JFK slumping forward. Jackie scrambling back. Twenty-six seconds of blurred film footage still replaying in the minds of Americans 35 years after it was shot. A priceless piece of history. But one that now comes with an $18.5 million price tag

Thirty-five years ago this Sunday, an unassuming Dallas dressmaker named Abraham Zapruder decided to take advantage of the location of his office. It was just off Dealey Plaza, across the road from the School Books Depository Building. Later that morning, President John F Kennedy would be passing by in an open-top limousine. He would take a few moments off to go outside and witness the motorcade.

It was an assistant to Zapruder, even more excited than the dressmaker was about seeing the President, who persuaded him to go back to his house and pick up his home-movie camera. The boss agreed. Although his camera was only a basic, 8mm affair, a wind-up manufactured by Bell & Howell, it would be nice to capture the President, in town, for his children and grandchildren to see in the years ahead.

And so it was that later that morning, as the motorcade was approaching down Elm Street, that Zapruder, with his assistant's help, balanced himself on a concrete block on a grassy bank, his movie camera at the ready. As the motorcade swung into the Plaza, Zapruder began to shoot his film. Aside from a brief moment when his view is obscured by a road sign, he succeeds in keeping the President perfectly in the camera's frame. The 60-year-old dressmaker was an amateur film-maker, but he had a steady hand.

Of course, Zapruder had set out to capture a bit of history. An immigrant from Russia, he was fiercely proud of his adopted town and this, he was sure, would be a great day indeed. How could he possibly have known that it was not just everyday history that he and his camera were about to witness?

The Zapruder film, just 26 seconds in length, was destined to become arguably the most precious stretch of celluloid exposed this century. Its value, first and foremost, was as the only live record of an event that tore the soul from the United States - the assassination of a popular President in the prime of his power and life. Its crudely juddering frames, in colour, but with no sound, were to soak deep into the consciousness and the popular culture of America for decades to come. It was also to become the object of fierce battles and controversy, not least as the principle source of encouragement for the conspiracy theorists. For years - and still today - those buffs would contest the finding of the Warren Commission in 1964 that the President was shot by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, from the Book Depository.

And three-and-a-half decades later, the film would eventually come to pit the heirs of Zapruder (the dressmaker died of cancer in 1970) against the US government itself. That contest is being played out in Washington DC right now. At its heart is a question that would seem to be virtually unanswerable: how much is the film worth? What price can be put on such naked, essential history?

The fight began with a decision taken last year by an austere body of historians and archivists created by Congress in 1992, called the Assassination Records Review Board. Wound up at the end of this September, its task was to dig out and deliver to the public every nugget of material with some relevance to the Kennedy shooting, and which different government agencies had kept secret for so long.

The point of the exercise was to quell the suspicion that still lingered among the public, and which was rekindled by Oliver Stone's 1991 epic, JFK, that Washington was guilty of covering up the truth about the assassination. It was never expected to render its own judgement on what happened, but simply get as much of the evidence out into the open as was humanly possible.

One of the board's achievements was to declare the Zapruder film the property of the American people. Although the original footage had rested in cold storage in the National Archives since 1978, it still belonged to the Zapruder heirs, who were free to sell it to the highest bidder at any time. Kermit Hall, one of the board's members, is clear that appropriating the film for American posterity was the right thing to do. "If there was any single major contribution of the board, it was the public taking of the film, putting it for ever in the public domain, and not letting it end up as the trophy of some Saudi prince to be cut up and sold as pieces of a relic," he said. "It was among the hardest of the decisions, and the very best we made."

On that fateful morning in Dealey Plaza, Zapruder apparently understood at once what controversies lay ahead. As soon as the presidential limousine had passed out of sight beneath an overpass, with the President's head blown open and Jackie Kennedy lunging for help from the secret service agent riding on its rear fender, he told a reporter from the Dallas Morning News what he had filmed. The reporter then informed a secret service agent, and all three headed first to the newspaper and then to the local Kodak plant to have the film developed at once. Before the day's end, Zapruder had a lawyer draft a legal document forbidding government investigators from making additional copies and allowing them to leak out.

The next morning, on 23 November, he sold the still photograph rights, and then the rights to the moving pictures themselves, to Life magazine for $150,000. In making his decision, he told the editor from Life who had contacted him, Richard Stolley, that he had already had a dream. In it, he was walking through Times Square when he was accosted by a barker extolling passers-by to step inside a sleazy cinema to watch on the big screen as the President's brains spurted out on his car's upholstery.

When Zapruder later watched his own work at the Warren Commission, he wept. "The thing would come every night," he said of his by-then recurring nightmare. "I wake and see this." After splashing frames of the sequence across its pages, first in black and white and then in colour (though not the frame when the President's head actually explodes), Life kept hold of the film, as it had pledged to Zapruder. It released it only to the Warren Commission and, years later, once more when Clay Shaw was tried in New Orleans - and eventually acquitted - for acting as a co-conspirator.

In 1975, however, after a grainy bootleg version was aired on an ABC television talk show hosted by Geraldo Rivera, Life began to feel the burden of its responsibility. Three years later, it sold the film back to the family for $1m. For so many years, the Zapruder footage had remained essentially hidden from the public. The Rivera showing was the first time the full sequence had been given general exposure.

It was probably only with the release of Oliver Stone's JFK, however, that large sections of the American public saw what Zapruder had captured. Mr Stone, whose mission was to debunk the Warren Commission and re-ignite the theories of government conspiracy, paid the family $40,000 for the few snippets in the film.

In the meantime, however, Zapruder's work had become a frame of reference for contemporary American culture. It had spelled out for the first time the extraordinary and entirely compelling power of photographic footage as the only medium capable of showing what is real and true. It informed countless other feature movies, such as Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), in which a London photographer develops and manipulates photographic footage to discover evidence that he had missed in reality.

And it prefigured the culture of "live TV" that has become so central to our television society today. The most iconic news stories of our time are nowadays almost always defined by those live moments caught on film; the more grainy, the more compelling. We have the single protester before the tanks in Peking in 1989; the helicopter-eye's view of OJ Simpson fleeing police in his white Ford Bronco; the security-camera images of James Bulger being led away by the hand in a shopping centre. We have no footage of Clinton and Lewinsky, but the commercial videotape of the interrogation of the President by Ken Starr and his assistants was one of this summer's home rental bestsellers.

There was, however, another runaway seller in the video stores this summer. It was called Images of an Assassination, and tells how the Zapruder family essentially managed to get the jump on the government before it was finally forced to surrender its precious film. Late last year, Zapruder's heirs hired a firm of photographic specialists to make a new, digitally enhanced copy of those 26 seconds. A firm called MPI then transferred the results to video for general sale to the public. The result is devastating to watch and managed to spark a whole new controversy about the film. Arguments are still

raging as to whether it is proper for the film, which from 1 August became the official property of the nation, to be distributed so freely to the public. Editorial writers and historians squealed that the family - with a 20 per cent royalty on sales of the video - had committed a gross crime of commercial indecency. At the very least, they said, it was an affront to the Kennedy family, for whom the assassination is still a matter of deeply private pain.

The video, in all its new, digital glory, is indeed unspeakably shocking. While the first 40 minutes are dedicated to some already well-known history and tedious descriptions of the technical wizardry that was employed to clean up the original footage, the showing at the end of those 26 seconds will leave any viewer feeling completely numb. You are treated to six different versions, some in slow-motion and the last two with the frame zoomed close into the head of the President. So close that when the second bullet strikes the skull, his brains explode forward like a mass of pink hamburger meat. You may also be tempted to join up with the conspiracists: that second bullet very obviously seemed to come from the front, and not from the rear, of the Depository Building.

As to how much the Zapruder heirs should be compensated by the government for surrendering ownership of the film, a settlement is still not reached. The family started the negotiation with this figure: $18.5m. Not a modest sum for a flickering 26 seconds taken by a man briefly out of his office for what was essentially a coffee break. The US Justice Department was unimpressed. Its counter-offer was for $750,000, which it then reluctantly increased to $3 million. A stalemate has since ensued.

It will be next June before we know the final sale price. Last month, both sides agreed to the establishment of a panel of arbitrators. This will consist of three wise men, one chosen by the Zapruder heirs, another by the government, and the third by the first two. Two other conditions were agreed. Although the film will belong to the nation, copyright will still remain with the family. Thus it will stand, in order to control any commercial use of the film or any attempt to take money for it. And a ceiling was set on whatever sum is finally agreed - of $30m.

"Who cares how much it costs?" asked John Newman, who is a history professor at the University of Maryland and one of the leading experts on the assassination. "As history, it is like the Enola Gay, the B29 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A whole generation of people, and their psyches, have been affected by that film, which they've seen over and over again."

About that, the professor is not wrong.

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London