Old films from around the world

One of the pioneering narrative filmmakers was Alice Guy-Blaché. She told stories that followed characters and developed across multiple scenes. This was in contrast to other pioneers who showed simple, if impressive, pictures: the outdoors, crowd scenes and new technologies from the dawn of the 20th century. Her work was recently highlighted in Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, which screened at the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Alice Guy-Blaché, 1913 portrait by Apeda Studio New York

French-born Guy-Blaché made films in both Europe and the United States and a number of her works ended up in New Zealand. There was a passionate audience for film in New Zealand, but only a handful of local filmmakers in the first few decades of the 20th century. From the burgeoning film industries of the Northern Hemisphere, films would be shipped around the world. An individual film reel would likely be shown many times before moving to the next country. New Zealand was often a ‘last stop’ – many filmmakers or film distributors would be unwilling to have these film reels sent back to them. In fact, it was often prohibitively expensive to do so.

These reels could then find their way into the hands of sympathetic or passionate projectionists, or members of the wider film community. From there they would go into sheds, attics or under beds, or be handed down across generations. Decades later, it wasn’t unusual for someone to come across the film and either throw it out, or, much more desirably, pass it on to a film archive. It wasn’t until the early 1980s and the establishment of the New Zealand Film Archive that these collections could find a proper home and be cared for and preserved.

This tale has played out again and again:

  • The only surviving copy of Georges Méliès’ 1896 film Le Manoir du Diable was unearthed in a Christchurch junk shop in 1988.
  • One of the earliest Alfred Hitchcock films, 1924’s The White Shadow, was salvaged by Hastings projectionist Jack Murtagh. The film was handed to the Archive in 1993, though it wasn’t correctly identified until 2011.
  • The most complete cut of the Australasian release of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was deposited with the former Film Archive. Eleven previously unknown scenes were combined with film found in Argentina and then repatriated to Munich’s film archive, Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung.
  • An entire DVD of classics ‘lost’ in New Zealand was produced by the United States National Film Preservation Foundation. Over three hours long, it includes films by John Ford and Mabel Howard.
La Course A La Saucisse, a comedy by Alice Guy-Blaché from 1906.


In many instances, these films are repatriated to their country of origin. Our collection of work by Alice Guy-Blaché came from Alan Roberts, a film collector in Hawke’s Bay. His collection of early European film was famously stored under a tarpaulin, under Macrocarpa trees in his backyard. These works, long considered lost, were repatriated to their home nations in the 1980s.

Repatriation can be an outcome for many films that end up in archives abroad. Information about the repatriation programme of the American Library of Congress can be read here – it talks specifically about the work of New Zealand Film Archive founder Jonathan Dennis. There’s also discussion about recent repatriation work carried out by Ngā Taonga for the Centenary of World War One. This work goes in both directions – foreign material in the Ngā Taonga archives are sent to their country of origin; film and sound material relating to New Zealand’s participation in World War One is located in overseas archives, and copies are negotiated to be sent to Ngā Taonga.

It’s an interesting path for a film – travelling around the world, being screened again and again, being discarded or saved, sitting in an attic for an eternity, before possibly being unearthed in an estate sale. Suddenly its special, far-flung adventure allows it to be enjoyed by a new audience.

Nine of the films made by Alice Guy-Blaché are available to view in our online catalogue.


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