In the history of mockumentary cinema, films like This Is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest’s works like Waiting For Guffman and even The Blair Witch Project certainly stand as the most popular, famous or infamous examples of fictitious documentaries to date. Not nearly as well known, though absolutely deserving a wider swath of notoriety, is a made-for-TV movie co-created and masterminded by none other than Peter Jackson, the genius behind bringing the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the big screen. This little-known film is called Forgotten Silver and it is well worth any search to find it.
When it originally premiered on New Zealand television, the seamless creation of the history of a previously unknown film pioneer caused quite a stir. It’s easy to see how so many viewers were deceived. The melding of the real with the made-up (aligning the story with actual historical events and figures, much in the same general manner as was done in Forrest Gump but to a more realistic extent) in Forgotten Silver gives the lie credibility. Even more striking than that is the amazing job that was done to make the “old” footage look authentic. By mimicking the goofs of the earliest years of cinema (poor framing, poor focus, etc.) and marrying that with a not yet seen level of purposefully damaging and aging the look of the film itself, the result is nearly impossible to tell apart from the actual old footage spliced into Forgotten Silver‘s mix.
Pushing the technical aspects of the film aside, Forgotten Silver truly succeeds for the integral reason any film does: the storytelling is exceptional. Jackson and co-director/writer Costa Botes expertly reveal the story of fictitious filmmaker Colin McKenzie in a manner that is at times laugh-out-loud funny, at times tragically touching and always utterly fascinating. There is a breathtaking sense of discovery throughout the entire film that can be credited to fabulous filmic storytelling. From the unfolding of Jackson’s initial narration as he tells of finding McKenzie’s stored film reels to the trek through the dense forests of New Zealand to discover the lost sets of McKenzie’s epic “Salome,” each twist in the story is exciting. Even the close-ups and pull-backs on still photos are ingeniously executed to show just the right information at the right moment for maximum impact.
The created footage of the first airplane flight (predating the Wright brothers) gets frustratingly hard to clearly see due to film damage right at the climactic moment when real-life Richard Pearse’s airplane comes into view. I personally loved this moment because just as the plane was getting close enough to really inspect carefully, the purposefully excessive film damage allowed only the most general visual impressions to be communicated and I found myself leaning forward in a fruitless attempt to see past the damage. It was at that moment I realized how excited I was to see this manufactured “proof” of early flight and that I had been hooked. This ingenious cinematic gesture was pulling me in by trying to push me away, making me aware of the fact I was watching a piece of film in order to dupe me into getting excited over its supposed authenticity. Wow.
Knowing that it’s all fake from the start doesn’t hamper any enjoyment of the film in the least. Does knowing that Citizen Kane or Casablanca are made-up lessen the impact of those stories? Of course not. The films pull you in and cause you care about the characters within because they are told well. If anything, knowing that it’s all a hoax will give Forgotten Silver‘s viewers a greater appreciation for all the work that went into making it so believable that it duped nearly an entire nation into believing its lie.
In watching Forgotten Silver I feel like I have discovered a “lost” and little-known masterwork which truly must be shared with as many film fans as possible, just as the film itself seeks to gain notoriety for its “lost” and little-known subject. In telling the story of pretend pioneer Colin McKenzie, Forgotten Silver reaffirmed for me the backbone of what cinema is really all about in a remarkably inspiring way. Presented here is a version of the history of cinema itself through chronicling the life of a man so devoted and inspired by the very craft of film that he developed many of the techniques and mechanics of cinema ahead of their time. Forgotten Silver professes that McKenzie built his own cameras in ingenious ways, invented the tracking shot, close-up, synched sound, color film, feature-length movies, hidden camera “comedy,” Biblical epics, etc. but never got credit due to the forces of fate. Throughout McKenzie’s life he’s shown to have had an insatiable driving need to make movies. Forgotten Silver itself shows us why McKenzie struggled so by giving us a glimpse of the very power that movies can possess. For the hour that Forgotten Silver runs, we as the audience become caught up in believing one lie after another, emotionally investing ourselves in a fabricated life. It’s a testament to the power of films that an entirely fabricated story can envelop so many people so completely, and that’s what makes all of McKenzie’s struggles seem sound.
This is a film which should be shown in film school classes right alongside any “classic” pieces of cinema. Forgotten Silver is inspiring, entertaining, funny, touching and one helluva good example of storytelling at its finest.