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Orphan Films
by Marisa Helms
March 16, 2000
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Minnesota residents Ray and Esther Dowidat's silent film - Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther - documented daily life in their small town.

Photo: Minnesota Historical Society
While there is growing concern about the state of old Hollywood films, there is a state of high panic about "orphan films," the decades-old films that have no commercial interests looking after their preservation. Many are the amateur films which provide unique insights into communities now long gone.

BACK IN 1939, Minnesota residents Ray and Esther Dowidat grabbed a camera and made a film. But it was no home movie. They made a narrative film. Their short silent film is called Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther. It's a document of daily life in their small town.

Eleven years ago, Ray and Esther's daughter took "Cologne" to Minnesota Historical Society film archivist Bonnie Wilson for safe-keeping. Wilson talked about the film as she watched images roll by; images of German settlers and Minnesota farmland. And the innovative way the Dowidat's showed the passing of time.

"Raymond Dowadat decided to use the fiction of his wife writing in a diary," she said. "So everytime a title comes on screen, it's a piece of lined paper, and that's his wife writing on lined paper, her diary before she leaves town." Wilson says amateur films as carefully constructed as The Diary of Ray and Esther are rare, but films from the period are not uncommon.

"Throughout the state and throughout the nation, there were people out there using the new medium of 16mm film," Wilson says. "They're very hard to find. A lot of them were stuck in attics and deteriorated, others were just thrown out."

Wilson is able to preserve this and another film through the National Film Preservation Foundation's Treasures of American Film Archives project. The project is providing funding for archives across the country to preserve 45 orphan films; films without owners or that have fallen from copyright protection. Orphan films include newsreels, early silent films, documentaries, and experimental work.

There are thousands of orphan films languishing in archives around the country. But film historians have no complete count of these noncommercial films or how many of them have already been lost.

Of the orphan films that are known, many are dying a slow death. Many archives acquire these films from well-meaning people who find them in their basement, for example. Since those films have not been stored properly, they're already in poor shape. And preserving film is very expensive - up to $15,000 for a silent black-and-white feature.

Like The Diary of Ray and Esther, Hampton Alexander is a unique document of life in Minnesota.
Bobby Hickman and Timothy McKinney (shown) produced Hampton Alexander, perhaps the first and only non-documentary feature film made independently by African Americans in Minnesota.

Photo: Minnesota Historical Society
Hampton Alexander, which took two years to make, was finished in 1974. It's a fictional narrative about a young black man who returns home to Saint Paul to seek revenge for his fathers murder. Bonnie Wilson says the political context for Hampton Alexander is as compelling as the film itself.
"This is the Selby-Dale neighborhood in the middle of St Paul," she said. "It was devastated by the freeway 94. A lot of the people that lived on Rondo, for example, had to be moved. That had happened just prior to this movie being made. So the issue of highway building and intruding on the neighborhood, was fresh on people's minds."

The construction of Interstate 94 right through the Rondo neighborhood, and the gentrification of surrounding areas were fresh in the minds of the filmmakers, particularly Tim McKinney who was a high school student when he wrote the script.

The film's producer, Bobby Hickman, says McKinney's script and the making of the film was all part of community consciousness-raising. For 20 years, Hickman ran the Inner City Youth League, a group that was very involved with the Selby-Dale neighborhood and its youth. Hickman says he helps at-risk kids grapple with life through the arts. He says Hampton Alexandar was the perfect project to bring the community together.

"Everyone in that film was from the community," he said. "In the community there was an excitement, an electricity going on when we were making that film, we'd be on top of buildings and people would gather around."

Hickman had a small role in the film and served as the sound technician. He says after he retired from the Youth League, he lost track of the film. But a few years ago, his daughter brought it to him after finding it in the attic of the Inner City Youth League offices.

For More Information
See the Web site of the National Film Preservation Foundation.
To ensure it wouldn't be lost again, Hickman donated the film to the Minnesota Historical Society, itself now on the edge of the Selby-Dale area. Hampton Alexander has been shown a few times since. At the screenings, audience members can reminisce about the old neighborhood - its people, buildings, and fashions. Or for others, learn a bit of history about a neighborhood they may have just driven through on I-94, never stopping, never knowing about that community's history.

Now the films will be more widely available. The Diary of Ray and Esther will be featured on a DVD along with other restored orphan films also chosen through the National Film Preservation Foundation grant.