In October 1888, Louis Le Prince shot a 2.11 second sequence titled Roundhay Garden Scene followed by the faintly longer Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge. In 2015, David Nicholas Wilkinson’s basis for his 32 year documentary project, The First Film, is to prove these were the earliest motion pictures in history, filmed in Leeds, England, and credit the often ignored life and achievements of the believed “Father of Cinematography” – Le Prince.
The First Film sets itself a linear premise: prove Louis Le Prince was the first filmmaker, ahead of the more celebrated names like the Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison. Presenting, producing, writing and directing, Wilkinson’s dedication and thoroughness in accomplishing this is immediately apparent in his extensive research and discussion with an array of interviewees. Though never absent of optimistic enthusiasm, the film unfortunately falters as its intentions and execution meander into biographical terrain, losing sight of its titular foundation.
The First Film is not exclusively concerned with the chronology of filmic history as its somewhat misleading setup suggests. Louis Le Prince’s life is explored comprehensively throughout. While at times this provides a welcome contextual basis for Wilkinson to support his central case, during others, his arguments almost border on speculative fiction. The final third in particular focuses heavily upon the mysterious disappearance of Le Prince in 1890, veering oddly away from the documentary’s primary exposé and instead delving into an unnecessarily tangential and inconclusive investigation.
In jarring the premise into the direction of biography, the intrigue of early cinema and fascinating actualités are largely ignored in favour of documenting the industrial history of Leeds and life of Le Prince (see picture below), meaning the film frequently falls off course. Additionally, with intercut interviews constantly overlapping, vital details being released sporadically, and baffling cityscape cutaways to fill space in between all this, David Hughes’ editing at times appears incoherent, despite the seeming straightforwardness promised by the premise.
As a consequence of all this, The First Film would have been better suited to the hour-long television documentary format. At 106 minutes, it is needlessly elongated, and could have easily been cut down to reduce its aforementioned meanderings and free up time to reach its potential by being more direct. Wilkinson’s work absolutely has some shining qualities, and had these been exhibited in a succinct and coherent manner, his argument would be more effective and his film much more satisfying.
David Nicholas Wilkinson’s ambition, passion and intent are admirable.
Illuminating most vividly from the film are engaging discussions regarding what we can even define as film in the first place, and the debates around the many figureheads of moving images working separately towards the same goal in the late 19th century. Does being first even matter? Was Roundhay the original motion picture, or just the oldest that has survived to the present day? Posing these questions with rationalised research, Wilkinson plants pieces of pleasantries throughout his feature, even if they are at times disappointed by deviations.
Interviewees Mark Rance and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas provide excellent anecdotes and analysis about filmmaking, with Rance’s consideration of the aesthetic of 2-3 second films truly engrossing. Retired Police Chief Superintendant Quentin Dowse’s interview on the vanishing of Louis Le Prince on the other hand, is exemplary of the insertion of dead end discussion which stunts the development of The First Film. It’s moments like these which fiercely contrast the positive parts and demonstrate the film’s drawn-out length, their inclusion more a fault of the filmmakers than that of the cooperative participants.
David Nicholas Wilkinson’s ambition, passion and intent are admirable. The film’s final reconstruction scene is sentimentally and artistically satisfying, clearly for him, and for the viewer. He explains the difficulty he’s had in even funding and finding support for The First Film due to the controversy surrounding the subject matter, as many have disagreed with Le Prince’s celebrity. Bringing attention to Louis Le Prince’s marginalisation in film history is important, and in this sense, Wilkinson’s objective and argument can be convincing.
As a film in and of itself though, The First Film plays out like an unfocused essay; the title is simple, and when answered and explored, displays real potential. However, for an expository documentary, not enough is learned or remains consistent enough for it to be truly captivating, and as a consequence, just doesn’t reach that potential, nor ever feel as groundbreaking as its subject.