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Perhaps the most exciting discovery at this year's Orphan Film Symposium was With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. (Courtesy of Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, Tamiment Library, NYU)

Orphan Films - Recapturing Lost Snippets of History

Buffs gather from around the world to watch newly uncovered films by the likes of Orson Welles, Henri Cartier-Bresson and others

According to Craig Kridel, an educational historian at the University of South Carolina and one of the discoverers of the film, the board asserted that Greene "had no historical perspective of race relations in the U.S. or of the social and economic problems of the South.” In 1943, the board prepared a third version of One Tenth of Our Nation, some seven minutes shorter and with new material meant to encourage both students and the public about the potential for educating blacks. And then the film seemed to disappear, until it was recently rediscovered at the Rockefeller Archive Center by Kridel and curator Carol Radovich.

Kridel and Julie Hubbert, also at the University of South Carolina, are continuing research into how the film was made and why such a valuable, provocative work vanished.

“As the first documentary on black education in America, One Tenth of Our Nation displays the problems of attempting to present to a general audience the pride of accomplishment alongside reprehensible inequities of black education,” Kridel explains. “Now that historians are beginning to examine ‘the long civil rights movement,’ this rare period film offers a troubling and poignant portrayal of how social injustices were understood and accepted in the United States.”

Unlike most documentaries of the time—upbeat films that tried to reassure viewers about society's problems—One Tenth of Our Nation offered a very sobering look at issues that had largely been ignored. It would take more than a decade for the Supreme Court to strike down "separate but equal" segregation with Brown v. Board of Education.

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For many the highlight of the orphan film conference was a look at “Orson Welles’ Sketch Book,” six 50-minute episodes the actor-director made for BBC television in 1955. Welles was in the process of trying to complete Mr. Arkadin, a troubled multinational production, and staging his Moby Dick Rehearsed in London. He accepted the BBC contract as a sort of respite from his “real” work. It was also an opportunity to try out a new medium, one for which he was surprisingly well suited. “Television is merely illustrated radio,” he said, but he was merely one of the greatest radio personalities of his generation. He learned faster than most how to best exploit TV.

The fourth episode of “Orson Welles’ Sketch Book” is essentially a monologue buttressed by a few pen-and-ink drawings. Welles sits in medium close-up before a 35mm camera and starts talking about racial tensions in the American South, passports, border guards and “one of those long, drawn-out practical jokes you live to regret” about the destruction of La Scala from a miniature atom bomb. Against all odds, it’s a wonderful piece, full of humor and brio and Welles’ genius for storytelling.

But according to Stefan Droessler, director of the Munich Film Museum, the odds are against your seeing it for some time. Like much of Welles’ output, rights to the series are in dispute. The BBC contract called for one airing, and currently Oja Kodar, a Welles collaborator, and Welles’ daughter Beatrice are in disagreement about who owns the material. BBC Four showed the series last December, leading to its unauthorized appearance on YouTube, but Droessler warns that the posting was illegal and should eventually be removed.

Film archives are chronically underfunded, even as footage deteriorates beyond repair. Mike Mashon, head of the Library of Congress Moving Image Section, talks about a sort of curatorial triage in which the films that are deteriorating the fastest get moved to the front of the restoration line. “We have to convince people of the value of restoring motion pictures,” he admits. “Fortunately, there are very few people who don’t love movies.”

What’s at stake is what the Orphan Film Symposium wants to draw attention to: not just the classics, but the whole cinematic spectrum. Dan Streible, a New York University professor and member of the National Film Preservation Board who put together the first symposium in 1999, points to some success stories, like a restored 1928 Movietone newsreel in which director John Ford introduces Leon Trotsky to the American public. Or films by animator Helen Hill, who lost many of her prints and negatives in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. When Hill was murdered in 2007, orphanistas put together a plan to preserve and restore her titles. This year her Scratch and Crow (1995) was added to the National Film Registry.

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