Thank you to the Art House Convergence, Spotlight Cinema Network, and all of you here for this really incredible honor. I use that word, because I still can’t quite believe it. It has taken me weeks to come up with this short speech — I hope my words convey how much this means to me.
Back in 1985, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was a runaway grad student newly returned to New York City with absolutely no idea what to do next. A former boss sent me on to First Run Features where I began as an unpaid intern and met my first mentor in film, the amazing Nancy Gerstman, who remains my very dear friend. As Nancy’s assistant, I got all the glamorous jobs, like making cold calls (John Toner, I think you were my second ever call) and phoning for grosses. This was a simpler time, when there were no cell phones, no fax machines, no Internet… so if you wanted the box office numbers, you called. And the film I was phoning about, Michael Apted’s 28 Up was then screening all across the country — in 16mm only!
The thing is, I actually loved making those calls. I had previously worked in publishing, volunteered for progressive causes, and studied history, but while I was making those calls for grosses to exhibitors like Jim Emerson at the Market Street Theater, Anita Monga at Renaissance Rialto, Richard Herskowitz at Cornell Cinema, and Gary Kaboly at Pittsburgh Filmmakers I found my tribe, my community, you.The next year, 1986, I moved on to New Yorker Films where I first worked as assistant to Dan Talbot and Jose Lopez. Here again, I was so lucky to be learning from some of wisest and kindest people in this business. Part of my job was coordinating with the managers of the Metro, Cinema Studio, and Lincoln Plaza Theaters, so I also got the opportunity to be part of the day-to-day work of exhibition. Later I moved over to work as a nontheatrical booker at New Yorker, where my customers and friends included Brent Kliewer in Santa Fe, Hart Wegner at UNLV, Eleanor Nichols in Sonoma, California, Dan Ladely in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Ann Brandman at the Honolulu Museum of Art. I am grateful to them all, and to so many more.
Since then, my list of film friends and teachers has grown to include fellow distributors Wendy Lidell, Adam Yauch, Jeff Massino, Emily Russo, Dan Berger, and Dennis’s wonderful mentor, Don Krim. I have also had the privilege of working with so many great exhibitors, including Bruce Goldstein (the first programmer to book a Milestone series) and Karen Cooper at Film Forum, Peggy Parsons at the National Gallery, Connie White, Richard Peña, John Ewing in Cleveland, Toby Leonard and Stephanie Silverman at the Belcourt, Carol Johnson and her great team at the Amherst Cinema, Rachel Jacobson, Harris Dew and John Vanco at the IFC Center, Florence Almozini and Dennis Lim at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and Dave Filipi at the Wexner. I promised a short speech, or I could definitely go on and on…
My film community has also grown to include archivists, scholars, filmmakers, and journalists from around the world. I am grateful to David Bordwell, Ian Christie, Jean Jacques Varret, Christophe Terhechte, Jedrzej Sablinski, Margaret Bodde, Ronald Gray, Dan Streible, Ally Field, Richard Koszarski, Charles Burnett, Philip Haas, John Canemaker, Eleanor Antin, Ava Du Vernay, Richard Brody, Bill Gosden, and Billy Woodberry. Former colleagues and interns including Cindi Rowell, Fumiko Takagi, Michael Bellavia, Isabel Cadalso, Megan Powers, Zach Zahos, Anke Mebold, Peter Miele, Nadja Tennstedt, Maia Krivoruk, Lauren Caddick, Adrian and Dylan Rothschild, Sarah Lipkin, Victor Vazquez, Austin Renna, Vincent Mollica, Angeli Reyes and my favorite, Adam Doros, are still members of our extended film family. And I would like to also thank my parents, who would have loved this, my beloved sister Karen Key, and my guys, Dennis and Adam. Friends like these at once make life bigger and more interesting and make the world smaller and kinder. I am incredibly grateful to them all.
Which brings me to this room and why we are all here today. Despite storms and delays, we all made our way here to Midway, Utah. Why? To be a community and to celebrate and strengthen the ties that make this community strong. And we schlepped here even though in 2019 there are so many other ways we could communicate. So why aren’t we all home now, tapping away at SnapChat, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, LinkedIn, Signal, Pinterest, Tumblr, Reddit, or even just texting or emailing?
The answer is the same reason that we all work to get people into movie theaters. Because all these media absolutely pale compared to the power of actually being in the presence of another person and sharing space and experiences with them. However convenient it may be to post a birthday greeting on a friend’s wall, it can never be as meaningful as a phone rendition of Happy Birthday (in my case, off-key) or actually sharing a celebratory dinner (with cake and candles).
Looking back on my decades in film, I have a few thoughts I’d like to share.
First, for me, networking is okay but collegiality is better and friendship is much better still. Over the years, I’ve been able to work with so many people I esteem and love — and it has been a privilege and a joy.
Second, all camaraderie requires intimacy which requires contact. Honestly, I miss the days of talking at length with my exhibitors. I just haven’t found that texts and short emails generally lead to new friendships. I became friends with many of my customers because we talked on the phone for hours and got to know one another. I knew if they were fans of Abba, or were recovering from shingles, or once lived in Elmira, NY, or had twelve-year-old twins — and they knew about my life too. I met other film friends in person, here at the AHC, at film festivals, and at conferences of the Association of Moving Image Archivists.
Third, I have become very wary of social media. I think it is so easy to get lulled into confusing social media interactions for real human connection. Also, we need to keep in mind that these are for-profit businesses run by huge corporations for the purpose of aggregating data — our data. And we know that they have repeatedly misused that private information to the detriment of individuals and to democracy. And I worry about the ability of hackers and bots to manipulate social media to polarize and alienate us from one another. I think we have all seen that happen.
Finally, looking forward, I really want to keep growing my worldwide film family! Cinema is a universal art form that embraces everything — literature, theater, dance, photography, comedy, animation, history, mythology, science, music — and my cinephile community is international, diverse, challenging, funny, crazy, thought-provoking, and the just, the best.
One of our international cinephile friends is Yvonne Ng, who serves with Dennis on the AMIA board, lives in Prague, and works for Witness, a great nonprofit organization that uses audiovisual technology to support civic participation and human rights around the world. We are immensely grateful to the wonderful team at the Spotlight Cinema Network for donating $2500 to Witness as part of our Lifetime Award. This donation will help Witness’s programs to create and archive evidence of military actions in Syria, to teach young people of color in Brazil how to document police violence, and to monitor the abuse of immigrants in the United States. We love that Witness is employing same technology that brings feature films to our screens to make the world safer and more just. The work that Witness does is incredibly tough and we hope that members of the Art House Convergence will check them out and support them.
[This section I managed to omit... I dropped my papers and got flustered...] And to close, let me say how much I love and respect the work that you all do, every day, in the real world, to bring people from different backgrounds and experiences together to share a passion, a movie theater, and maybe some popcorn. That’s not just building diversity, that is creating community.
We’ve written these speeches separately, so please forgive me if there’s some repetition. Just assume you’re watching a Christopher Nolan film.
Thank you to Alison, Ronnie, the Spotlight and Conference Leadership, and all of you for this wonderful award. Now, one doesn’t get too many lifetime achievement awards in ones… well, life. It sort of says it in its name. This honor really took us completely by surprise. And like most every one of my age, I completely forgot how damned old I’ve become.
There is something uncomfortable that I want to reveal publicly for the first time – because I think it is more valuable to discuss the struggles and the people who helped -- than to talk about any achievements. And there’s a specific reason why I’m telling you because it has to do with cinema… The fact is that I was a child of abuse. It was a life of frequently harsh, violent physical punishment and equally harsh criticism. For most of my young life, my self-esteem was zero – something I still struggle with even standing here today. My childhood terrors were a struggle that I hid from my teachers, my classmates, and my friends. I barely hung in there in high school, and by college, my life was slipping away from me. My college friends had no idea, but I was broken in so many ways.
Dennis: 1975 in Florida
Then it happened… at the advanced age of 21. One day, by complete accident, I was chosen for no real reason other than I could operate a video camera, to be the president of Ohio University’s Athens Film Society -- exactly forty years ago this year. My fortunes and my life completely changed for the better. It was instant karma in the form of 16mm celluloid. I found an art form that I loved above all the others, I found a career that has rewarded me time and time again – especially tonight – and I found my beloved wife and partner Amy and gave birth to Milestone, and even more important our son Adam, the joy of our lives. They, above all else, are why I’m here today
From day one in cinema, I also found surrogate fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers -- lifelong friends that I tend to call my cinematic family – that have helped me along the way. And they are from all phases of the industry, so please bear with me for a few seconds when I name a few of them. From the beginning, there was Dean Henry Lin at Ohio U and my first film boss Giulio Scalinger, followed by the animators Grant Munro and John Canemaker, the archivists Kevin Brownlow, Ross Lipman, and James Card, programmers like Anita Monga, John Ewing, Connie White, and Kyoko Hirano. The filmmakers Tony Buba (my personal favorite), Charles Burnett, Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, Jonathan Demme, Michael Powell, Bill Greaves, and Manny Kirshheimer. The media librarians Bill Sloan, Lillian Katz and Joe Yranski. The distributors Lee Krugman, Ian Christie, and the ever-wonderful Nancy Gerstman. Then there are the film critics like Scott Eyman, Ann Hornaday, Melissa Anderson, Manohla Dargis, Richard Brody, and Dave Kehr. There are also the lab people like Janice Allen, Russ Sunewick and Jack Rizzo. There’s Turner Classic Movies’ Charlie Tabesh. I know… he’s television… but he’s our brother-in-cinema and Milestone owes its continued existence to him. Then there are all my friends at the Eye Filmmuseum and my two closest cinematic sisters, Wendy Clarke – that’s Shirley’s daughter -- and Letizia Gatti of Reading Bloom, she’s our Italian side of the Milestone family.
And lastly, there’s Laura Rooney and the entire membership of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Amazing people who I have loved and cherished these past twenty-two years and I’m lucky now to be in a position as President that I am able to serve them. They are the thousand people all over the world working without fanfare to preserve our moving image history.
And of course, many of you here In this room, I consider to be my cinematic family. And just to explain, I started to write this speech in the Netherlands after three glasses of wine, and I was shall we say… a little drunk, overly sentimental, and immensely nostalgic. And outside of the drinking which in retrospect probably would have helped get me through this speech, I’m about to get a little of all that once again.
My fellow old-timers probably noticed by now that I haven’t thanked somebody I worked for seven years — and are probably getting a little pissed that I’ve forgotten him. And many have, but I never will. Donald Krim has been left out of film history by too many. He was too self-deprecating, too sincere, and too honest to have books, articles, and theses written about him. So let’s flash back to 1983. It’s a long story but I hope you will be repaid in the end by listening to it.
I finally left Ohio University having been president of the film society and programmed their terrific Athens International film festival. I was in hell for two years working for the family business – selling Marlboros, Virginia Slims, Eve 120s and Newports in Irvington, New Jersey for a living.
So! In desperation and with fingers crossed and with lots of prayers, I sent out about 200 letters to just about everybody in the BoxOffice Distributors list of 1983 along with my resume and Giulio’s reference letter. Over the next few weeks, I got 176 rejection letters – I still have them all -- and two film production companies who wanted me to launder money out of Greece -- well they both assumed with my last name being Doros and coming from Athens (they skipped over the Ohio part) that I must be Greek… and since I was looking for I job in film, that I must be dishonest… I mean can you imagine telling somebody in the job interview that you’re hiring them to commit international money laundering?
Anyway, months after I had given up and resigned to my fate of smelling like tobacco for the rest of my life, I got a letter late in December 1983 starting off “pertaining to your letter of May 5th.” Don, I have to say, kind of worked methodically. It seemed his last nontheatrical salesman had to be fired for dishonesty – taking imaginary bookings but shipping real 16mm and 35mm prints to unsuspecting exhibitors. As you can imagine, that did NOT go over well with the theaters…
As shy as I was, he saw something in me. I was hired and a couple of weeks later, I had my own office on West 57th Street. It was a tiny company then -- Don’s wife Susan Krim and Paula Pevzner were the other two people there and I am still tremendously in their debt as well.
I should mention that when I joined Kino, my father stopped talking to me for a year. I had left Star Tobacco and went into the film world. I had truly disgraced the family. But Don’s kindness, his willingness to teach me the ropes, his taking me into his confidence about the business, and especially our lunches and walks together where he’d tell me the history of indie cinema in New York and the characters he knew are memories I hold dear. Even his criticisms when I didn’t live up to what he thought I was capable of were kindly. I can’t begin to tell you how much he meant to me. In the emotional vacuum that was my prior life, he became my substitute father, my mentor, and my lifelong inspiration.
So! How did I become a distributor and a film archivist? During my first year there, Don acquired two silent films from the Gloria Swanson estate, Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly and Raoul Walsh’s Sadie Thompson. Von Stroheim’s film had been completed in haste by others less talented than him after he was fired, and Walsh’s masterpiece was missing its last reel. Don thought of bringing them out as historical oddities with an explanation at the beginning and end of the film. I asked if he thought of restoring them as close as you could using stills and scripts. I was inspired by Bob Gitt’s work on Lost Horizon done a few years before.
Now, this is commonplace these days where there are so many outlets for silent films, but this was absolutely unheard of in 1984. I should mention that Kino was always in debt. Kino was threatened almost monthly by the man Don bought the business from – and who was still owed a lot of money. Don and Susan were working nights and weekends trying to figure out how to keep the company alive. Besides that, only the well-respected Kevin Brownlow and David Gill were restoring silent films with the kind of budget I proposed, and they had Thames Television corporate money to back them. I mean, I was asking Don to spend a boatload of money on the idea that a 26-year-old kid with less than a year’s professional experience could pull this off. All Don asked was, “Do you think you can do it?” And, let me say here, I completely lied. I definitely didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I said, of course, I could. And he trusted me.
Oh my god, That was when I discovered film restoration. As broken as I had been as a teenager, the art of putting something together again, to fix it and make it whole, to make it look new again, was a revelation. I’ve never discussed this before and perhaps I didn’t even realize it until I wrote this speech. But I suspect I’m not alone in this feeling of film restoration as rejuvenation of one’s own soul.
For the next two years, I was working at Kino every day in the city. And every night and on weekends, I would take the bus an hour ride home, then drive up an hour to Janice Allen’s lab in Park Ridge, New Jersey so I could work on these two films late into the early morning hours. Janice, by the way, taught me everything I needed to know. I was living on coffee, fast food, and doughnuts that I’d pick up on the New Jersey Parkway. And every morning, I’d arrive at Kino before anyone else and Don and I would go over what I did the night before. We also talked about what I was going to do, and he helped with possible ideas and on writing the new intertitles we needed. We sweated daily to make them better. As I recall, the intertitle “A Serenade” took two weeks before we finally came up with it.
Don was there to hold my hand when I needed it. All together, it cost a lot of money to restore these two films, most likely money he had to borrow. Don never mentioned it, so I never had to think about it. Hell, I was probably too young and too self-involved to care. When by some miracle the first one neared completion, Queen Kelly was to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and to follow was a huge opening in Los Angeles. There was a lot of excitement about the film and It looked like it was going to be a tremendous success. Don told me that I was to be credited as the archivist. I suggested that Don also would take a restoration credit. He said, no thanks, the Kino International logo was all he needed. That was his. And that was Don.
Now for my inspirational part of my part of the speech and the reason I told this long story. It’s the secret why Milestone, run by two short but adorable Jewish people out of their home in New Jersey is 29-years-old and has outlasted a lot of bigger companies. No matter how broke we were, we took some really big risks on films that really mattered to us. That could make lives better just by watching them. We went for the home runs because no one remembers the singles the next day. Our films may seem like obvious choices now, but I promise you that everybody thought we were crazy to spend $450,000 to release a film shot in 16mm about an African American working at a slaughterhouse in Watts — or to risk all our savings on a 141-minute 1964 propaganda film celebrating the Cuban revolution — or taking ten years to restore the films of the uncommercial and forgotten Shirley Clarke. We took these risks because we believed in the power of cinema, in the films themselves… and we believed in all of you.
Our secret was to build our company taking risks — to be honest, the more degree of difficulty the better… because it’s not just about today, it’s about building something of value to last for generations. Don taught us this.
So! let’s say down the road, you distributors and exhibitors alike, finding that you need to take a big risk on something really wonderful and worth fighting for … I want you to remember Don Krim. By the way, Queen Kelly netted over half a million dollars and played in over forty countries. Don took great risks not only on films and directors but also on a person that 176 other companies wouldn’t hire -- and here I am today with my lovely wife and this rather nifty award. This year, Amy and I are going to restore Queen Kelly and Sadie Thompson once again, this time in Don’s honor. This time, his name will appear in the final credits.
So in conclusion, when you hear me say — and I do so frequently — that I believe in the power of cinema to change lives, well, here I am.
Now, I’ll dry my tears over lost friends and I’ll get that drink with my amazing partner and wife, and here will be my toast, “Here is to all of you.” Thank you.
By Dennis Doros, Co-owner of Milestone and President of AMIA
My first trip to the Association of Moving Image Archivists was in Bethesda, Maryland in 1997. My panel on the collegial work between archives and distributors did not go very well — one of the archivists suggested that in 20 years, the only place that anyone could go see silent films would be in an archive. It was a bad prediction (as it turns out) and it reinforced my suspicions that many archivists were dead set against cooperating on restorations that would see commercial release.
But I met a new friend there who convinced me to come back and try again. The next year’s conference in Miami changed my life forever and set me on a course I never expected. I found not only colleagues in the archival world... but a family as well. (And now, I'm proud to say that my own family, Amy and our son Adam, are also members!)
I served three terms on the Board of Directors and after a hiatus, I am now back— this time serving as President of AMIA. Below is a photo of this year's board, a collection of amazing people that I’m proud and grateful to call friends. They work tirelessly to better our field and help our members.
Casey Davis Kaufman, Lauren Sorenson, me, Andrea Leigh, Teague Schneiter, Yvonne Ng, John Polito, Jayson Wall, Melissa Dollman
In its 28 years of existence, the organization has helped abolish the boundaries between commercial and non-commercial, distributors and archivists, labs and archives, collectors and copyright holders, academics and studios. We have grown from our early days of sitting around a table to nearly a thousand members from 29 countries. Our conference takes up three floors of hotel space with panels, workshops, exhibition spaces, roundtables, screenings and much more! We offer scholarships, internships, and travel grants to all those interested in the preservation of moving images.
This year, the Board decided to produce a song to welcome the newcomers to AMIA. It was intended to be a silly song — to show that the board was willing to put its best (or worst) foot forward to make people feel at home. However, we did not count on the talents of Audio Mechanics' John Polito. The song was both splendidly retro and funny and his audio talents made us sound, well, good! I make, shall we say, a surprising contribution. “We are AMIA” was a hit at this year’s AMIA conference, and we want to share it with our Milestone friends!
I want, however, to say that AMIA is just not all song and dance. It is four days of spectacular continuing education, networking, and problem-solving. So many restorations have come from colleagues meeting other colleagues at the conference, that a festival featuring all those restored moving images would take years.
AMIA is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) and your donation can help to bring students and unsubsidized archivists to the conference from around the world. A gift to the AMIA travel fund is like the proverbial story of teaching a man to fish — you are not restoring a specific film, but you are helping to teach archivists who will go out and preserve and restore hundreds of films around the world.
To find out how you can donate, here's the link!
Way back in May 2012 I wrote and posted a blog on this website entitled “Pay Up!” In that essay I argued that people should get paid for working. What a concept, huh? Revolutionary.
In that blog, I was reacting to an article that had just appeared in the New York Times about the phenomenon of unpaid internships. But then, for a while things seemed to be improving. In June 2013 a Federal District Court judge in Manhattan ruled that Fox Searchlight had violated federal and New York minimum wage laws by not paying production interns working on Black Swan. And for a few years, young people getting out of college (often with huge student loan debt) were actually earning some money at their first film industry jobs.
Of course, here at Milestone, we have continued our practice of paying interns. In fact, when I became an active supporter of Bernie Sanders, we began paying all college students and grads $15 an hour and our high school assistants $13 an hour.
So Dennis and I are truly dismayed to learn that many production companies, theaters, museums, and fellow film distributors have gone back to the old practice of allowing well-educated, hard-working young people to work for free.
In August, as our two wonderful summer interns Austin and Malu were preparing to leave and were looking for new internships or employment, we heard from them about how hard it is to find any that pays. Honestly, we were appalled to hear about companies and institutions that pay a $10 or $25 per day — or absolutely nothing at all.
As a former labor historian, I also want to take a moment to address an argument I sometimes hear — that unpaid internships are essentially an extension of the age-old apprenticeship model (and I am definitely not referring to a former television show!). So here is the thing: “the system of apprenticeship first developed in the later Middle Ages and came to be supervised by craft guilds and town governments. A master craftsman was entitled to employ young people as an inexpensive form of labour in exchange for providing food, lodging and formal training in the craft.”
Interns in 2018 have to house, feed, clothe, and transport themselves and they carry enormous debt burdens. The average loan debt of a student graduating in New York State in 2017 was more than $30,000. You can read more here.
Back in 2012 I wrote that Dennis and I were the only full-time permanent staff at Milestone and that we worked in the basement of our house, cleaned the cat boxes, packed orders, and did all the production, bookkeeping, and shipping. We still do. And we are making the exact same salary we were earning when I wrote that 2012 blog — that is, when our cash flow allows us to take pay checks.
FYI, we earn a little more than double what our interns do (and that is only if you presume that we work only 40 hours a week. We don’t). And it is interesting to note that the Economic Policy Institute reported this year that the average CEO pay is 271 times that of the typical American worker.
I understand that in addition to making hard choices that keep our overhead low (literally — tall interns need to duck in our subterranean office), Dennis and I are also lucky to be able to decide to pay our interns fairly. For one thing, we only hire interns for short-term assignments, and then only when we can afford to. For another, in our early years, we benefited from family financial help.
But think about this: the endowment of the New York’s Museum of Modern Art is almost half a billion dollars. And in the current listings on the New York Foundation for the Arts jobs page, MoMA’s PS1 is advertising an unpaid Live Programming Internship. Really.
Recently, Bernie Sanders introduced the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act (or the “Stop BEZOS” Act) — legislation aimed at taxing companies whose 500+ employees earn low wages and receive federal benefits like food stamps, public housing, and Medicaid. Bernie is trying to get us to think about, talk about, and change current corporate practices that are making our country increasingly unequal in income and wealth. As he has said, “A nation will not survive morally or economically when so few have so much, while so many have so little.”
Now I cannot change the Gini coefficient (a measure of statistical dispersion intended to represent the income or wealth distribution of a nation's residents, and is the most commonly used measurement of inequality) of the USA.
Neither can you. But we may be able to do something — and we must try.
I’m trying by paying my interns and writing this blog. Maybe you can try something too! This world isn’t going to get fairer or kinder or more just unless we all try to do whatever we can. Think about it...
And finally, remember that it isn’t a fairy tale that once upon a time working people joined forces to try to improve pay and working conditions and to make the world more equitable and peaceful.
Yours in solidarity,
And here is a positive postscript! Thanks to the efforts of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Amazon has announced that the company is raising its minimum wage to $15 for all US employees, including full-time, part-time, temporary and seasonal workers! You can read more here!
Milestone summer interns Luyao Ma and Austin Renna
Having just graduated college and completed internships at The Criterion Collection, Janus Films, and The New Jersey Film Festival, I didn’t know what my next move was within the film industry. I learned a great deal at all three internships: from how to run a small-scale film festival, to seeing first-hand how a film becomes a finished product on DVD, to how to prepare for a theatrical re-release of a cult classic, but I didn’t quite know where I should head to next. I was fortunate enough to hear about Milestone Film & Video through some former colleagues and to my surprise they had a large catalog of incredible and unique films. I was disappointed in myself for never having heard of them before so I reached out to the company to see what opportunities were available and what I could do to help them out. I knew I wanted to do something different than my previous internships and different is exactly what I got.
As my internship here at Milestone comes to a close, I want to express my gratitude towards Amy & Dennis for bringing me on board and letting me work on some very exciting projects. The most intriguing thing I got to work on over the summer was rewording and restructuring the intertitles for a 1915 Italian silent film called Filibus. The film was recently restored under the supervision of Annike Kross at the EYE Filmmuseum in 2K from a preserved 35mm print that meticulously matched the original tinting and toning of the 1916 print from the Desmet Collection.
I also assisted in the research and writing of the press kit for the film. With that there was a lot of time spent translating a variety of documents from Italian and Spanish into English. The reason being was a lot of the details about Corona Films, the company that produced the film, and Mario Roncoroni, the film’s director, was only available in those two languages. With the help of some Italian books, and our friend Eduardo Sastre Gómez in Spain, I was able to add a wealth of information to the press kit about these two subjects.
Back to the main task; the problem with the intertitles in the current restoration was that they originally came from a Dutch print of the film that was distributed in 1916. The Dutch intertitles were then translated to English sometime in the 1980s. The issue with that translation was that it was a very literal, one that didn’t account for the nuances and complexities of the English language. The translation was also littered with several grammatical and spelling errors and very awkward sentence structuring. All of this is what led me to tackle the revision of the intertitles for the new version of the film that is coming soon.
In preparation for the project, I became acquainted with the style and flavor of the language of 1910s detective fiction. Dennis entrusted me with a nice copy of An Arsène Lupin Omnibus and I got to work reading a few chapters. If you don’t know, Arsène Lupin was a gentleman thief and master of disguise who was charismatic, charming, and above all, cunning. It’s fair to say that Filibus would’ve been a worthy rival to Lupin, as they both share the same sly characteristics. Being immersed in these stories really did help me figure out what exact language I should be using when writing the intertitles. One specific example came early on in the film. There’s part of an intertitle that says, “Detective Hardy requests all who have any indication or information to report at the office of notary Desmond.” When rewriting this specific intertitle, we decided to change “notary” to “magistrate” because it was a word commonly used in the crime stories of Arsène Lupin, and we believed it fit the tone of the film better.
Another thing that helped prepare me for the task ahead was my studies and practice of poetry at Rutgers University. I was always very interested in what words sounded best next to each other and how a specific combination of words could make a person feel a certain way. I’ve written a lot of poems about films I’ve seen, people I’ve met, and memories that I want to keep safe. While I haven’t written a standard poem in a long time, I’ve transitioned now into writing fictionalized diary entries from the point of view of two different characters. I’m still waiting to see what shape this project will take, but it’s helped me a lot with just expressing very intimate and personal ideas in a removed sort of way. Above all, what interests me most about poetry is how words and symbols come together to accumulate meaning. That’s the point of view I took with revising the intertitles as well. To me, it was clear we had to get the right combination of words to make the meaning really shine through.
When the time came for me to start on this project, I was fortunate enough to be working off of an early draft that Amy & Dennis had already wrote. This provided me with a nice foundation to not only double-check their work, but to also offer my own spin and suggestions on things. It’s funny working on a project like this with multiple people because everyone has their own idea and unique vision of how sentences and words should be structured. It definitely allowed for some great debates and deliberations at Milestone HQ; we even had Amy & Dennis’ son Adam, our other interns Malu and Zach, and Rodney Sauer (Director of The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra), weigh in on certain phrasings and ideas. It was a great big party in some regards, even if the debate got pretty heated at times
Here are a few examples of what the intertitles originally looked like and what we decided to change them to:
This intertitle comes at a point in the film where Detective Kutt-Hendy is trying to frame Filibus for a crime with a tiny spy camera. Filibus is much too cunning for this, so she decides to use Kutt-Hendy’s trap to frame him for the same crime. The original intertitle doesn’t really do justice to the meaning of what’s actually happening in the film. It’s quite melodramatic and the word “fight” is kind of a leap from what Filibus is actually doing. We decided to change this intertitle to:
“I shall ensnare him with his own device!” This more accurately reflects what Filibus is doing and the verb “ensnare” makes much more sense than the word “fight” in this scenario.
Here’s another example:
This intertitle comes after the point where Kutt-Hendy finds that a mysterious object, with handprints on it, has been planted on him when the lights go out at a party. As you can tell, the main idea of the intertitle is there, but it’s shrouded in awkward phrasing and punctuation. We decided to change this intertitle to: “There is an excellent magician among us. Who is it? Please don’t feel insulted, but I would like to collect the handprints of everyone present.” With this we wanted to expand the main idea of the intertitle and make it more coherent. We decided “conjurer” wasn’t the right tone for this situation so we deliberated between “magician” and “pickpocket” before finally settling on the former. We also took out the ellipses and made the language much more straightforward and clear.
There’s definitely a fine line you have to walk when revising and editing intertitles. You want to make sure you’re not straying so far from the main idea of what it was originally trying to say. It’s important to note the style, tone, and nature of films released of that time period, and in that specific country, and honor the history and tradition that they set for themselves.
I can’t say I’ve ever really worked on a project like this before, but the experience felt similar to the process of editing a poem or piece of writing. For me, when writing a poem or diary entry, every word and every punctuation mark matters. If you were to ask any of my friends, they’d tell you that sometimes it takes me an hour or so just to write a short diary entry. This is because I’m always so concerned with the words and punctuation I’m using. I always want to be proud of the writing that I put out into the world. When I was editing these intertitles, I felt the same way. I knew there would be new audiences coming to see this film so I felt it was my duty to make sure everyone on the team was satisfied with the way the intertitles were worded and written. I believe it’s important to care about the work you do and the words you choose on a daily basis; this project felt like an extension of that very belief. It was a great honor and privilege to work on Filibus and it’s exciting that audiences will be able to see these revised intertitles, complete with a new text designed by Allen Perkins, and be totally immersed in the world of Filibus.
I’d heard about Lotte Reiniger and seen stills and clips from her films, but I didn’t know the whole story of this fantastic animation pioneer.
So when I found out that this talented creator came from Berlin, the city I’ve lived in since 2005, I knew I had to suggest her for the Dead Ladies Show. The Dead Ladies Show tells the stories of amazing women from history live on stage, and I produce a monthly podcast from the events. Lotte’s famous film The Adventures of Prince Achmed debuted at the Volksbuhne, just a few blocks up the road from where I stood on stage telling her story. Afterwards, Rike Reiniger — a playwright and theatre director (who also works with puppets!), and a relative of Lotte’s through marriage — came up to tell me how much she’d enjoyed my talk. It was truly a rewarding moment.
I chose to tell Lotte’s story in the form of a fairy tale in five acts. I think she would have approved. But as I said in my presentation, fairy tales, especially those set in Germany, tend to be a little bit more Grimm than Disney.
Lotte’s painstakingly crafted silhouette films — some 80 in all — stemmed from her precocious talent, or what she called “an uncanny ability” for paper cutting. And while her basic tools were minimal, they led to the creation of the earliest surviving full-length animated feature film (Prince Achmed in 1926) and the animation desk and multi-plane camera that made the film’s intricate details and layered vivid depths possible, along with previously unseen special effects courtesy of wax and sand.
Making magic out of not much was a skill that followed Lotte throughout her days, especially before and after the war as she and her husband Carl fled from Germany around Europe to the UK and back in a flight from the era’s horrors. One of the most touching things I saw in my research was a British newspaper article talking about how Lotte created puppets from discarded laundry soap boxes. She scavenged cardboard and paper where she could — anything to continue her art.
And while she was little known for decades, it seems there in fact are many, many fans and friends dedicated to bringing Lotte and her work out of the shadows.
Lotte’s influence can be seen in the work of notable contemporary animation leaders including Michel Ocelot and Rebecca Sugar, and even a scene from Harry Potter, The Deathly Hallows Part 1 has Lotte’s fingerprints on it. And, there’s this year’s Lotte that Silhouette Girl, a 10-minute short film by Elizabeth Beecherl (director and animator) and Carla Patullo (director and composer) narrated by Lotte herself via a 1976 interview; it uses shadow puppets and a multi-plane camera based on Lotte’s own designs, and was named best short film at the American Documentary Film Festival.I first heard of Lotte Reiniger and Prince Achmed from Milestone Films, via Amy, who I met and interviewed at the Berlinale a decade ago, in the course of writing a story on The Exiles for NPR. Amy and Dennis’s passion for film, along with their DVD of Prince Achmed (which includes a documentary and other extras) got me started on my Lotte learning curve, a trajectory that was quickly accelerated by Whitney Grace’s incredibly in-depth 2017 book Lotte Reiniger: Pioneer of Film Animation. Find Grace’s book if you want to read more. But of course the very best place to begin is by watching Lotte’s films.