These Amazing Shadows

Trailer (1:01)
Clip 1 ( 2:10)
Clip 2 (2:12)
Clip 3 (1:27)

About the Film

Close-up of filmmaker John Waters, interviewed in this documentary, sporting his signature pencil-moustache against a dark purple curtain.

What do the films Casablanca, Blazing Saddles, and West Side Story have in common? Besides being popular, they have also been deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and listed in The National Film Registry, a roll call of American cinema treasures that reflects the diversity of film, and indeed, the American experience itself. The current list of 550 films includes selections from every genre — documentaries, home movies, Hollywood classics, avant-garde, newsreels, and silent films. American movies tell us so much about ourselves … not just what we did, but what we thought, what we felt, what we imagined, what we aspired to … and the lies we told ourselves.

These Amazing Shadows weaves clips from America's most-beloved films (and many rarer treasures) with moving personal tales of how specific films have reflected our culture and changed lives. The film includes interviews with the Librarian of Congress (Dr. James Billington), famous directors (including Christopher Nolan, John Lasseter, Rob Reiner, John Singleton, Barbara Kopple, and John Waters), producers (Gale Anne Hurd and James Schamus), archivists, admired actors (Tim Roth, Debbie Reynolds, Peter Coyote), and members of the National Film Preservation Board.

These Amazing Shadows documents the passage of the National Film Preservation Act of 1988 and how this law set in motion a system to identify notable films. The Librarian of Congress, with input from the public and advice from the National Film Preservation Board, selects 25 films each year to add to the Registry. These Amazing Shadows goes behind the scenes to show the discussions, the debates, and the drama that surround this selection process. As stated by James Billington, the Librarian of Congress: "American film really transformed the way in which a young nation learned to express itself, express its exuberance, expose its problems, and reflect its hopes. It wasn't simply a form of entertainment; it was living history … audio-visual history of the 20th century."

The tumultuous and still unsettled history of race relations is reflected and examined in such disparate films as D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, John Ford's The Searchers, and John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood. The important role of women in filmmaking is revealed from the pioneering work of Lois Weber and Dorothy Arzner to the recent work of Julie Dash. In addition, Rick Prelinger takes a humorous look at the influence and impact of such Cold War propaganda films as Duck and Cover and The House in the Middle.

The archivists who are preserving the seminal films of our collective memory are paying forward the gift of being deeply moved by the films they remember, too. Liz Stanley, archivist at the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, Library of Congress, recounts, "I got involved in film archiving because I saw Gone with the Wind when I was 12 … and, to think that I might have a part in some other 12-year-old girl seeing a movie that changes their life is really exciting to me, just making sure that those images are around for generations after I'm gone is very, very exciting."

For over a century, American movies have forged emotional connections with millions of viewers, providing a portal to our past, defining our present, and imagining our future. American films helped shape a global cultural language, connecting audiences across borders and different belief systems. And, just as our ancient ancestors shared stories to connect and thrive, we too share stories … retelling in our movies the mysterious experience of being alive. These Amazing Shadows shows us how movies are part of our history, part of our culture, and part of us.

The Filmmakers

Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton are the cofounders of Gravitas Docufilms in California. Both men worked in law – Paul with the Public Defender’s office in Contra Costa County, and Kurt as a private investigator. For several years, Paul and Kurt produced “mitigation videos” for defendants in death penalty cases. Kurt wrote and produced several shorts that screened at festivals around the country. Paul’s directorial debut, Also Ran, won the award for Best Political Documentary at the 2006 Atlanta Docufest. His film, Faces of Genocide began the International Citizens’ Tribunal on Sudan, held in New York City in 2006.