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British Silent Film Festival

Alison Strauss, Director of Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo'Ness, attended the British Silent Film Festival in September to catch up with the films, programmers and musicians that will inform her own festival...

The British Silent Film Festival was established in 1998 as a feisty riposte to the widely-held perception at the time, even amongst aficionados, that the only pre-sound film production of merit came from countries like France, Germany, Russia and the US, with possibly some exotic forays in Asia. After all, these countries had produced the ‘greats’ of the silent canon, like Napoleon, Nosferatu, Battleship Potemkin and The General. British film pre-1930 by contrast was lazily construed as leaden, stuck in traditions of theatre and with nothing to teach us. Yes, we had Hitchcock but wasn’t he the exception that proved the rule…

After one too many contemptuous remarks about inferior British output a band of folk who knew their Anthony Asquith from their Cecil Hepworth decided it was time to put the record straight and mount a festival to promote interest in British film before 1930.

After one too many contemptuous remarks about inferior British output a band of folk who knew their Anthony Asquith from their Cecil Hepworth decided it was time to put the record straight and mount a festival to promote interest in British film before 1930. From these committed beginnings the British Silent Film Festival (BSFF) was born. The crack team who make it all happen comprises Laraine Porter (‎Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, De Montfort University), Bryony Dixon (Curator of Silent Film, British Film Institute National Archive), Neil Brand (writer, composer, silent film accompanist, broadcaster) , Sue Porter (Lecturer in Film Studies, De Montfort University) and Pete Groschl (Coordinator Phoenix Leicester Community Cinema and Centre Screen, Mobile Cinema for Leicestershire & Rutland), with some help from a team of UK experts and advisors in this field. Between them they have directed, organised, programmed and generally flown the flag for British silents at 18 annual festivals with one small break in 2013 where the event was scaled down to an academic symposium followed by a day of screenings at the Cinema Museum.

Initially BSFF was held at Leicester’s Phoenix Cinema where it capitalised on the organisers’ links with the city’s university. Subsequently it has been based at the Barbican and the Cinema Museum in London, Picturehouse Cambridge and Broadway Nottingham, returning to the Phoenix in 2015. Whilst each new location has the potential to bring with it new audiences, this lack of a true and permanent home has posed a challenge for organisers who must start from scratch each year rather than re-connect with a local loyal base. The core audience of 70 or so delegates is extremely steadfast however and appears to follow the festival wherever it goes.

This year’s British Silent Film Festival was held over four days (10–13 September 2015) and comprised a packed line-up of six to seven screenings a day, from 9am to 11pm. There are no parallel sessions – so no sticky dilemmas about which film to see – but with just two 20 minute breaks and about an hour for lunch, the schedule is quite exacting (I distinctly heard loud snoring at a couple of mid-afternoon screenings as the pace took its toll). Such a busy programme does generate a certain feeling of camaraderie though, and with the same faces at each coffee break chatting to fellow delegates comes easily.

Although the emphasis remains firmly on the UK, now in its 18th year, and well in to the extant British holdings of the world’s archives, the programme has extended to include overlooked and rarely screened titles that are well… just not British! This year we had features from Sweden, Russia, the US and France.

The full programme can be found here and there were many delights indeed. My own highlights were The Guns of Loos (1928) a surprisingly affecting drama with extraordinary staged battle sequences, set against the background of Blighty’s shell crisis of 1915 and made just 13 years after the terrible events the film depicts. Stephen Horne’s stirring score for piano, percussion and trumpet was commissioned by the Great War Dundee partnership in association with DCA as part of the national commemorations to mark the centenary of the Battle of Loos (known as Dundee’s Flodden). 

As a new-on-the-block commissioning Festival ourselves at HippFest it is inspiring to see projects such as this emerging outside larger metropolitan venues and international festivals or archives. The resource required for composition, rehearsal and performance fees, on top of film hire, licence, instrument hire and musician expenses can clearly be prohibitive for smaller venues but happily the Guns of Loos film and commission have been supported for a small Scottish tour by Film Hub Scotland making it possible for the new work to be seen more widely. Other new commissions on show included Laura Rossi’s piece for piano, guitar, glockenspiel and violin to accompany the 1915 British epic Jane Shore “the British answer to Birth of a Nation”, commissioned by the Classic Cinema Club Ealing to celebrate the famous studio, funded by the PRS for Music Foundation and Arts Council England, and presented live in Leicester Cathedral.

Further programme highlights for me included Den Starkaste (1929) (The Strongest), a Swedish love-triangle filmed on awesome glacier locations in which an itinerant sailor must compete with his rival for the beautiful daughter of his stern skipper. Stephen Horne provided a beautiful, improvised and somehow ‘watery’ accompaniment despite never having seen the film before sitting down at the keys for the opening titles.

Whilst HippFest gives a platform to academic partners – having collaborated with the universities of Glasgow, Stirling and De Montfort on their respective AHRC funded research on silent-era Scottish film exhibition and on the Transition to Sound for broadly accessible illustrated talks – BSFF has a more strictly scholarly offering. Professor Charles Barr gave a rigorous yet entertainingly speculative analysis of Hitchcock’s role on two features, previously considered lost: Three Live Ghosts (1922) and The Man from Home (1922). The latter turned up in a Russian film archive where a version with Russian inter-titles has been preserved.  The English version of the inter-titles arrived in Leicester fresh from the translator with just a few hours to spare before the screening, giving a rather thrilling twist to Professor Barr’s presentation as he considered the preserved copy’s Leninist leanings, casting up interesting questions about the Kuleshov effect and the power of an inter-title to impact on the meaning of a filmed sequence. Charles was also touting his new book ‘Hitchcock Lost and Found’ and I am now the proud owner of a signed copy!

The four days in Leicester were an invaluable time-out for reflection and a rich opportunity for viewing rarely screened films with high standards of presentation and musical accompaniment.

The delegates comprised a concentrated cohort of silent film enthusiasts and experts… a one-stop shop for the most passionate and knowledgeable silent film stakeholders in the UK. I was able to have ‘silent chats’ with journalist and silent film blogger Pamela Hutchinson, historians like Tony Fletcher, silent film fans like Mark Fuller, archivists Tom Vincent from Aardman and Claire Watson of London Screen Heritage, also the programmers from the BSFF team, the newly established South West Silents and revered Pordenone Artistic Director David Robinson. Not least this was a chance to speak with the musicians themselves.  In attendance and performing were some of Europe’s best including Neil Brand, Stephen Horne, John Sweeney, Guenter Buchwald, Jane Gardner, Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, Laura Rossi and Guy Bartell. I am amazed and exhilarated by the skill of these musicians in their specialised field and am gladdened by the opportunity extended by our own Festival to invite this talented group of people to bring movies and music alive in Bo’ness and beyond.

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