GR’s Film Farm
By Paul Moore
I just had another birthday. So I'm a little reflective. Looking back, I realize I have certain passions I’ve never noticed before. I haven’t noticed them because they’re not passions with a whole lot of mustered up ambition behind them. They’re just things I do because I do them. For instance, and this may seem insignificant, but I'm always on the hunt for a good conversation. They're rare to find and often I replay average conversations over and over in my head looking for spots where things really could have been cracked open. Ten years ago I would have said my passion is painting. Along the way I dropped that passion. But I never dropped the conversation thing. Go figure.
I recently heard back in the seventies there was a pharmacist here in Grand Rapids by the name of Middleton who collected 16mm films. In the basement of his drugstore, he kept a film library. He rented out films with a 16mm projector to his customers. This library was not just a revenue stream. It was a passion. Like the conversation thing with me, it was something he just did without any large plans or massive goals.
When Middleton retired, he left all the films to the Grand Rapids Main Library, stipulating they never be sold. Then videotape hit the market. Suddenly, 16mm films were about as attractive as an old AMC Gremlin. Other libraries and TV stations donated (dumped) their cans of 16mm at the Library to make shelf-space for videocassettes. The collection grew.
Dirk Koning of the Community Media Center took the films back when the Library was looking to get rid of them. I was around when the collection’s newest caretaker, Girbe Eefsting, and some friends moved it to a climate-controlled facility here in town. The scene looked like the reunion of a high school audio/video club from 1976. Middle-aged men sharing old techie knowledge with young students while shelving cans from shopping carts. Two generations bridged over a shared excitement for what could be in these cans. They elected a can labeled "Nazi War Propaganda" for the first screening. Then we ate pizza and Girbe told this story:
A rich man once owned an apple orchard. On his death bed, he told his sons their inheritance was buried in the orchard. It had been years since the old man could tend the orchard, and it was overgrown and choked with vines. The sons cut back vines and dug holes searching for their inheritance. Seasons went by with no luck. As they cleared away vines and weeds, apples started to appear on the trees again, but no gold. So the sons picked the apples and sold them. Then they got serious about the business, expanded the orchard and the business prospered. In searching for gold, they found the real inheritance from their father.
So where does Girbe’s inheritance lie? A collector from San Francisco and one from New York each offered to pay for a semi-truck and movers if Girbe would sign over ownership of the collection. One rare film print would more than cover the bills. With thousands of cans of film on his hands and no promises for funding or assistance, Girbe refused. Recently, Girbe and his buddies have been selling Disney prints since they can’t screen them publicly anyway. So far they’ve raised $5,000. They’re working to purchase equipment to catalog the rest of the films digitally. The story Girbe shared above is the reason he’s named this collection The Film Farm.
“What's there is a genre of film that's referred to as Ephemeral Films. These are the educational films that have become of interest to historians, sociologist and researchers of culture for the ‘unintended consequences’ of what the films reveal about us.”
I’m hoping the excitement of digging for treasure, like the sons in the orchard, leads to something richer. Maybe a person helping Girbe will discover a truly meaningful film. A film missed by film critics and Hollywood marketing dollars, but it gets resurrected because it makes an intimate connection with one person. Then that one person can pass it on to others. That, to me, is the legacy an old pharmacist in Grand Rapids passes on.
Paul Moore is the Community Builder at spout.com and a writer living in Grand Rapids, MI.
Posted on August 21, 2006 11:49 AM