Washington Evening Journal

Fairfield Ledger   Mt. Pleasant News
Neighbors Growing Together | Jul 16, 2018

Brinton documentary to open here

By David Hotle | Aug 30, 2017
Local historian Mike Zahs gives a presentation of the works of Frank Brinton, including his films and several inventions the former Washingtonian created during his lifetime. The Brinton Films and Zahs are the subject of a documentary film that was recently completed and will have its Iowa premiere in Washington’s State Theatre.  The Brinton films date back as far as 1879 and have been featured at many film festivals.



After four years in the making, the documentary film “Saving Brinton” will open in Iowa theaters, beginning with the State Theatre on Sept. 17 at 4 p.m. and Sept. 18 at 6:30 p.m. and include a special showing of some of the first movies ever shown in Iowa.

The documentary film shows the story of former history teacher Mike Zahs — described by the filmmakers as “an eccentric Iowa collector” — who uncovers a series of antique films in the basement of a local resident, finding them to be the works of Frank Brinton who began shooting the films as early as 1879.

“In 1981 I met a man on the square in Washington who was cleaning out his father’s basement,” Zahs recalled. “His father had been the executor of Indiana Brinton’s estate and for some reason we will probably never know, instead of getting rid of a lot of the things, almost everything that was connected to entertainment he moved to his own basement. It sat there from 1955 to 1981. His son came up from Florida to clean out the basement. We just ran into each other on the square and he knew I was interested in the Brintons. He was going to have an auction, but that didn’t work out. He told me to help clean out the basement.

“The things were not sitting on the curb; I did not buy them at an auction; there are about 10 different ways out there that I got them. I literally just talked to him on the square and then moved three truckloads out of the basement.”

The “Barnstorming Brinton Iowa Tour” is an eight-city screening of the film. The film also will be shown in Ames, Iowa City, Okoboji, Des Moines, Osceola, Grinnell, and Winterset. Each screening will be followed by a live question and answer event with Zahs and the filmmakers.

Select screenings will include an additional presentation of the restored silent films from the collection of famed filmmakers as Thomas Edison, the Lumiere brothers and George Melies.

Produced by Iowa City filmmakers Tommy Haines, John Richard and Andrew Sherburne, the film premiered at the American Film Institute’s prestigious AFI Docs festival in Washington, D.C., in June.

“We are kind of trying to do the tour in the same spirit that Frank Brinton would do — hop around towns through the Midwest,” Haines said. “We are starting at the State Theatre where Frank originally was the manager. That was a very fitting spot for the premiere location in Iowa.”

Sherburne said the documentary project began when they learned of the films from Humanities Iowa. Zahs credits Washington resident Tim Johnson, who worked for Humanities Iowa at the time, for bringing the films to the group’s attention. They viewed the films and met Zahs.

“After spending about 15 or 20 minutes with Mike, we realized there was a lot more to this story,” he said. “The story does not begin or end with the discovery of the films, but that Mike spent a lifetime saving the history of Washington County and all parts of Iowa.”

The filmmakers said Zahs had been trying to get attention for the films for many years. They still reel from the idea that the films had been showing for over a decade less than 30 minutes from where they lived, and they didn’t know about it.

When they connected with Zahs was when the films were beginning to get attention.

The journey for the making of the film spanned from Washington, D.C., to Paris, France and several other locations in between, as well as plenty of things right in Washington, Iowa.

“We wanted to capture what Mike’s Iowa looked like and what Washington County was like,” Haines said. “We spent a lot of time just following Mike around town and to his shows so we could get the flavor of what makes this area special.”

While originally a story about the films, the documentary soon became more about Zahs’ passion for Washington County and Iowa history.

People seeing the 87-minute documentary can expect to see both the story of the Frank Brinton films and the story of Washington County.

There are plenty of community shots from the last four years, including such things as Washington’s 175th anniversary celebration, the unveiling of the new marquee at the State Theatre, and the celebration where the State Theatre was named the longest continually running theater by Guinness.

The people of Washington County are the stars of the film. The extravaganza in May 2016 was the capper for the documentary.

In making the documentary, the filmmakers also recognize the Washington County Riverboat Foundation for providing a grant that helped make the film.

Watch the trailer for the film or visit the official website at www.savingbrinton.com.

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