Films entertain, move and inspire audiences, but they’re also documents of life itself. Movies impart their own stories, as Morgan White’s The Slippers, Jay Cheel’s How to Build a Time Machine and Ali Kazimi’s Random Acts of Legacy reveal with their studies of the histories embedded within films that have fascinated them. These three film-obsessed documentaries revel in the power of moving images to simultaneously evoke the past while offering intriguing essays for viewers in the present.
The Slippers walks down the Yellow Brick Road as White explores the life of Dorothy’s iconic ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. This MGM classic and childhood staple carries a dark history. White, speaking with POV, said that his interest in the slippers arose following a 2011 auction in which a collector purchased Dorothy’s shoes for a record $2.2 million, which precipitated a mania for Hollywood artefacts as more pairs of ruby slippers surfaced. White uses the sale and the ensuing media tornado to interrogate Hollywood’s neglect of its own legacy. In The Slippers, White asks if historical artifacts are more valuable on display or safely secured, in vaults hidden from the prying eyes of the public.
Dorothy’s shoes inspire dramatic downfalls for collectors who covet them. The hunt for the slippers evokes classic John Huston films like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of Sierra Madre, as people who encounter the shoes are undone by their obsessions. “My idea was to take the shoes and use them as a McGuffin,” White explains. “They’re the thing that everyone’s talking about, just like in North by Northwest. That microfilm is what everyone is going after, but in reality it’s wholly irrelevant. That’s what I wanted to do with this movie. We’re going to talk about the ruby slippers, but we’re not really going to talk about them. I could have told you all the specifics of the shoes—the threads, the bead count, the size—but that’s boring. What’s interesting is the pursuit, what everyone loves about them. They’re seemingly innocuous, yet they have such a sordid history.”
White delves into the story of costume designer Kent Warner and his effort to save props and regalia from destruction after finding the slippers in 1970, when the studio system had recently collapsed and no one was paying attention to Hollywood’s past. “The idea of showing the history of the studio system was to put the viewer into Kent’s mindset,” says White. “All that stuff he grew up with—movies he loved and the way Hollywood was—informed his decision to steal the shoes. The idea that his quest is perceivably wrong—but for the greater cultural good—fascinates me.”
White adds that Warner’s effort to save the ruby slippers marks a turning point in Hollywood history. “It’s interesting that this story coincides with the death of the studio system,” White notes. “MGM has such a great story: so many legends were made there, and then it died in the most horrible way possible. They gutted that studio.” White adds that the divergence between Warner’s preservation and Hollywood’s forgetfulness illustrates how studio dynasties may fall if they fail to consider their collective past.
Another piece of movie memorabilia fuels obsessions in How to Build a Time Machine. Jay Cheel (Beauty Day) looks at two men, animator Rob Niosi and physicist Ron Mallett, whose love for H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine and George Pal’s classic 1960 film adaptation inspires them to create their own time machines. Niosi builds a replica of the prop from The Time Machine to house a memory bank for his friends, both living and dead. Mallett, alternatively, explores counter-clockwise travel through scientific inquiry. While their motivations vary, Cheel’s subjects have altruistic drives.
Although both men pursue a trip as fantastical as Dorothy’s flight to Oz, Cheel observes that their preoccupations differ. “Rob’s obsession is self-aware. He jokes about it. There’s some levity,” he says. “Ron’s obsession has actually affected his life. He’s so obsessed with this memory of his father that he wants to change the physics of the world to save him. Then there’s the risk that if he’s successful, he’ll undo everything. And he’s willing to take that risk.” The film navigates the implications of time travel as its subjects confront the philosophical conundrums of their quests.
The doc creates its own time machine by likening filmmaking to the process these men pursue. Cheel compares the subjects’ endeavours to film’s ability to manipulate time. “Rob Niosi showed me the educational film he did about film ratios,” Cheel says, “and the faster you shoot film when you project it, the slower it is. That was the perfect analogy for the special theory of relativity.”
Ron Mallett, alternatively, discusses old movies whose late stars haunt the screen as ghosts. Like the memory of Mallett’s father, who preoccupies his scientific inquiries, the images of deceased actors transport one to the past. Cheel adds that Mallett’s perspective on ghostly images adds a philosophic dimension to classic films, which document eras predating one’s existence. “I think people take that for granted,” says Cheel.
Historical images also haunt Ali Kazimi’s Random Acts of Legacy, which embarks on the voyage of time travel proposed by Cheel’s film. It highlights how people can take for granted the act of seeing themselves projected onscreen.
As with White and Cheel’s films, Kazimi’s doc materialises from a gem of cinematic memorabilia: a collection of film reels from the 1930s shot by Chicago-based filmmaker Silas Fung, which he bought on eBay. “I’ve been collecting home movies, particularly images of people of colour, for many years,” says Kazimi, who is the head of York University’s prestigious film department. “I’ve discovered that in public archives, there are hardly any moving images of the presence of people of colour in Canada and the USA.”
However, the doc reveals Kazimi’s treasure as damaged goods. Kazimi says he initially abandoned the project because the footage wasn’t functional in its state of decay. “Then this engineer came along with a crazy DIY set up,” Kazimi explains. “It was an all-or-nothing proposition and I won the lottery.”
Kazimi’s film resurrects these salvaged images. The visible decay of Fung’s films perfectly illustrates Ron Mallett’s theory of cinematic ghosts, as images of the dead inspire Kazimi to honour their legacy. Similarly, Rob Niosi resurrects a home movie that he showed to a friend moments before he died in a car accident. “When Rob talks about his friend passing,” Cheel says, “there’s 8mm footage [of him]….It feels more like an antiquated document of the past than it would if it were an HD digital image.” Film, unlike digital, carries the mark of existence. “It feels old. You sense that passage of time,” Cheel adds, noting how the different film stock of Rob Niosi’s home movie affords a time warp even if it can’t reverse fate to save his friend.
Kazimi similarly empowers film as a record of existence. The footage of a middle-class Chinese-American family is rare, as Kazimi’s scholarly research into moving images of visible minorities unquestionably reveals. “Remember that this is an era where Canada’s Chinese Exclusion Act is in place and the U.S. has similar legislation,” observes Kazimi. “Both countries effectively follow a white settler policy in terms of who gets into the country, and Asians are simply not permitted. Within the Chinese communities and the South Asian communities are large groups of single men whose wives are not allowed in. These are narratives I’ve explored with previous images, so to see a multi-generational family was astonishing, but the class difference was most surprising.” In other contexts, Fung’s home movies might seem mundane, but they matter within a medium that perpetuates narratives of exclusion.
Another surprise of the footage, Kazimi adds, is Fung’s wife Edith, whom the home movies show to be the family breadwinner. The film relates Edith’s story of rising within Sun Life Insurance and becoming vice-president in a time when few executive-level careers were available to women or minorities. Even by today’s standards, she defies the glass ceiling.
Kazimi demonstrates the value in seeing stories like those of the Fungs by showing interviews with their descendants as they watch the movies. The interviews rekindle memories both fond and painful for the Fungs’ daughter Irina and their niece Clara. “The idea of this three-way engagement was very important,” Kazimi notes. “I’d done a film called Shooting Indians with Jeffrey Thomas, a photographer, and I had a break in the film of seven years. When I reconnected with Jeff, I showed him what I had shot. I documented that—him watching himself and commenting on himself from seven years ago. It provides a powerful moment of seeing oneself reflected.”
If movies are figurative time machines, as Cheel’s doc suggests, then Kazimi’s film is especially topical at a time when there is a growing demand to diversify cinema. “These [film] histories are not only marginalised, but within this marginalisation, an erasure occurs. When we think of written histories, we get caught up in the minutiae and the drama of the historical fact, so it becomes hard to imagine ordinary lives.” The recorded history of the West includes visible minorities largely through their relationship to policy, but images of their daily lives are largely absent.
Drawing upon Fung’s footage to interrogate contemporary images, Kazimi adds, “If someone a hundred years from now were to look back on today, they would see a period of growing Islamophobia, increasingly restrictive immigration, securitization of the state, and criminalisation of dissent. But how would they see how someone like me negotiated these things in daily life? Moving images have a power that still images simply don’t.” Kazimi’s film empowers home movies as alternatives to Hollywood’s recorded history: while classic films favour white faces, the appearance of people of colour within home movies acknowledges countless untold stories. Cheel similarly adds that contemporary images might not be palatable for future audiences. “It comes back to nostalgia,” Cheel says. “Midnight in Paris got to this where you’re always nostalgic for a time you’re not in. You romanticise the past, but the people in the past are romanticising another past. You’re not living in the present.”
The Slippers sees a similar pursuit of nostalgia in the collectors’ desire for Dorothy’s shoes. “If you think about what you grew up with,” says White, “you’re going to want to own pieces of those films. That’s what everyone’s after: they’re trying to capture the moment they remember by buying props from beloved films.” The three films emphasise the value in looking to the past, but they also note the danger in using nostalgia to escape reality.
Kazimi frames Fung’s archive within the tenuous progress of images of minorities. “You ask about diversity? Kazimi asks. “On the face of it, yes, there’s been a lot of lobbying at different levels and different historical moments have helped in increasing diversity.” But Kazimi adds that progress beyond surface-level appearances requires change at decision-making levels, as top Canadian publications, festivals and institutions still resemble the type of workplaces through which Edith Fung broke her glass ceiling. “The only organisation that has done a significant job is the NFB,” he says, “and it’s starting to show in the films.”
Similarly, White thinks the sad history of the ruby slippers illustrates the need for institutional change. “Even though there’s a push for preservation, the studio archives are still at the bottom of the barrel,” he says. “Studios should put money into a Hollywood museum showing an understanding that these things are culturally valuable.” White adds that memorabilia still mostly holds monetary value in studios’ eyes. Saving the ruby slippers preserves a collective memory, reinforcing the notion that these items have cultural currency as relics of an era when Hollywood’s dream factory had the power to inspire audiences.
Cheel thinks film’s power lies in its ability to shape future innovators. His own subjects, he says, embody “the idea of film inspiring real science or art. Ron and I talked about shows like Star Trek and all the kids who watched the show and went on to NASA to create new devices.”
The Slippers, How to Build a Time Machine, and Random Acts of Legacy show how classic films frame the future if one interrogates them with a critical eye. One can’t pause or rewind life, but one can record it, watch it, and learn from it.