The First Film is an explorative documentary film that follows writer, producer, director and presenter David Nicholas Wilkinson in his quest to determine whether or not the first film footage ever recorded was done so in Leeds on 14th October 1888. The footage at the centre of the film is titled Roundhay Garden Scene, filmed by the Frenchman Louis Le Prince. It lasts only a few seconds but is possibly one of the most important breakthroughs in cinematic history.
Wilkinson explores the background of this footage and its claim to being either the first ever recorded film footage or simply the earliest surviving film footage. He also looks into the strange disappearance of Le Prince on 16th September 1890 on a train from Dijon to Paris, a disappearance that meant the argument of Le Prince being the inventor of the moving image cameras had lost its most important voice, paving the way for Thomas Edison to go down in the history books as the inventor of the movie camera. Things get very suspicious when the death of his son Adolphe in an unusual hunting incident in July 1901 lays his argument to rest.
A groundbreaking piece of cinematic history
When I caught up with David Nicholas Wilkinson to discuss the film, he reflected on the underwhelming appearance of the location as it stands today, a discovery that produces one of the most memorable scenes in the film.
“One of the first shots we filmed was of me finding the original location of the scene. I had to laugh. I had no idea what to expect but a cul-de-sac is about as banal a setting as I could imagine.” His presenting style is infectious even when he encounters disappointments like these, such is his passion for the subject matter. He remains upbeat despite such adversity: “I had hoped for something to be left, even if it was a tree.”
A key fact that the film explores is whether or not a photograph in a French morgue is that of Le Prince. It shows only the face of a deceased man who looks remarkably like the groundbreaking filmmaker, but David is not convinced. “I don’t really think it’s him. In 1890 the average height of a man in France was around 5ft 6in. Le Prince was actually 6ft 4in. In the accompanying notes for the photograph, anything unusual or out of the ordinary had been recorded for each person, though it was very scant in general. If it was definitely him it would have been recorded.”
Only one shot that had to be re-filmed, which meant both David and his co-writer Irfan Shan had to try their hand at acting surprised at discovering Le Prince’s grave. “He never wanted to be in it, but he knew most of the answers and stopped me making mistakes.”
The last-minute curveball
As we come to the end of the film, a late revelation throws the argument up in the air again through a discovery by Laurie Schneider. As David explains, “We had to delay. Everyone wanted me to cut it but once I knew what I’d found out about it I knew it was vital to the story.” The fact David’s discoveries are captured on camera means the audience goes on the journey with him, leaving the story open to these kinds of curveballs throughout.
Whilst the film explores the three most plausible explanations for the disappearance of Le Prince, David explains that there are many more doing the rounds. “There are around ten theories about what happened. One theory is that he was a spy for both Britain and USA during a time when there was a threat of a second French Revolution. Another is that he was filming snuff films with Jack The Ripper…” As he tails off there is something in his voice that gives the impression he doesn’t quite believe these avenues of thought.
It is clearly a labour of love and he has produced a compelling argument on what was likely a relatively small budget. One source of frustration for him came from the British Film Institution. “I went for a BFI distribution loan, which would allow me to visit colleges and universities around the UK. I had agreements with thirty out of a planned fifty and saw it as a great way to get the truth around. I was turned down because it was deemed “too educational”. I’m sure their remit is to promote the British film industry. I can’t come up with a tangible reason for it. Maybe they don’t believe me.”The driving force is Wilkinson himself and it becomes very easy to get wrapped up in his determined narrative. This determination comes despite concerns about the film’s viability. “It was a big worry because it had been rejected so many times. I’d been advised not to do it, but I knew people would be interested in this story.” It appears he is correct in this thought given the amount of coverage it is now getting in national newspapers. “It’s a forgotten story and an important part of our history as a film-making nation. People will now know the Le Prince name. In fact, the widespread coverage means the story is getting out even to people who haven’t seen the film.”
“The film has been thirty-three years in the making”, he states, referring to that point being the first time he pitched it to the BBC in 1982. “I’ve laid it to rest now though. Now that it’s out there I can move on. It’s often the case with filmmakers that the one project we’re really passionate about is the one that never gets made. People go decades without making a project and I often believe that they don’t really want it to get made.” It’s lucky that David’s one project was this one and we’re lucky to be able to hear the story, albeit 125 years late. The story deserved to be told and now it deserves to be seen.
The First Film is on limited release now, with the following cinemas offering screenings over the next month.
03.07.15 – Regent Street Cinema London
04.07.15 – Regent Street Cinema London
08.07.15 – Gate Cinema London
11.07.15 – Galway Film Fleadh – Ireland
14.07.15 – Triskel Arts Centre, Cork – Ireland
15.07.15 – IFI, Dublin – Ireland
16.07.15 – Queens Film Theatre, Belfast
20.07.15 – Greenwich Picturehouse London
23.07.15 – Ritzy, Brixton, London
26.07.15 – Cambridge Picturehouse
28.07.15 – Norden Farm, Maidenhead
30.07.15 – Kingston Arts Centre
01.08.15 – Bath Picturehouse
03.08.15 – Home Manchester
05.08.15 – Vue Leeds
06.08.15 – City Screen, York
07.08.15 – Sheffield Showroom
09:08:15 – Hebden Bridge Picture House
13.08.15 – Electric Palace, Hastings
18:08:15 – Picture House, Uckfield