The Film Farm is a collection of approximately 4,000 x 16mm educational, government, propaganda, documentary, and entertainment films.
The origins of the collection goes back to the 1940s. The owner of a drugstore on the corner of Jefferson and Wealthy in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, was a film collector who supported his hobby by renting out his films, and the 16mm projectors on which to play them, to members of the community. When Mr.Middleton retired, he gave the collection to the Grand Rapids Public Library, where it served as a community resource for many years. The library already had their own collection of films and a staff of 6-8 people to manage their rental. But in the 1990s, these film collections were passed along to the Grand Rapids Community Media Center both because of budget cuts at the library, and because the large, heavy cans of 16mm film could now be replaced by smaller, lighter and cheaper VHS videos.
The Community Media Center cable cast films from these collections from time to time on the public access TV channel, GRTV. Under the leadership of Dirk Koning, Director of the CMC, the collection became it’s own affiliated entity within the construct of the Community Media Center. It constituted one part of a projected “Community Memory Bank” that was to collect and archive additional examples of visual media, including twenty years-worth of locally produced videos archived at GRTV, public access radio programming, “historic” software – and even computer viruses of historical interest! But when Dirk Koning passed away, his vision of a Community Memory Bank died as well. The film collections became a storage problem for the Community Media Center. Temporary housing in a basement facility of St. James Church came to an end when the Church requested return of the space.
Thus, in 2005, the CMC needed to get rid of the films. They were donated to me on the condition that I get them out of the Church’s basement at no cost to the CMC, and that the 16mm film chain donated to the CMC by broadcast TV station FOX17 come with the film collection. The CMC board approved the transfer — and that’s how I got the films.
A group of about a dozen friends helped me to move the films from the basement of St. James to a storage facility on the corner of Wealthy & Diamond that I rented for $500 a month. I took the names of the streets as a sign of potential good fortune – or at least enough good fortune to pay the rent. As we literally had to carry the films by hand up a couple of flights of stairs, people got into the habit of calling out the names on the film cans as we were moving them. One person said, “You have a gold mine here: a real treasure.” I certainly was wondering: was this just a “huge and foolish project” or was there real value – financial and/or historical. I found the idea of “a treasure,” intriguing and in thinking about it, I remembered this story:
Once upon a time, a poor man managed to scrape together a little money to buy some land. He planted fruit trees and, over time, the fruits trees grew and started producing. The orchard was successful. The man married and had three sons and the orchard supported his family. But the man spoiled his sons; he never required them to work on the farm. One day, he became ill. He couldn’t work in the orchard anymore. The years dragged on and on. After 10 years passed, the orchard became so overgrown that it stopped producing fruit. On the last day of his life, he called his sons to his bedside and told them that their inheritance was buried in the orchard. Before he could tell them where it was buried, he died. His sons had no choice but to dig in the orchard to find the treasure. But before they could even start digging, they had to clear all the growth that had accumulated over the years. Every day they would dig in a new spot – but not find anything. The next day they would dig somewhere else. Until one day they noticed that fruit was once again appearing on the trees. And then they realized what their father meant when he told them that he had buried their inheritance in the orchard.
This story inspired me name the collection the “Film Farm.” As in the story, the treasure lies in building the infrastructure to research the films, preserve them, and sometimes sell them. We clean, organize, inspect, and do research about the collection and we transfer them to a digital format. We had to move them for a second time. 40 borrowed shopping carts were a great help, so it took us only 6 hours to make the move: the first move required two full days spread over two weekends. We have now started selling some of the films on Ebay. A film collector friend of mine pointed out that we had many Disney Educational Films in the collection. Since we needed money for rent we listed those on Ebay where the approx. 200 prints brought in around $10,000.
We are actively searching for other “orphaned” films and have found some. We are also offering transfer services of home movies etc to institutions and individuals in exchange for the 16mm prints. It turns out that “orphaned films,” are everywhere. They are also known as “ephemeral films.” Scholars have found that such films archive a variety of information about the history, sociology and other aspects of American culture. They are wonderful documents: well worth preserving and sharing.
Recently, we have started a conversation with the Grand Rapids Public Museum about the films that are still part of their educational mission, or that have been donated to them. They’re not sure of what they have at this time, but with our help this could develop into a partnership to preserve those films and to create an infrastructure for future work, right along the lines of Dirk Koning’s vision of “The Community Memory Bank.”
We will post some interesting discoveries from the Farm here from time to time. I also look forward to any comments or suggestions any of you might have. We love giving tours of the operation so come on down when your in the area.
Girbe Eefsting, Filmfarmer