Forgotten Silver (New Zealand, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
With some "mockumentaries" (or "meta-documentaries", "pseudo-documentaries", or whatever else you want to call them), it's best not to know beforehand that they're fakes. The opposite is true of Forgotten Silver, an inventive and wily project made for New Zealand television by film makers Peter Jackson and Costa Botes. With this film, if you don't know in advance that it isn't a real documentary, you'll almost certainly be bamboozled, and, in the process, miss some of the most subtle humor. Taken at face value, Forgotten Silver is mildly entertaining, but, for those who recognize its true nature, it's nothing short of brilliant.

Jeffrey Thomas, a man with an appropriately stentorian voice, does the narration for Forgotten Silver, which is presented as a straightforward documentary about an all-but-forgotten, turn- of-the-century New Zealand film maker. The contributions of this pioneer, named Colin McKenzie, were only recently recognized when his complete body of work was discovered. His achievements included inventing the first mechanized camera, making the first full-length feature film with sound (in 1908 -- it was a failure because all of the actors spoke Chinese and he didn't have the foresight to invent subtitles), experimenting with color (in 1911 -- he was arrested on smut charges because a topless woman appeared in the test film), and introducing the closeup.

To add to Forgotten Silver's verisimilitude, various expert talking heads are called upon to provide commentary. Movie critic/historian Leonard Maltin gushes about the scope and quality of McKenzie's work. Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein calls the unearthing of McKenzie's footage as "the greatest film discovery of the last fifty years" (then reveals that his company will distribute the previously-unseen epic Salome with an hour edited out). Actor Sam Neill comments about the importance of the McKenzie revelations to the New Zealand film industry. And directors Jackson and Botes mount an expedition to go deep into the New Zealand bush in search of the legendary lost site where McKenzie filmed Salome.

Using subtle special effects to re-create old, damaged footage, Forgotten Silver makes it easy to believe that we're seeing celluloid that has been stored in a shed for fifty years. Not only are we treated to glimpses of McKenzie's pioneering efforts in cinema, but we're shown significant chunks of Salome, a credible-looking silent presentation of the Biblical tale about the dancing girl who demanded John the Baptist's head. While the film makers have crafted Forgotten Silver as a first-rate parody, it's clear that both men possess a great deal of affection for and knowledge about the early history of cinema.

This is the sort of project one might expect from Peter Jackson, the inventive director whose previous outings have included the brilliant Heavenly Creatures, the outrageously sick Meet the Feebles, and the big-budget, offbeat comedy, The Frighteners. Along with co-director Costa Botes, Jackson has put together one of the most interesting fake documentaries to come along since the genre was first popularized with This is Spinal Tap. The more you love film and understand film history, the more you'll get out of this picture, but even the most oblivious movie-goers will find Forgotten Silver's mixture of fact and fiction enjoyable.

When this movie was shown on New Zealand TV, it's impact was akin to that of Orson Welles' legendary Halloween radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. Suddenly, men and women across New Zealand thought they had a new national hero. This simple fact shouldn't be taken as an indication of New Zealanders' gullibility, but of the effectiveness of Forgotten Silver. Watch it carefully, and you'll be amused, amazed, and entertained.

Forgotten Silver (New Zealand, 1995)

Run Time: 0:52
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85