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.
The festival, which gets under way March 29, 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 Ms. 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 onset 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 we're showing, 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 selection of minute-long films featured last fall during the Toronto Urban Film Festival and created by local filmmakers will precede Our Dancing Daughters. Originally presented on screens hanging above TTC subway platforms, they 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 silents, he loves the medium's ability to focus solely on the story. “All you have are the images. The story is at the forefront.”
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 Kylmala. 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.
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 pratfalls.
In his film, Mr. Kylmala 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 Mr. Schmidt, who has enjoyed the early, pioneering films of the Lumière Bros., Mr. Kylmala hopes that the revitalized interest inspires people to see that films by Chaplin and Murnau are still very relevant today: “Hopefully that [Oscar]excitement will generate new innovative uses for visual language.”
The Toronto Silent Film Festival runs March 29-April 3 in various venues. See torontosilentfilmsfestival.com for pricing and details.