Over 20 years since it aired on TV One on a quiet Sunday night, Aaron Yap remembers Peter Jackson’s hoax-documentary Forgotten Silver.
Peter Jackson might have sold New Zealand to the world as a viable enchanting Middle Earth filled with Hobbits and Gollums, but his greatest trick remains convincing us – for a brief moment – that we had a film pioneer in our midst.
Dreamt up with co-writer/director Costa Botes, Forgotten Silver aired on TV One’s Montana Sunday Theatre, October 29 in 1995. It was supposedly a documentary, chronicling the untold story of Colin McKenzie, a Kiwi filmmaker whose “lost” work was discovered by Jackson in a chest of 35mm reels stored in his neighbour’s garden shed.
The claims that Forgotten Silver makes over the course of its incident-packed, tragicomic 53 minutes are patently absurd. Placing McKenzie in the towering league of the Lumiere Brothers and D.W. Griffith, the “documentary” asserts that he invented the tracking shot, the close-up, and produced the first sound film ever (never mind that it starred an all-Chinese cast and had no subtitles). He also captured the first evidence of a manned flight, nine months before the Wright Brothers.
For his magnum opus, McKenzie attempted an ambitious, disaster-prone adaptation of Salome, which involved the extraordinary feat of constructing a hidden city in the far reaches of New Zealand’s forests and commandeering an army of extras (sound like anyone?).
The public, by and large, bought all of this. When they found out that they had been misled, a deluge of hate mail poured into media outlets. Many were unable to see the hoax as anything but an abuse of public funds. “If this film was, in fact, made with the support of the New Zealand Film Commission and New Zealand on Air,” Jackie Hoffman wrote in the Nelson Evening Mail, “then I think it was an outrageous waste of my money.” Michael Rudd of Taupo said it reveals that “intellectual arrogance is to be found among those whose vocation it is to entertain or inform.” ‘I’m Not Laughing’ of Hamilton was “unable to trust anything that TV1 puts on again.” Herne Bay’s Sue Anderson wrote to The Listener – a co-conspirator in the ruse – that Peter Jackson “should be shot.”
Others appreciated Jackson and Botes’ sly storytelling craft, and rightly so. From the ghostly mystique of the speckly archival film footage to Jeffrey Thomas’ lulling Attenborough-style voice-over, their application of tried-and-true documentary techniques was masterful, giving Forgotten Silver’s toe-curlingly weird twists the verisimilitude of historical fact.
I’d also argue that the po-faced talking-head contributions of Jackson and Botes themselves work better than those of American film critic Leonard Maltin and Miramax studio chief Harvey Weinstein. Maltin says some pretty questionable things (Rodney King beatings are brought up at one point), while Weinstein’s blowhard proclamations that he would he fight for Salome to be recognised by the Academy as a “best film” (of what? 1995?) immediately breaks the spell.
The public were quick to accept the myth of Colin McKenzie not because it was a skilfully made documentary but, at its heart, a shrewd piece of Kiwiana. It exploits our remoteness (if there was some unknown treasure to be excavated, why not in our backyard?), but grounds McKenzie’s wild tale in a number eight wire-style spirit that makes his achievements seem less ludicrous. You can imagine middle New Zealand marvelling hearteningly at McKenzie using parts from his uncle’s bicycle store to motor movie cameras, or stealing thousands of eggs to create his own film stock.
Twenty years on, Forgotten Silver has gained even greater resonance. There’s a sense of loss beyond giving us a ground-breaking, awe-inspiring national hero then ruthlessly yanking him away from under our collective feet.
Part of me is oddly nostalgic for a more naive, pre-Internet, pre-Blair Witch Project time that would allow something like Forgotten Silver to exist and function in full effectiveness (#ForgottenSilverIsFake trending alongside its broadcast would probably take the wind out of Jackson and Botes’ sails). Of course, hoaxes still exist today – Balloon Boy springs to mind. But these days they’re more likely to be geared towards the clickbait virality of modern media, rather than carefully manufactured film/documentary narratives.
For cinephiles, the poignancy of Forgotten Silver is evident in its title: silver is forgotten. Forgotten Silver is now more than an elaborate joke – it’s a haunting epitaph for the vanishing celluloid. This is a work with a deep respect for film history, obsessive about its chemical processes and need for preservation. It argues that film is worth saving. But the irony is that Jackson himself can be considered partially responsible for the near-extinction of the ethos that Forgotten Silver represents.
The stratospheric success and impact of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, with all its advances in CGI technology, played a significant role in ushering in our current era of digitally-dominated filmmaking. Vast galaxies can be conjured from scratch inside a computer, digital shooting and theatrical exhibition are now industry standards. The practicality of digital projection is undeniable, but the mad scramble to switch every operating theatre to digital felt more like a rush to speed up the obsolescence of an entire format – still perfectly functional, as it’s been for the last century – without giving much thought to its cultural implications.
What this has meant is that it’s harder for the Salomes of this world to see the light of day. Most theatres can’t show them anyway because their film projectors have been trashed. And unless you’re a Lawrence of Arabia or Hitchcock, most of these films will never be converted to DCP. The digital-is-the-future thinking has cultivated a culture of content-delivery convenience that favours the iPhone-toting generation, while celluloid lovers are seen as fetishising, delusional, overly romantic dinosaurs who should get with the program.
I’d wager that McKenzie would be rolling in his grave, knowing that the fruits of his egg-thieving, berry-squishing ingenuity have gone to waste.
Watch Costa Botes’ documentary about making Forgotten Silver below courtesy of NZ On Screen, or click here to bookmark it for later:
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