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April 1, 2010

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Movie Review – Forgotten Silver (1995)

by NIR SHALEV

Forgotten Silver (1995)

Director Peter Jackson is famous for having had the audacity to make the three epic Lord of the Rings films total over nine hours in length and for remaking the classic King Kong, also into a three hour epic.  But perhaps his most ambitious project is a short documentary from the mid-nineties called Forgotten Silver.

Forgotten Silver is the story of Colin McKenzie (Thomas Robins), a pioneer filmmaker at the turn of the century.  According to this film Colin shot a segment of the very first flight of an aeroplane and had managed to do so nine months before the Wright Brothers made their first flight, he had developed a chemical that allowed for shooting in color, and he had managed to build a device that successfully synchronized sound with images twenty years before Al Jolson first sang in movie theaters.

When I had first watched this film in Film School I was immediately aware of why we were given this movie to watch: this unknown man from New Zealand managed to beat the “pioneers” at their own game by twenty or so years in every category.  He was a genius that had completely been forgotten over the years.  But when the film was over the Cinematography teacher informed us that it was an April Fools’ joke and that this documentary was fake.

Peter Jackson’s obscure mockumentary of a fictitious genius was so well made that I was flabbergasted.  When originally watching the LOTR trilogy I complained about how I was able see the “blue screen outlines” in almost every shot and that the special effects really weren’t all that good.  But the special effects in this film are astonishingly well done – because they aren’t effects.  Colin’s “films” were filmed with a real crank-camera using 16mm and old 35mm film stock.  The grain and scratches are not special effects, they are real.  The actors within the “films” were carefully chosen to resemble actors from eighty and ninety years ago and their acting mannerisms were executed to perfection.

The mockumentary chronicles Colin’s obsession with making an epic film depicting the famous Bible story of “Salome,” casting himself as John the Baptist.  The woman chosen to play Salome, May Belle (Sarah McLeod) is very beautiful and he immediately falls in love with her but his brother Brooke, with whom he owns the film production company “The McKenzie Brothers,” snags her first and marries her.  Colin is jealous but continues on with his dream project.  After hearing the news that his brother was mortally wounded during the First World War he consoles May Belle and eventually they fall in love and marry.

The rest of Colin’s career deals with setbacks to the filmmaking, such as a rainy season followed by a heat wave that lasted months, and when he’s in need of cash he teams up with Stan the Man (Peter Corrigan) and shoots shorts depicting Stan sneaking up on unsuspecting passersby and delivering pies to their faces.  ”Salome” was eventually completed but by that time Colin’s name was no longer popular.  The second half of the film is Jackson in the guise of documentarian looking for El Dorado: it is the shooting location of McKenzie’s “Salome” that is, apparently, in the middle of a jungle.  Purportedly, over the years it had simply become a myth and Jackson is determined to find it.

Throughout this film Peter Jackson plays himself and he lets himself in on the joke.  He pretends that Colin was real and is the “host” of the film.  Interviewed also are famous film historian and critic Leonard Maltin, film producer Harvey Weinstein, and actor/director Sam Neil.  They are all so believable that this mockumentary works on every level. I was completely suckered.

What is most fascinating is the way the people involved in making the film kept the secret.  Depicted in the film: when Colin is shooting his grand finale of “Salome” he hires fifteen thousand extras with the money he borrows from the mob.  In reality: how did all of these actors not let any of their friends and relatives know that they are working on a Peter Jackson mockumentary?  The secret was so well kept that watching the film thirteen years later I thought it was real.

This is a great treat from a truly gifted filmmaker.  I read in the Wikipedia entry for the film that the mockumentary appeared on Television New Zealand’s channel TV ONE and was introduced as a serious documentary.  Most of the television audience was fooled until the director revealed the big surprise after the showing.  When viewing it for the first time try keep an open mind and when telling your friends about it make sure to NOT mention that it’s fake.  It worked on me and everybody else in my class who saw it, and we were film students.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. miriam
    Apr 1 2010

    Sounds like fun and a new one to me. I am reminded again of the famous BBC piece about the spaghetti harvest, a brilliant April Fool’s joke in 1957. I was about six and terribly confused. I was pretty sure that spaghetti didn’t grow on trees but it looked so real and it was on TV, so it had to be true – didn’t it?

  2. Nir Shalev
    Apr 1 2010

    Absolutely!

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