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  • Conference Report: Orphans Take Manhattan:The 6th Biannual Orphan Film Symposium, March 26–29, 2008, New York City
  • Devin Orgeron (bio)

The Orphan Film Symposium biannually reminds attendees of the vast, unexplored range of moving images that transcend the commercial, aesthetic, or philosophical categories that have defined film studies for several decades. The meticulous Orphans Web site ( defines an "orphan film" as

a motion picture abandoned by its owner or caretaker. More generally, the term refers to all manner of films outside of the commercial mainstream: public domain materials, home movies, outtakes, unreleased films, industrial and educational movies, independent documentaries, ethnographic films, newsreels, censored material, underground works, experimental pieces, silent-era productions, stock footage, found footage, medical films, kinescopes, small- and unusual-gauge films, amateur productions, surveillance footage, test reels, government films, advertisements, sponsored films, student works, and sundry other ephemeral pieces of celluloid (or paper or glass or tape or . . .).

This list, which itself is only partial, begins to illustrate the immensity of this emerging and important subfield in moving image studies, and each Orphan Film Symposium has effectively served to expand the boundaries further still. In any given year, one might expect to hear a paper on a collection of home movies; view and participate in a discussion of recently unearthed Hollywood screen-tests; listen to experts describe the restoration of a particularly rich bit of newsreel footage, and then view that footage; puzzle over the rhetoric of mid-century classroom films; view a contemporary film made from damaged archival films; or discuss the means by which banned film and video materials might reach viewers via the Internet. Part academic conference, part professional trade meeting, part lesson in archiving and preservation, part festival, the event coalesces around a now-traditional and largely informal last-night finale screening where a friendly and amusing element of one-upmanship and surprise prevails.

Veterans of the Orphan Film Symposium approached the 2008 meeting in New York City with mixed emotions. Since 1999, these gatherings have established [End Page 114] a reputation for being the conference where theorists, historians, artists, archivists, activists, preservationists, lab experts, projectionists, collectors, and enthusiasts can spend a long weekend together, from dawn 'til well after dusk, and come out smiling, edified, and energized by the experience. The University of South Carolina was the symposium's previous and original home, and some of us wondered, half-jokingly, if there was something about Columbia, South Carolina, that held this delicate blend of ingredients in suspension. Was it the ineffable magic of Southern hospitality? Were conference organizers slipping something into the traditional sweet tea that graced our tables at lunch? What, we asked, would Manhattan do to Orphans VI?

South Carolina's curious charms and intimacy were missed this year, but the elements that make this symposium unique and vital to our field remained. One of these is a longstanding commitment to broadening the "film studies" conversation to include the litany of participants listed above. Since the symposium's inception, Dan Streible, chief organizer and spokesperson, has sought to assemble a staggeringly varied lineup of speakers, screenings, and discussions. Far from being a preservationist's soapbox, the symposium's intention from the start has been to provide a forum for the consideration of film from a number of perspectives within the film community at large, with an eye toward understanding and negotiating the quite real physical legacy cinemania leaves in its wake. Community is the operative word here, and few conferences strive for (much less achieve) anything even approaching the communal spirit of this biannual meeting. Since 1999 there have been no simultaneous panels, and participants spend most of their days and most of their meals (which come with the registration) together. This results in something like a festival atmosphere, minus the schmoozing and deal making, and the mood catches quickly.

New York, it seems, is an ideal home for the meeting. The city's energy echoes the energy the symposium generates on its own. Hosted by New York University's Cinema Studies department and its Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program, the event took place at the Cantor Film Center and other buildings scattered around...


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