Conserving Film, Preserving History

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David Weiss ’73 makes a home for moving images

Books and photos can tell you a lot about the past, and about a region, but movies can tell you so much more. How did people move, talk, dress, work, play, and think in the past? David Weiss ’73 has found a way to preserve the moving image history of northern New England through his nonprofit organization, Northeast Historic Film. Through television footage, amateur and silent films, and home movies, Weiss has preserved both these images and the neglected history of the place he calls home.

David’s involvement in filmed history started in the mid- ’80s, when he and his former wife, Karan Sheldon, both graduates of Brown University, were working in film and video production after a move to Blue Hill, Maine. They came upon an unrestored 1930s Maine logging film, From Stump to Ship, languishing at the University of Maine and decided to screen it. They thought a couple of hundred people would show up—but 1,100 people came. David and Karan knew they had hit a nerve. Mainers were keenly interested in seeing footage of their state, and of those who worked where their parents and grandparents had worked. David and Karan continued to travel with the film to all sorts of communities around the state.

In their travels they found that people longed for a way to preserve their families’ films: when they invited people to send them in, many thousands sent in films from basements, barns, attics, libraries, churches, and town halls. “People filmed just about everything and filmed things no one else did. Hollywood or TV didn’t come to these small towns to document their lives, so they did it themselves,” says David.

In response to the need for preserving these treasures, David and Karan founded Northeast Historic Film, now based in a restored 1916 theater in Bucksport, Maine. For more than 20 years since they have been gathering, archiving, restoring, transferring, and preserving these records of the past. Their efforts have grown to include a research and study center, an educational program that brings films to schools, and symposiums and film festivals. Their latest venture was the building in 2003 of a regional conservation and storage center, with state-of-the-art climate and humidity control to further preserve the video and films, which would deteriorate quickly without it. David and Karan’s story is told frequently in the regional media, and they have been honored for their contribution to local history by the Maine Humanities Council.

“The best reward is seeing how much people enjoy the films,” says David, who values the fact that his collections reach out to all kinds of people. “Once at a fair a backwoodstype guy came up to me and said, ‘You get grant money to do this?’ A little worried, I admitted that we do. He said, ‘By God, this is great! This is worth it!’” Next on the horizon for David is the task of digitizing as much of the collection as he can, heading for the day when Northeast Historic Film’s gems of moving history can be easily seen and valued worldwide.