This wickedly clever hoax "documentary" is a highly amusing satire on the recent spate of historical documentaries made to celebrate the centenary of cinema. Top Kiwi director Peter Jackson and film critic Costa Botes collaborated on this lavishly produced labor of love, which provoked complaints from deceived viewers when it aired on NZ television late last year.

This wickedly clever hoax “documentary” is a highly amusing satire on the recent spate of historical documentaries made to celebrate the centenary of cinema. Top Kiwi director Peter Jackson (“Heavenly Creatures”) and film critic Costa Botes collaborated on this lavishly produced labor of love, which provoked complaints from deceived viewers when it aired on NZ television late last year. Now available on 35mm, it’s a must for film fests, TV programmers and audiences interested in film history.

The film deals with the career of a supposedly forgotten pioneer of international cinema, Colin McKenzie, who was allegedly born in rural New Zealand in 1888. McKenzie had been completely forgotten until decomposing reels of his films were discovered in a shed in the garden of Hannah McKenzie, his second wife, who happened to be a neighbor of Jackson’s parents.

According to the film, McKenzie became fascinated with all things mechanical at an early age and invented a motion picture camera in 1900 when he was 12; unlike other early cameras, this one was mechanized by being attached first to a bicycle and later to a steam engine, allowing for trailblazing tracking shots.

McKenzie produced his own film stock from raw eggs; it evidently took 12 eggs to produce one minute of film. He filmed the first flight of a New Zealand aviator who, his footage now reveals, preceded the Wright Brothers. In 1908, he made an 84-minute feature, “The Warrior Season,” which employed a primitive soundtrack; unfortunately, the actors were Chinese, and McKenzie had not invented subtitles, so the film was not a success.

In 1911, McKenzie discovered a way to make color film stock from a type of berry found only on one of the Tahitian islands. He shot some test footage there , but some dusky, topless Tahitian maidens appeared unexpectedly in front of the camera, and when McKenzie returned to Kiwiland, he and his brother, Brooke, were convicted of exhibiting a lewd document and sentenced to six months’ hard labor.

McKenzie then worked on a series of slapstick comedies with a vaudeville comedian known as Stan the Man; the pair invented a type of violent slapstick involving custard pies, later copied by Mack Sennett and others. There was more trouble when Stan, who liked to attack passersby with his pies, inadvertently assaulted New Zealand’s prime minister, who was not amused.

McKenzie’s greatest achievement was the epic “Salome,” which was filmed on and off over a number of years in a remote location, where a vast set was built for large-scale battle scenes. When money ran out, funding was provided by the new Soviet government, on condition some ideological changes were made to the script.

After years of frustration and heartache, McKenzie went to Spain in 1936 to cover the Civil War and managed to film his own death in 1937.

McKenzie’s story unfolds, in this lavishly produced effort, with total conviction. The supposedly aged film material has been created with tremendous skill and care. Footage supposedly affected by nitrate decomposition looks authentic, and scenes from “Salome” look as if they could have been made at about the time of “Intolerance”; acting styles, color tinting, use of circular frames and irises, and even the intertitles are astonishingly close to the real thing. It looks as though hundreds of extras were used during the staging of this fake footage.

Several well-known personalities appear in the film. Leonard Maltin enthusiastically, and with a commendably straight face, explains McKenzie’s historical importance. Harvey Weinstein lauds “Salome” as “the greatest film discovery of the last 50 years”; actor Sam Neill adds authenticity commenting on McKenzie’s importance to NZ film history.

The film has been made in the style of a British documentary in the Kevin Brownlow tradition, complete with helpful narration (spoken by Jeffrey Thomas.)

Pic identifies none of the actors who appear in “Forgotten Silver,” not even the actor who plays the mythical McKenzie, but he certainly looks the part.

This exceptionally elaborate hoax will provide plenty of appreciative chuckles, especially from film buffs. Yet McKenzie’s story is surprisingly tragic, giving the film a somber edge.

Produced in the $ 500,000 range, this little gem is a remarkable film in its own right.

Forgotten Silver

New Zealand

Production

A WingNut Films production , in association with the New Zealand Film Commission, NZ on Air. (International sales: Pandora Film, Paris; NZ Film Commission, Wellington.) Produced by Sue Rogers. Executive producer, Jamie Selkirk. Directed, written by Peter Jackson, Costa Botes.

Crew

Camera (color), Alun Bollinger, Gerry Vasbenter; editors, Eric De Beus, Michael Horton; music, David Donaldson, Steve Roche, Janet Roddick; archive stills re-creations, Chris Coad. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 15, 1996. Running time: 53 min.

With

Narrator: Jeffrey Thomas.
With: Sam Neill, Leonard Maltin, Harvey Weinstein, John O'Shea, Hannah McKenzie, Lindsay Shelton, Johnny Morris, Marguerite Hurst, Peter Jackson, Costa Botes.
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