Modern-day silent films at the Toronto Silent Film Festival

The following article was originally published in the Globe & Mail on March 24, 2012. It appears here in a slightly edited form.

When Shirley Hughes launched the Toronto Silent Film Festival in 2009, she never thought that a modern-day silent film like The Artist could claim the Best Picture Oscar, sparking a revival of interest in early cinema.

Closing tonight, the festival has long placed importance on connecting the past to the present. The opening night film, Our Dancing Daughters (1928), starring a young Joan Crawford, draws many parallels to the Oscar-winning film. “It’s a great example of a jazz age film,” said Ms. Hughes, claiming that Crawford greatly influenced Bérénice Bejo’s portrayal of Peppy Miller in the award-winning film.

But The Artist, about the downfall of a silent actor at the on-set of the talkie era, would have you believe that silent film production ceased entirely after 1928. “The medium lived on,” said Ms. Hughes. One of the films shown, F.W. Murnau’s Tabu, was made in 1931. “Chaplin released Modern Times in 1936. Some of Jacques Tati’s films, even the opening sequences in Pixar films like Wall-E and Up, are practically silent. It never really went away.”

A condensed version of Edmonton-based Eva Colmers short “The Weightless Traveler” was one of several modern-day silent films presented at this year’s Toronto Silent Film Festival. You can view the complete short here.

Past meets present

A selection of minute-long films featured last fall during the Toronto Urban Film Festival will precede Our Dancing Daughters. Originally presented on screens hanging above TTC subway platforms, the modern-day shorts will be shown in a proper theatrical setting, with musical accompaniment.

David Schmidt, a Toronto-based filmmaker whose short, Don’t Let The Bedbugs Bite, draws on his own nightmarish experience of living in a bedbug-ridden Toronto apartment, said it’s pretty exciting to see his film in a theatre alongside the silent masters. “On the TTC, you’re not as focused on the films because you have your destination in mind,” he said. Although he doesn’t work exclusively with silence, he loves the medium’s ability to focus solely on the story. “All you have are the images. The story is at the forefront.”

Eva Colmers, the Edmonton-based director of The Traveler, said she “really honours those great masters who were able to get such reactions out of audiences.” Since her silent shorts rely solely on visuals, they have appeared in festivals from Colombo to Copenhagen. “It’s a universal language, without borders,” added Ms. Colmers, inferring one of the reasons why Charlie Chaplin, not wanting to alienate his audiences in non-English speaking countries, kept making silent films throughout the 1930s.

The closing night film, Varieté (1925), starring Emil Jannings, will be preceded by The Force that Through the Green Fire Fuels the Flower (2011), by Otto Kylmälä. Ms. Hughes hailed the Finnish-born director’s film about love and loss as a “touching, extremely personal story done in a very artistic way,” which eschews the inter-titles long associated with silent film, instead weaving them into the film’s environment.

Silent films have always been in Mr. Kylmälä’s blood stream. “They were my first nanny. My grandmother used to put on countless VHS tapes of Chaplin and Keaton to keep me occupied.” His filmmaking endeavours were later influenced by seeing live presentations of King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) and Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924).

Films like any other

Ms Hughes says the festival’s modern-day shorts all contribute to the medium’s lexicon without resorting to homage or parody of their earlier counterparts: whether live action or animated, there are no pie-fights or prat-falls.

In his film, Mr. Kylmälä steered clear of homage. “My agenda was at its core to make a film like any other, which just happened to be in silent form.” He wants to raise awareness for the era, but not by “skipping all of the wonderful decades of film history in between.”

Like Ms. Colmer and Mr. Schmidt, who has enjoyed the early, pioneering films of the Lumiere Bros, Mr. Kylmälä hopes that the revitalized interest inspires people to see that films by Chaplin, Vidor and Murnau are still very relevant today: “Hopefully that excitement will generate new innovative uses for visual language.”

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