Silent treatment

Talking is not allowed at many upcoming film fests

Cannes is screening them. Venice and Berlin, too. In fact, most of the major festivals have begun showing at least one classic silent film per edition. So why now?

The impetus behind the new interest among mainstream fest programmers lies with the burgeoning number of festivals devoted entirely to the genre, spearheaded by the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, entering its 25th year this October.

More than simply showcases for archivists and scholars, the new genre of silent festival is aiming for a broader appeal.

Bonn, Germany, boasts audience figures of 20,000 for its summer fest (Aug. 10-20), which went completely silent in 1996. “When we started, specialists said it’s not possible,” says Bonn Cinematheque director Sigrid Limprecht, referring to 10 days of silent-film screenings. Instead, the audience “has learned to trust this kind of event. Most of them say they don’t see it as a silent-film festival — it’s just a film festival.”

With an eye to opening up the pre-talkie world to a new generation of filmgoers, the Norwegian university town of Tromso launches its first silent fest (Sept. 7-10). Thanks to January’s Tromso Intl. Film Festival (TIFF), Tromso is already the cinephile’s preferred Arctic winter destination.

Organizers of the new fest are looking not only to exploit the riches housed in Scandinavian archives but to mix in cutting-edge musicians to attract an already film-savvy audience.

“The main connection between TIFF and the silent-film event is the chance to provide the audience with a different kind of film experience,” says fest director Martha Otte. “In addition to the historical aspect, it’s live and unique.”

While emphasizing Nordic works, such as rare footage from a 1928 North Pole expedition, the festival will include American classics.

What makes Tromso an ideal home for the new festival is the venue: Norway’s oldest working cinema. Built in 1916, the Verdensteatret has been restored to its former glory, complete with folkloric murals and an ornate proscenium.

Nordic themes are also a running motif this fall at Italy’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival (Oct. 7-14), which looks to salute the centennial of the Nordisk production house. More than any other cinema event, Pordenone (now making its home in the nearby north Italian town of Sacile) has put silents firmly on the programmers’ horizon, championing restorations and discoveries in an atmosphere that feels more vital than rarefied.

Not that it lacks the latter: Special guest at this year’s confab is 88-year-old Diana Serra Cary, aka Baby Peggy, whose films once rivaled those of Jackie Coogan’s at the box office.

Silence is also golden in Bristol, England, where the town’s Slapstick Silent Comedy Festival in January now plays to houses in excess of 1,000. Nottingham’s British Silent Cinema Festival enters its 10th year in 2007. And Kyoto, Japan, may soon host a festival of its own.

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