The original shooting star

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Skulduggery surrounds the creation of the great art form of the 20th century: moving pictures. As a new documentary charts the life and legacy of a cinematic pioneer, film critic Tony Earnshaw investigates the story of Louis Le Prince.

In the late 1880s the race was on to be the first to perfect and unveil a camera that could record the moving image. Among the runners and riders were ruthless American industrialist Thomas Edison and, in France, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière.

There were several others on both sides of the Atlantic, all working separately and probably in isolation from one another. As time passed and the notion of cinema became the norm the United States claimed Edison as the father of the movies while France embraced and aggressively promoted the Lumières.

Yet the first moving pictures were actually recorded in England, not in London but in Leeds. Thus Yorkshire was the unlikely birthplace of the movies and a new documentary aims to rewrite the history books.

For Leeds-born director David Wilkinson a 40-year quest to prove that Le Prince was the father of moving pictures became an obsession. His findings form the core of The First Film, a feature-length documentary receiving its charity gala premiere at Leeds’s Hyde Park Picture House on July 1.

The First Film is a portrait of Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, a largely forgotten pioneer who, a dozen years before the beginning of the 20th century, succeeded in shooting fleeting sequences using a single-lens camera.

It was October 14, 1888. In the garden of a house in Roundhay, Leeds, and from a building overlooking Leeds Bridge Le Prince recorded the first motion pictures on paper film using a single-lens camera. These fleeting sequences – known as Roundhay Garden Scene and Traffic on Leeds Bridge – have been accurately dated to the autumn of that year, thus crediting Le Prince as the first of the many Victorian pioneers to invent cinema.

Yet Wilkinson has faced an uphill battle all the way. At a swanky dinner in the filmmakers’ colony of Malibu he put forward his theory that it was Le Prince, and not Edison or the more widely credited Lumière brothers who created 
the first films. He was laughed out of the room.

And just last month as he promoted his film in Cannes he received another slap in the face from French filmmakers who scoffed: “This is a fantasy. We’ve heard of this man and it’s all lies.” The French have an enormous amount invested in the notion that the Lumière brothers were the creators of the moving image. In Lyons where the Lumières were based there are plaques honouring their work. There is also a museum and a film festival in their name.

Having laboured as director, producer, presenter, co-writer and distributor Wilkinson is now ready to present his findings. And he’s set for an almighty scrap.

“I’m having so many problems with the French, trying to get them to engage with me because they have so much invested in the Lumières,” says Wilkinson.

“I’m about to burst the bubble of the Lumière lie. The Lumières did invent cinema because they actually showed their film in front of paying audiences but the way that the French have embellished it over 120-odd years is that they have reinvented the truth.

“If you speak to most people in Europe the Lumières made the first films. They will bang on about how Lyons was the very first city to be filmed in the world. And it wasn’t. It was Leeds.”

But with upwards of 20,000 people a year visiting Lyons due to its place in history as “the place where the first films were made” it is clear France is not going to give up its claim without a fight.

As much a detective story as it is the culmination of Wilkinson’s obsessional quest for a form of justice for Le Prince, The First Film examines a frenzied period.

And in completing a journey that took him from Leeds to Le Prince’s birthplace in Metz to New York and finally to Memphis, Wilkinson came to an accommodation about his own view of this remarkable man. “I set off with a belief that he was the inventor of the moving image but early on in my research I discovered that that wasn’t the case. He’s not the inventor. He was an inventor. That’s the conclusion I come to. There were 15 people around the world, all men, working at the same time on the same invention. It’s quite extraordinary. But he was the first person to record the moving image.”

Wilkinson’s epiphany partly came via a journal written by E Kilburn Scott, a solid and sober Leeds businessman who had worked with Le Prince and recorded his memories about those days of struggle. Scott, claims Wilkinson, had no axe to grind other than to accurately record what he witnessed.

“Kilburn Scott had been out to see Edison’s studio in America. He was angry that as film history was being written nobody had written about Le Prince so he recorded working with him. The Le Prince family also wrote unpublished memoirs but they’re too invested; you have to discount a lot of what they say. But Kilburn Scott was well respected. He wasn’t a fantasist. So I’ve taken what he wrote as gospel.”

There were many other elements – dates of patents, drawings, designs, first-person memories and even talk of an earlier recording dating from 1887 – that pieced together the myriad parts of this intricate and contentious jigsaw.

Wilkinson agrees that France’s claim is partly about territoriality. But he also suggests that Le Prince’s odd lineage has counted against him and his place in film history.

“The reason why Le Prince is forgotten and was never really in the history books is that he was a French-born American citizen who made his film in Yorkshire. No one country has ever claimed him as their own. Leeds has claimed him but Britain hasn’t.

“The story of the Lumières is a better story for the French because they were French and what they did they did in France. Le Prince was French but he left and went to live in this place called Yorkshire. That doesn’t fit in with whatever story it is that they wanted to tell. So over the years it gets embellished. And Leeds is a strangely modest city. The way that London promotes itself, or Paris, or the way that Lyons has done it… it’s not a Yorkshire thing, really, to big yourself up. In a way I’m doing it for Leeds.”

And for Louis Le Prince. Nowadays his descendants live in America. Next month his great-great granddaughter Laurie Snyder will travel to Yorkshire for the first time to present Louis’ papers to the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society.

But what of Louis Le Prince himself? What happened to this unsung hero? As he was on the verge of revealing his creation to the world the 49-year-old vanished in September 1890 after boarding a train in the French city of Dijon. Various theories – all examined in The First Film – have been put forward, with the most popular being that agents acting on behalf of a rival murdered him.

Nobody was ever found responsible for his disappearance, leaving Le Prince’s wife, Lizzie, bereft and forever pursuing a conspiracy theory.

“I stupidly, naively thought that I would uncover what happened to him,” says Wilkinson.

“That’s the one disappointment: nobody can ever know. It’s like we’ll never know who Jack the Ripper was. You can have all these theories but we’ll never know. It will always be a mystery.”

The charity gala premiere of The First Film takes place at the Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds, at 8pm on Thursday, July 1, in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society.