Something to watch tonight: Wednesday 31 January
Forgotten Silver (Botes/Jackson, 1995)
One of the most amazing screenings of my life was in 1995 at the Paramount Theatre in Wellington, where I was working at the time.
We were booked for the world premiere of a new film by two local filmmakers, Peter Jackson (already well known for Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Heavenly Creatures) and Costa Botes, who wasn’t nearly as prominent but had a couple of well received short films under his belt and (as I recall) was also the film reviewer for the daily newspaper The Dominion.
Before the days of internet spoiler leaks, it was not uncommon to know very little going in to a local film but this was a different beast entirely.
An entranced house was told the fantastic story of the discovery of an extraordinary film archive under a Titahi Bay villa. It was a collection of films made by kiwi silent film innovator and entrepreneur Colin McKenzie and, we were told, their existence would change film history forever.
Evidently, McKenzie invented the tracking shot, the close-up and filmed the first powered flight by fellow inventor Richard Pearse, proving that New Zealand had got to all those discoveries first.
Oh, the excitement!
The presence of historians like Leonard Maltin touting the discovery added to the authority, but it was only about half way through when I started to recognise some of the actors in these grainy, juddery, hand-tinted scenes, that it occurred to me that this film might not be completely on the level.
And, sure enough, Forgotten Silver was one of the greatest film hoaxes ever made.
Why was it so successful? Because it tapped into the mythology New Zealanders have about themselves. That we are unappreciated inventors. That we punch above our weight. That the ‘number eight wire’ mentality is the best and most honest approach to all problem solving.
We wanted to believe it so badly, so we did.
A few days later, the film was broadcast on national television and – because there wasn’t time, internet or, frankly, inclination for the 500 of us at the Paramount to spoil the party – the film caused an outcry as thousands of viewers got excited as we had, and then felt duped.
It was quite the schemozzle, let me tell you.
I’m pretty sure, no one would be fooled by the film now, nearly 30 years later, but you can still be amazed at the sheer brass necks of these two filmmakers as well as Jackson and Wētā’s technical ability to create these perfect silent movie pastiches.
Jackson and Wingnut still have an admirable ability to keep a secret.
Forgotten Silver is essential New Zealand film history, and you can read and see extracts at NZ On Screen.
Scroll down for how to watch the whole film.
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