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8 December, 2011  ▪  Kateryna Vashtalova

Silent Dialogs With Film

Silent film festivals which offer early 20th-century masterpieces in new artistic interpretations are a notable recent trend

A return to the achievements of early cinematography gathered momentum in the latter part of the 20th century and is continuing now in several directions. Critics point to a genetic relationship between contemporary auteur films and the cinema avant-garde of the 1920s and the 1930s. Some black-and-white films with pointedly expressive gestures, inter-titles instead of dialogs and other artistic features of the early days are stylizations of silent films. Closely linked to it is video art, an avant-garde trend in contemporary art which focuses on bold visual experiments. Video artists do not only borrow the aesthetics of early cinema but also subject it to post-modernist interpretation by citing and making parodies of certain films. One way of citing silent films is VeeJay-ing – video accompaniment to music concerts in real time using special software which adds various effects to ready footage. Moreover, some synthetic genres are starting to appear, such as cinema concerts (shows of silent films to the accompaniment of live music) and media, or audiovisual, performances, in which silent films are one element in a fusion of several arts.

By establishing communication among researchers, representatives of cinema funds and private collectors from across the world helped retrieve and properly register silent films that were deemed lost. The fall of the political regime in the post-Soviet space opened access to archival materials, and the world's film treasury was expanded with the additions of previously banned films. Using computer technology, films began to be restored and digitized. However, specialized silent film festivals, which have been growing in Europe and America since the 1980s, remain a unique format for presenting and promoting the significant contribution of silent films to the development of contemporary cinema.

DOWN UKRAINIAN PATHS

Ukraine’s first silent film festivals were held in Kyiv in 2001 and 2003 through the efforts of Western European embassies. However, a true explosion of interest in silent films came in 2010-11. For two years now, Ivano-Frankivsk has hosted the Old Films in a New Way festival. “The idea is to combine the classics of silent cinematography with contemporary music and video art,” Roman Ros, the organizer and a musician, explains. In 2010, the Foundation Center for Contemporary Art launched the Archive of Ukrainian Media Art project in Kyiv. Concurrently, Kyiv hosted the VAU-Fest International Video Art and Short Film Festival. This year it featured retrospective shows of foreign festivals, the Cinema Avant-Garde and Contemporary Video Art multimedia presentation and an audiovisual performance which combined silent film footage with experimental films submitted for the competition, as well as VeeJay-ing and electronic music.

OH, ODESA!

Odesa picked up the baton and reached back to the origins of cinema. It was in Odesa that Yosyp Tymchenko crafted a prototype of the movie camera, two years ahead of the Lumière brothers, and presented the first two films, one showing rapidly moving horsemen and the other one spear throwing. In 1907, private cinema factories actively produced films there, and the Odesa Film Studio was established in 1919.

In 2010, two large-scale projects were launched: the Odesa International Film Festival and its accompanying “Silent Nights. Ukrainian Silent Films” festival, a special program completely dedicated to silent films. A fully restored version of Fritz Lang’s antiutopia Metropolis (1927) and the Georgeі Méliès Show were presented in the music interpretation composed by the direct descendants of “the father of special effects.”

Fritz Lang Metropolis (1927)

This festival specializes in silent films and offers an intense program of retrospective shows, thematic lectures and exhibits. In 2010, every portion of the films was dedicated to outstanding Ukrainian representatives of the respective eras in cinematography. The first day featured the films by Petro Chardynin, Hryhoriy Tasin, Oleksandr Dovzhenko starring Vira Kholodna, Semen Svashenko and Amvrosiy Buchma. The second day was intended to restore the memory of cinema artists who have Ukrainian origin and are widely known abroad but not in Ukraine. The collection included films by Maya Deren (USA) and Eugene Deslaw (France), as well as films featuring Gregori Khmara (Germany-France) and Anna Sten (Europe-USA). In 2011, the festivals program included two films by Ukrainian directors: Dovzhenko’s Zvenyhora (1927) and Heorhiy Stabovy’s Dva dni (Two Days, 1929). The first volume of the Ukrainian Silent Films DVD collection was launched in what became a landmark event. This release will encompass 20 best films recorded to the accompaniment of contemporary Ukrainian and foreign musicians. The new collection will be presented at international cinema forums, while media collections and cultural institutions across the world will receive gift editions.

Maya Deren Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

INTEREST IN HISTORY

After travelling through space and time in the labyrinths of dates, titles and names, the question finally arises: Why has silent cinema become relevant now? Vadym Kostromenko, director of the Odesa Cinema Museum, cameraman and filmmaker, and Yanina Prudenko, media theoretician and culture expert, have helped find the answer to this question. Kostromenko told about his initiative to introduce a course on cinema in schools, though it fell on deaf ears. The contemporary generation does not read, he says. Films are much more important, and these usually include commercial productions broadcast on television or shown in movie theaters. Arousing interest in the history of cinema, shaping an aesthetic taste and offering an alternative to mass productions are the goals of silent film festivals.

Moreover, they help preserve national cultural memory, because every film is a historical document of its era. Kostromenko notes an astounding fact: the Illich Recreation Park and a zoo operated, until 2007, in the territory of the First Christian Cemetery, which was razed to the ground and where Kholodna was buried along with many other outstanding figures. Now the Transfiguration Memorial Complex is planned to be erected there.

Great silent films are also a cultural code without which it is impossible to understand much contemporary artwork widely presented at multimedia festivals. Prudenko notes that directors pay increasing attention to visual means of expression: montage, lighting and musical techniques have experienced another wave of experiments. Kostromenko believes that silent films are a means of universal communication in the contemporary, globalized world. Citing Dziga Vertov’s manifesto from the film Chelovek s kinoapparatom (Man with a Movie Camera), it can be stated that a revival of “the truly international absolute language of cinema” is taking place. Its beauty and truthfulness can be experienced by any one of us.

Eugene Deslaw Les nuits électriques (1928)

SILENT FILM FESTIVALS ABROAD

The Pordenone International Silent Film Festival (Italy) recently marked its 30th anniversary. Great Britain has had a similar fest since 1998, France since 1999 and Germany since 2004. Poland holds Days of Silent Films using the Filmoteka Narodowa national film archive. In 2007, the project Silent Film+Live Music was launched in Russia, featuring early films to the accompaniment of various types of instrumental music. The San Francisco International Silent Film Festival, America’s biggest, was first held in 1992. In Canada, two similar fests were established, one in Ottawa in 2003 and the other one in Toronto in 2010. Australia and the Philippines have held international silent film festivals since 2007 and China since 2010. The geography of these events is constantly expanding and their programs are becoming more varied. For example, the Italian festival now has a section for 21st-century silent films, while France has set up a special educational cinema program for children and a project for itinerant film concerts.


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