frank Brinton, a showman and collector who died in 1919. Zahs first crossed paths with the Northland Films team in 2013, and it quickly became clear that his tale deserved a wider audience.
In the time since, Zahs has continued to work in collaboration with local and national organizations to bring his discoveries to the public. He has worked closely with Red Cedar Chamber Orchestra to show these silent films with compelling scoring; the Brinton Silent Film Project comes to the Englert Theatre on May 19. He also leveraged the films in a successful campaign to draw attention to the State Theatre in Washington, which was named last year by Guinness World Records as the oldest continuously operating cinema theatre.
Among the treasures found in the Brinton collection were works by Thomas Edison and George Méliès. One of the two “lost” Méliès films will be making its debut following Saving Brinton’s premiere at the film festival. The films in the collection have been painstakingly restored and digitized thanks to work by University of Iowa Special Collections (to which Zahs donated them in 2014), MediaPreserve and the Library of Congress.
The AFI Docs Film Festival runs June 14-18 at various venues in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding area. The festival board includes such luminaries as Ken Burns, Werner Herzog and Spike Lee. This year marks the festival’s 15th anniversary. AFI Docs is known, according to its website, “for showcasing the best in documentary filmmaking from the U.S. and around the world.”