Zinema 2 is screening 'Saving Brinton," a buzzed-about movie by Northland Films

Michael Zahs' dog Tuesday just showed up one day and stuck around. So did an emaciated cat that grew up and had 11 kittens. At the beginning of the documentary "Saving Brinton," there is a steeple he saved from a burned down church lying horizont...

Michael Zahs is featured in the film "Saving Brinton," which will be shown today at Zinema 2. Image from “Saving Brinton”
Michael Zahs is featured in the film "Saving Brinton," which will be shown today at Zinema 2. Image from “Saving Brinton”
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Michael Zahs' dog Tuesday just showed up one day and stuck around. So did an emaciated cat that grew up and had 11 kittens. At the beginning of the documentary "Saving Brinton," there is a steeple he saved from a burned down church lying horizontal in his yard.

By the end of the 90-minute documentary, it will become a gazebo.

"I like to save things," the retired history teacher says in the film, "especially if it looks like they're too far gone."

Thirty years ago, Zahs came to own an older-than-old collection of films and documents and projectors that originally belonged to William Franklin Brinton, who is credited - among other technologically advanced things - with bringing movies to the Midwest in the late 1800s.


About the time the University of Iowa Libraries became interested in the collection, so did a couple of filmmakers who live 30 miles away from Zahs' home in Washington, Iowa.

"This was really exciting to me as a former film student, to be the one who could actually dig into that collection," said Tommy Haines, who grew up in Mountain Iron and runs Northland Films with his brother JT Haines and friend Andrew Sherburne. "It's one of the most prized film collections in the world. We were extremely excited to dig our hands into this."

The filmmakers spent four years following Zahs and the collection, capturing meetings with the University of Iowa and Zahs' travels to the Library of Congress and Cinema Ritrovato Festival in Bologna, Italy. But they also just follow Zahs: as he emcees the increasingly shrinking class reunions, visits his ailing mother in a nursing home, or returns to the classroom and interacts with young students.

A film that started as a straightforward film project turned into something with a compelling protagonist.

"We were thinking it would be an investigative and exploratory film that dug into the collection," Tommy Haines said. "But we met Mike Zahs. Over the course of months, it turned into a portrait of Mike, who he is and why he saves things."


Zahs knows how this looks, he says into the camera in a scene captured during the filmmakers' first trip to his farm. He has already shown them an old magic lantern and the Grant Wood painting that hangs on his wall - in front of the exact plant depicted in the painting.

"It's going to look like I'm one of those obsessive people," he says, but still leads his guests past the tools for building log houses and up the stairs to the Brinton Room, which has file cabinets, bulging boxes, plastic bags.


After Brinton and his wife were both dead, the executor of the will moved the old films and memorabilia, which included the Brinton's movie projector and still functioning victrola, to his own basement. There is old footage of Teddy Roosevelt and a long-lost Georges Melies film. Documents, posters, ticket stubs - Zahs got it all in 1981 and tried to interest people in the collection.

At the time, there were no takers.

When, 30-some years later, Zahs did get interest, the filmmakers were there for it. Zahs said he would send them his schedule - Brinton-related meetings, trip to Washington, D.C., or for instance, his work with training cadaver dogs or mowing the cemetery - and they would tag along. They collected four years' worth of material. Ninety-five percent of it, Zahs estimated, didn't make the film.

"He is such an endearing character and a wonderful storyteller," Haines said. "It's always a pleasant surprise when the subject of a documentary film can be a leading front man. The more we got to know Mike, the more we knew we had had pretty great film subjects."

The story grew.


As the film has played, Zahs has gotten more and more attention. He said he's always interested in the adjectives used in the review. Like the time he was called a "portly packrat."

"You can tell if they've read other reviews," he said in a phone interview from Iowa. "Then they try to come up with something totally new. Sometimes, I have to look up the words to see what they're saying about me. Sometimes, it's humbling."


He would prefer the reviews focus more on the work by the filmmakers rather than treating him as a character, he said.

"I didn't do anything to make this film; they did," he said.

(For the record: The filmmakers are based in Iowa and also behind the movie "Pond Hockey," which ESPN called the "best hockey movie ever.")

Zahs said some people watch the film and feel suddenly that he is their best friend. Sometimes, he said, he feels like a caricature of himself. The critiques can feel like he is at his own funeral visitation.

"People will say things they won't normally say," he said. "I feel somewhat like that. I'm hearing things I wouldn't normally hear."

After one screening, Zahs said a woman told him she feels like the hope of the country is in his hands. One time, he was in his garden and tourists told him they had seen "Saving Brinton" and were driving around to spots in the film.

"They were nice," he said.


"Saving Brinton" premiered at AFI Doc Film Festival, an upper-tier festival, more than a year ago. At the time, JT Haines said he was still so "in my head" that he didn't know what to think of the movie. It wasn't until about three months later, when it played at St. Anthony Main, that it hit him.

"I turned to Tom and Andrew and said 'Wow,'" Haines recalled.

The movie has played festivals in Europe and has been written about in the Hollywood Reporter, The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and more. The Star Tribune called it a "superlative documentary," and its star a "jovial pack rat." The New York Times said the filmmakers hands-off approach "does often amount to something poignant" and calls Zahs "mighty bearded."

All of this attention and the fact that it ran for more than a consecutive week on the coasts means it is eligible for an Academy Award, according to Haines.

The Pines, an Iowa-based band that makes regular stops in Duluth, was signed on to do the film's soundtrack before the filmmakers learned the Zahs had taught the band's members.

He remembers them as being quiet and that he wouldn't have, at the time, predicted their future in music.

Zahs will be traveling with the filmmakers from Iowa for the screening at Zinema 2. He's never been to Duluth, he said.

"I like it when people can watch the film, and even if they've never heard of Iowa, they can get the feeling of community from the film and see how important it is to be a part of the community and to support the community," he said. "Hopefully people are getting that from the film."


What: "Saving Brinton"

When: 7 p.m. today

Where: Zinema 2, 222 E. Superior St.

Related Topics: MOVIES
Christa Lawler is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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