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For 108 years, “The Oath of the Sword,” a 1914 silent film released by one of a handful of Japanese American film companies, has gone unseen by audiences. Tucked away in the archives of Rochester’s George Eastman Museum, the only remaining print of the film was collecting dust–until Denise Khor discovered it.

Now, thanks to Khor, a Northeastern associate professor of Asian American and visual studies, the film–potentially the oldest Asian American film on record–is being restored and will, for the first time in 108 years, return to the screen. Although it’s only stretched across three reels and 30 minutes, the silent drama reveals the untold story of an entirely alternative network of film production at a time when the medium was just getting started.

Denise Khor, a Northeastern University associate professor of Asian American and visual studies, has been uncovering the hidden and under-discussed contributions from Japanese American filmmakers at the dawn of American cinema. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“It’s buried in this vault, and unless you’re a researcher like me, you’re just not going to see it,” Khor says. “It’s just such an important part for Asian American film and media and history, but it’s also just an important part of American film history.”

The restoration and preservation project, funded by a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation and done in partnership with the George Eastman Museum and Japanese American National Museum, is the culmination of years of work for Khor. It started as her dissertation, a deep dive into the origins of the film industry and the role Japanese Americans played in it.

Many films from this era have been lost to time, even more so for those made by Japanese Americans. That meant Khor couldn’t rely on traditional sources to trace this history.

Instead, she turned to the Japanese American press. Combing through century-old newspapers, Khor discovered, piece by piece, the relatively untold history of Japanese American filmmaking.

“This is all about things that didn’t actually materialize as well–film practices, film cultures, film productions,” Khor says. “It was really just putting together this jigsaw puzzle.”

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Eventually, Khor generated a list of about eight films made by Japanese Americans during this period, with no expectations that she would ever see any of them. Not expecting much, Khor circulated the list among preservationists and archivists she knew––and she got a lead. Against all odds, the George Eastman Museum had the only surviving print of the film in its archive.

Even though the museum had created a safety print of the film in 1980, it was still incredibly fragile, which meant Khor could only view it once without rewinding. Playing it frame by frame, Khor took an hour to watch the 30-minute film.


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