5 reasons why I wish I had attended the Orphan Film Symposium

I've been reading reports of the 6th Orphan Film Symposium, by Elise Nakhnikian on The House Next Door and by various contributors on the NYU Orphans blog, and I have to admit to a little envy. Here are five excerpts from their reports that have me especially wishing that I had been there:

#5 (from Nakhnikian): The orphan film world is a pretty small one. Most of the people at the symposium are part of a network of crisscrossing professional connections and friendships... Dan limits attendance to just 300, and the spots sold out early this year, most of them going to people who’ve attended past symposia... The full-immersion experience also fosters a sense of community, as the group gathers from 9 in the morning to 11 or so at night, and heads out for lunch and dinner in a series of small clumps... The result is a lighthearted, mutually supportive, DIY vibe, like a Michel Gondry film come to life, or an extended family whose members genuinely like one another.

#4 (from Peter James Sebeckis on the NYU blog): Paolo Cherchi Usai from the National Film and Sound Archive in Australia... addressed the state of State AV archives and suggested that we are now entering a new era where analogue archives are viewed as "pre-digital." He predicted the core mission of archives switching emphasis from preservation towards accessibility. Digitization and internet availability is the current ambition of funders. Digital ingestion and de-accessioning is separating the responsibility of preserving. Usai saw de-accession as a new battleground, creating a new community of orphan films, and he proposed exercising selection in order to redefine what should be collected.

#3 (from Sebeckis): Ross Lipman of UCLA gave a talk entitled Order, Disorder, and the Point of Order! (The Cropping of the Spectacle). In this fascinating presentation, Lipman utilized Debord's Society of the Spectacle to cross-examine de Antonio's film Point of Order with the fictional film Anatomy of a Murder and with the cultural zeitgeist of the McCarthy hearings era. Here in Lipman's examination, cinema verite, nightly news, Hollywood narrative film, and the ridiculous circular logic of the McCarthy hearings overlap in a web of realities and fictions.

#2 (from Tracy Joan Bunting on the NYU blog): To sum up Howard Besser’s presentation in one sentence: “If we really want to do our jobs responsibly, we are going to have to break the law.” Howard, Director of the MIAP Program at NYU, described the problematic nature of current copyright law and the importance of copyrighted material to the creative process. In terms of the Orphan Film Symposium, Howard explained that it would have taken months and an extensive budget to fully adhere to the copyright for all our screenings. He used some of this year’s Orphan films, La Venganza de Pancho Villa, Noticiario de Laya #3, and Sunday, to emphasize the complicated underlying rights embedded in each work. As a small silver lining, Howard presented a report released Friday from the Section 108 Study Group of the Copyright Office. The report stated that it “may be possible” to expand copyright exemptions to librarians for audio/visual material. In other words, the flexibility that librarians have in reproducing and distributing textual material may be expanded to include media. (The key words in all this are “may be” as the report stated further evidence was needed to implement the change.)

#1 (from Nakhnikian): One of the symposium’s highlights was a newly restored print of the film that Sam Fuller called his first, V—E+1 May 9, 1945. Beautifully composed and paced, the 22-minute film documents what the young soldier saw after his unit liberated the Falkenau concentration camp. People from the nearby town had claimed not to know what was going on at the camp, although, as Fuller’s panoramic pans clearly establish, they could not have failed to see it. To make them come to terms with their complicity in the Nazis’ crimes, Fuller’s commanding officer ordered the townspeople to bury the emaciated corpses his men found at the camp. Fuller’s magisterial film documents the process as the townspeople gingerly clothe the bodies, load them onto covered wagons, and pull them through the town to bury them in a mass grave.

(and from Gabriella Hiatt on the NYU blog): Sam Fuller’s liberation footage of Falkenau stands in great contrast to the genre of amateur liberation footage. For one, the film is so extensively edited that it tells a story (a fact that contradicts his claim that he ignored the film for years), and it operates on multiple experiential levels—witnessing, filming, remembering, and revising... In her paper, [Fuller scholar Marsha Orgeron] writes that “Fuller’s panning movement and walking-in reminds us of the cinematographer’s guiding hand, his presence as witness and in some ways, as judge.” The controlled camera is impressive given the horrific content, but also allows for a different kind of witnessing freed from the jittery effects of shock and disbelief, and toward a place of reckoning, remembering, and understanding.

Elsewhere, some tortuous examples of academic taxonomizing that remind me why I could never cut it as a grad student:

Elvira Pouw used the case study of films by the Sander family to raise a problem related to the classification of amateur media and proposed a possible solution. She argued that amateur film has typically be classified as either family film, with images of domestic spaces, or as hobby film, with images of domestic and non-domestic spaces that are shot to look as professionally as possible.

But the Sanders film screened, which featured the wedding of their cook, are not family films, as they do not show their immediate family, and are not made with professional shooting in mind, and thus are not are hobby films either. Pouw argued that they should be considered “extended family films,” offering a new category of amateur media that accounts for such films.


Nico de Klerk, who has now attended all six Orphans, presented films made by a wealthy ethnically Chinese family living in the Dutch East Indies. Where many people have focused on the value amateur films may have for other disciplines, such as history, de Klerk suggested that this value may be minimal, and we may learn more by applying the work of other disciplines to the study of amateur film.

Citing an article from a sociological journal, de Klerk suggested that the debate about whether observation affects people’s actions may be useful for the study of amateur film. One camp argues that film evidence suggests being filmed has a marginal effect on film subjects. People often act as they normally would in home movies, and quickly forget that they are being observed by a camera. The other camp suggests that the presence of the camera distorts social situations, producing interactions and moments that might not otherwise occur, such as posing for the camera.

In the end, de Klerk suggests that the real distortion takes place at our viewing of home movies, which were often produced under carefree conditions but when they are seen now they are treated much differently.

Which may be a long way of saying, "It's only a movie?"

Finally, here's the perennial favorite of the festival, Ro-Revus Talks About Worms, which due to popular demand was brought back to Orphans for the third year in a row:

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