Jeff Lambert: Saving the "orphans"

Mary Abowd, Associate Editor

Feb 21, 2017

Black and white dinosaur

Jeff Lambert has served as executive director of the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) since September 2014. Prior to that, he managed the foundation’s nationwide grant program, which has served 284 cultural institutions in all 50 states and preserved thousands of motion pictures that would have been unlikely to survive without public support. In 2003 Lambert and the NFPF joined forces with Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation to create the Avant-Garde Masters Grants, the first American grant program to target the preservation of experimental film. That collaboration has saved works by more than 60 celebrated film artists, from Kenneth Anger to Andy Warhol. Lambert was the producer behind the award-winning NFPF DVD set Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947-1986. He has taught at San Francisco State University and served on the board of the San Francisco Cinematheque. In anticipation of Lambert’s visit to the Wex this weekend, part of Cinema Revival, we asked him to tell us more about so-called “orphan” films and why these at-risk gems are worth finding—and saving.

Fifty Million Years Ago still

From Fifty Million Years Ago, courtesy of Academy Film Archive

What is an “orphan” film? Is there a distinction between orphans and public domain films?
Orphan films are those that either have no corporate owner or have been abandoned, films for which there is little or no commercial value to incentivize their preservation. These include educational and industrial films, artists’ works, home movies, government-sponsored films, amateur productions, and many documentaries. While orphan films are often in the public domain, there are many cases where independent filmmakers own the rights to their work but lack the resources to properly archive and preserve it. The NFPF assists archives that have taken stewardship of these orphans in order to make them available to the public.

Can you talk about any unusual discoveries, from single prints found in unexpected locations to treasures uncovered in out-of-the-way archives?
Important films turn up in unlikely places. When Lincoln Paid, a 1913 film featuring Francis Ford as Abraham Lincoln, was found in 2006 by a contractor who spotted it in a New Hampshire barn he was hired to demolish. Keene State College preserved the film with a grant from the NFPF. But more often than not, the biggest discoveries involve identifying films that are being cared for in archives around the world but have not been adequately catalogued. John Ford’s comedy Upstream (1927) turned up at the New Zealand Film Archive, while one of the films I’ll feature in my presentation this weekend, Fifty Million Years Ago—an animated introduction to the theory of evolution released in the US the same year as the Scopes Monkey Trial—was located at the EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands.

From Charles & Ray Eames Day of the Dead

From Day of the Dead, courtesy of Library of Congress

Could you provide an example of an orphan film that has been rescued by NFPF?
Sponsored films—often commissioned by corporations, schools, medical organizations, religious groups, and political entities to record, orient, train, sell, and persuade—provide examples of how groups conveyed their message using the motion picture. Important and innovative designers could be found working in the genre. Charles and Ray Eames made the poetic portrait of the Mexican Day of the Dead (1957) for the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Meanwhile in 1959, Kimberly-Clark Corporation commissioned Chicago’s Goldsholl Design & Film Associates to create the innovative collage film Faces and Fortunes to demonstrate the importance of branding for corporations and individuals alike. Both of these use film in creative, cutting-edge ways to get their points across.

Why do you feel this work is so important?
As a culture we seem to be gravitating quickly toward a language of moving images to help us understand and interpret the world around us. Watching films from our past allows us to see that visual language grow. It is one thing to read about early civil rights protests or historic figures, but seeing and hearing events and people in action creates an emotional bond with history. Americans from different walks of life have been making all sorts of films for more than 100 years, and it is only through preservation and access that we can keep these gestures toward recorded memory alive.