Robert Flaherty’s Irish Talkie Restored

The annual festival of rediscovered and restored film, Il Cinema Ritrovato, held each July in Bologna, Italy, is justly famed for always presenting films even film historians feared they’d never see again.

A few days ago (3 July 2014), during this year’s event, a new, 35mm, subtitled print was screened that certainly falls into that category: Oidhche Sheanchais (“A Night of Storytelling”), a 1935 work by pioneer documentary filmmaker, Robert Flaherty. It was the first “talkie” in Irish Gaelic, and was made during the production of Flaherty’s much better-known classic, the “fictional documentary,” Man of Aran.

The story of the reemergence of Oidhche Sheanchais runs like many do, when it comes to prodigal films. Described in a recent posting on the blog of Harvard University’s Houghton Library, it goes like this:


Above and below: scenes from “Oidche Sheanchaus.” Images: Harvard University

Many film historians had long hoped one day to see “A Night of Storytelling” but few held out much hope. Although regularly cited in histories of Irish cinema, the 11-minute film had been missing, believed lost, since a fire destroyed the only known copies in 1943.

That changed last year (2013), as the blog post reports: A nitrate print of the film, purchased in 1935 by Harvard’s Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures, turned up in the Houghton Library at Harvard while curators were performing a cataloging update.

Makes you want to tidy your closets.

Houghton librarians call Oidhche Sheanchais a “fascinating distillation of Flaherty’s belief in cinema as a kind of folkloric art” as it depicts a typical Irish hearth, except that at this one the main cast members of Man of Aran sit and listen to an ancient tale told by a famed Seanchaí (storyteller), Seáinín Tom Ó Dioráin. Flaherty made the film, his first work in direct sound, in the London studio where the Man of Aran cast had gathered to record post-synch sound.

The Harvard Film Archive will, sometime in the future, present the film in a Harvard premiere, and make prints available for loan as 35mm or Digital Cinema Projection.


Cinema Ritrovato: 360 films around Bologna

This year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato was the 28th, and took place from June 28 to July 5. Some 360 films made between 1895 and today screened in five theatres, with open-air evening shows in Bologna’s main square, Piazza Maggiore, and Cineteca Bologna’s courtyard, Piazzetta Pasolini. (If that orgy of film near entices you, may the English subtitling of all films tip you into attending next year.)

The festival boasted a selection of films from the Polish New Wave of the 1950s and 1960s by the master director Andrzej Wajda and others, many in black and white CinemaScope. Among the films were several rare animation shorts from the Polish Film Archive, Filmoteka Narodowa. So were films made in 1914, as well as Indian films of the 1950s and selections from various genres gathered from European film archives that depicted the Ottoman Empire of the period 1896-1914 – “unknown, forgotten, hidden behind the wall of the Great War that marked the end of the great multinational empires.”

Featured filmmakers included an undersung American master, William Wellman; “American style” Italian director Riccardo Freda; and Werner Hochbaum, arguably the most important German filmmaker after Murnau, Lang, Lubitsch, and Ophuls.

A documentaries section showcased newly restored Lithuanan films, Peter von Bagh’s socialist Utopia, Socialisme of 2013, and Martin Scorsese’s just-out The New York Review of Books, his hommage to fine journalism.

This year, Cineteca also staged a four-day pre-festival event, The Birth of the Tramp Celebration. Organised in collaboration with Association Chaplin/Roy Export Company, it celebrated the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s invention of his iconic character. It included an exhibition of posters for Chaplin’s 1950s re-releases by French artist Léo Kouper; an open-air screening of four classic Chaplin comedies with live orchestral accompaniment; and an international conference on Chaplin’s legacy with speakers including Chaplin descendants, Mike Leigh, and Claire Bloom. Over the last 15 years, Cineteca di Bolonga and L’Imagine Ritrovato, a specialised film restoration laboratory, have brought 70 Chaplin films back to the big screen, and now have completed a restoration of the 16 films he made for Essanay Studios in Chicago (now part of St. Augustine College) in collaboration with Lobster Films and Film Preservation Associates, ending the first phase of a grand Chaplin Project.

Ben Turpin & Charlie Chaplin in His New Job
Ben Turpin & Charlie Chaplin in His New Job, filmed at Essanay Studios, Chicago
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