When crowdfunding and media websites are toying with a pioneer’s legacy. By Fabien Delage
« What you’re about to see is not real, it’s just smoke and mirrors. » That’s the kind of hook Georges Méliès used to say before starting a show in the late 1880’s. A magician warns the audience, he tells them they’re going to be fooled. And they all came for that reason, waiting to be amazed at the Robert Houdin theater. They came to be part of the magic. We all have this desire to contribute to something big, something legendary. We secretly want to leave a mark, go down in history, or simply share the enchantment. Georges Méliès’ cinema is the material from which legends are made. We’re talking of the man who invented fiction cinema, sfx, genres, cinema studios and cinematographic poetry. This pioneer needs no introduction and he now belongs to collective psyche.
In April 2018, I have been informed by Maura Tillay that a campaign about « The long lost autobiography of Georges Méliès » had been launched on Kickstarter. Maura has been working on the subtitles of my Méliès mockumentary Fury of the Demon, she’s been in touch with the Méliès family too. She knew that such a project on a famous crowdfunding website would get my attention. And it did.
To support this campaign, BBC posted an article about Jon Spira tracking down the rare manuscript of Méliès’ mémoirs from a French bookseller. The article about the «long lost autobiography » is completely false. The Kickstarter project to translate and reprint these memoirs is not really honest. Spira never tracked down any manuscript but he raised $50000 by claiming he found a “super rare book, the holy grail”. It turns out this French book is not so rare. It has never been lost, only out of print. Anyone can actually buy a copy online, it’s about 70€. “I just got married and my incredible wife let me take a chunk out of our wedding account.” tells Spira to BBC. Spira just uses the facsimile included in Bessy and Duca’s book “Georges Méliès Mage et “Mes mémoires” published in 1945. There are actually over 3000 copies and not 500 like he pretends. A version of Méliès’ memoirs has already been translated in English thinks the Méliès family. Nothing in this project is true, it just proves that people can make money selling lies and catchy stories while La Cinémathèque Méliès is still having hard time saving and restoring the original movies in France. The silent movie business is unfair.
After I took the liberty to reveal the abuse, Jon Spira reached out to explain his intentions, to justify his « journey ». The man did not mean to harm Méliès family’s interests, he was just driven by passion and suffered from a huge lack of information. Yet, Méliès’s grand-greatdaughter Anne-Marie Quévrain and I realized the story Spira gave to BBC was totally erroneous. Even on the radio, Oxford filmmaker is playing with words. « Manuscript » or « facsimile » ? Details are voluntarily fuzzy but the staging makes us believe, we need to believe, we need beautiful myths to hold onto. We want to be fooled, we paid for it.
Spira tells BBC’s Howard Bentham that his Kickstarter campaign was supported by trusted names : John Landis, Joe Dante, Edgar Wright and other filmmakers. « They know how important this is. » Everybody was lulled by Spira’s wonderful story, how couldn’t they ? Hundreds of people passed on the information, convinced it was a good deed. They were helping to preserve silent film heritage, they were doing the right thing.
Spira describes his tale - his captivating quest - with what might be a distorted view of reality, to consciously or unconsciously appear like some kind of early cinema hero, perpetuating the myth of the lost and rare relic. Is he really to blame ? We all want to be part of something and work for a greater good with passion and good intentions. Am I happy to break a story ? Am I feeling like Houdini exposing fake mediums ? Perhaps. Yes, I want to find the holy grail too. I want to tell people magical stories, I want justice to be done and the truth to be told. Who really cares ? Backers will never really know, they will enjoy the memoirs, they don’t want to get the bottom of this. But a few people will know. Crowdfunding can be really useful when you know how to present your project. People will know there are excesses sometimes. They will know that the devil is in the detail.
The original bbc article : http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-43643115
The BBC Radio Oxford interview : https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p061qmz3
Fabien Delage is the writer and director of the mockumentary Fury of the Demon