A FILMMAKER ' S GIFT

Decades of travel film donated to UA library

Moviemaker's works are a broad chronicle of cultures worldwide
2011-05-29T00:00:00Z Decades of travel film donated to UA libraryBy Rhonda Bodfield Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

As a filmmaker, Ken Wolfgang has been a citizen of the world.

He's plowed fields and threshed rice with the assistance of water buffalo in Thailand.

He's slept in Borneo on bamboo mats, with skulls dangling in nets overhead - tokens of battle, yet still reflecting a desire to protect their previous inhabitants in the hereafter.

He's climbed Japan's Mount Fuji four times.

Now 80, Wolfgang is dying. He was diagnosed with bone cancer over the winter holidays. But he has given slivers of his memories and experiences to Tucson, where he now lives.

Wolfgang has bequeathed his extensive travel film collection to the special collections division of the University of Arizona library. They provide rare glimpses into world cultures from Japan to India, Thailand, Singapore, Austria and Mexico.

The collection amounts to hundreds of spools of 16 mm film, including all the original material that went into creating 11 full-length movies.

It was shot largely in the 1950s through 1980 - in the days predating cable travel channels, before anyone with a clicker and a couch could visit faraway lands.

The film bug nipped the Toledo, Ohio, native as a young man, after a relative thrust a camera into his hands and told him to capture Yellowstone.

Another defining moment came in 1951, when the Army sent the enlistee to Japan. The "otherness" - if not outright barbarism - of the Japanese was long a theme the 20-year-old had heard. But walking down the street one day, seeing neighbors interacting and families at work and play, he thought, "My God. They're me."

It could have been Toledo.

He was determined to bring home the world, just as it was, without embellishment or stereotypes.

It took years of study and immersion in various cultures. He ate a lot of hamburger to fund his travel. Eventually, he became part of a travel lecture circuit.

Back then, filmmakers, decked out in tuxedos, would narrate their films live before crowds of a dozen to thousands, all over the country.

His wife, Kendra Gaines, distinctly remembers one presentation in Sarasota, Fla. A riveting performer, wearing the finery he privately disliked, Wolfgang opened his arms with a certain welcoming elegance and said, "Let's now go to India together, shall we?" There was much sighing among the women, who quite likely would have found it charming to accompany him to the moon.

When he had the sense that technology began to trump the human connection of the work, Wolfgang decided to retire from the business in 1983.

The films have remained largely untouched since. He taps his head. The movies are in there. No need to wrestle with the projector.

But bringing those films to life for the general public, however, is a three-pronged effort.

There's the film itself. Then there's the music and sound effects, which ran separately on a tape, synchronized to the film. Then there's the narration Wolfgang would do, as the film rolled. When it's all digitized on DVD, it will be the equivalent of a voice-over.

Bob Nichol, the owner of Ping Pong Media, which specializes in recapturing and digitizing motion picture film, did a successful test of merging the three for the postwar "Soul of Japan," which examines a country struggling to hang onto its traditional values.

Nichol acknowledges the amount of material is a bit overwhelming, but said Arizona's low humidity helped preserve the film. The biggest challenge is synchronizing the three tracks, he said. When the Japanese ring a bell by swinging a massive log into it, for example, the audience expects to hear the tones at impact, not a second later or sooner.

But Nichol, who has seen a lot of old films, sees special merit in the pieces. "It's clear he didn't come swooping into a household and start shooting film. He took time to get to know people, so when it did come time to start shooting, the camera almost went unnoticed. There's no fancy lighting. It's very simple, straightforward. Real clean, real personal."

Veronica Reyes, an associate librarian at the UA special collections department, said that from a geographic perspective, she's particularly interested in seeing Wolfgang's work in Mexico and California, although there's merit in the entire collection.

"I think in terms of research value for people doing cultural and historical studies, it's going to be exceptional material," Reyes said.

Reyes said she expects it will cost about $10,000 to adapt the 11 films. She is applying for in-house funding, as well as outside grants, and is accepting donations to accomplish the work.

Wolfgang, for his part, is a little pained by the publicity. His wife says he doesn't just efface himself - he has a tendency to erase himself. He doesn't like being the star of a birthday party, and the Sarasota story makes him blush.

But that's part of Wolfgang's success in documenting the lives of others. "I felt very strongly I had to bring back what other people are like from their point of view," he explained.

It was important to do away with the classic "back-home-we-do-this" kind of comparison. "If you want to learn another culture, you have to forget yourself."

Wolfgang may be adept at losing himself. But if all goes well, that won't be the fate of his work.

How to help

Anyone interested in donating to help offset the cost of digitizing Ken Wolfgang's travel film collection may contact the development office for the University of Arizona library system at 621-3485.

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at rbodfield@azstarnet.com or 573-4243.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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