Film festival challenges students with vow of silence

By Emerald Gao

Last winter, fourth-year Mike LaRocco was approached by UT member Ramiro Castro in hopes of making a film with his sketch comedy group Big Dog Eat Child. LaRocco recalls in an e-mail interview, “I wanted to make the film in the style of an early slapstick comedy, which meant that I didn’t have the luxury of sound; I had to think completely visually.” The result, The Great Poker Chase, became the inspiration for the Silent Film Festival, an incredible collaboration between Fire Escape Films, University Theater, student musicians, and faculty members. Last Friday, 16 short films were presented in 16mm glory to a full theatre, followed by a discussion with professors Tom Gunning, Ron Gregg, Yuri Tsivian, and Director of UT Heidi Coleman.

In his opening statement, LaRocco gave an overview of the various challenges student filmmakers faced throughout the production of the various short films. “The only rules were no color, no sound, on film. Within that, we saw an extremely diverse group of films. One of the main goals of the project was to get people to think about their films in terms of images, and I think we really succeeded in this more than anything else.”

And it showed. Student offerings included Scarf, structured like a traditional comedy of errors (think Keaton or Chaplin); Things Moving in Circles, a hypnotic exploration of circular motion (think record players, washing machines, and carnival rides); and Pool Boy, the infamous porno that takes place in the Ida Noyes pool (think fake orgasms and, wait, a ninja fight?). Most films were accompanied by student musicians on a variety of instruments, ranging from classic piano to strings and electric guitar, and one even featured a student on turntables during an experimental film.

The film festival was Fire Escape’s major event of the year, and utilized extensive resources. According to president Ben Kolak, “Fire Escape provided all the equipment and know-how to produce the film festival. We received help with costumes and locations from University Theater, access to the early works of silent cinema from the Film Studies Center, and CMS and ISHUM faculty feedback at the event.” Kolak, along with LaRocco and 16mm film expert Dinesh Sabu, produced the event, and encouraged students in all aspects of production, from securing locations and props to scheduling cast and crew, all the finer aspects of filmmaking that Kolak says are “often overlooked.” With the acquisition of a UChicagoArts Grant, the festival began to take shape.

When people think about silent film, they usually come up with farcical cop chases, physical comedy à la Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, and the awkward, bumbling romances exemplified by Keaton films. While some of the films tried to recreate the lost splendor of that era, others made new light of the challenge, exploring different imaging techniques, musical expression, and narrative styles. As Gunning pointed out during the discussion after the screening, “Even in the Silent Film Era there was still a variation of styles…There is a tradition of experimentation in silent film.”

The faculty panel addressed the student films with both an appreciative and a critical eye, discussing what worked and what didn’t in the works presented as well as in the larger context of silent film itself. Tsivian addressed the issue of control, stressing the importance of “inventing limitations as well as adding recognizable traits.” For example, the cameras of the Silent Era were not equipped with zooms, yet several of the shorts used that function. And Coleman claimed that the acting “didn’t come close to imitating silent film,” citing old film stars who used their entire body to convey their emotions.

Each panelist had their own favorites, but the two films determined to be the most successful were The Great Poker Chase — —definitely the biggest crowd-pleaser — —and Things Moving in Circles. Coleman admired the hilarity of the former and the reflection of the latter, and Gunning praised the integrity of the imagery and structure of Circles. Also universally praised were the musicians who provided live accompaniment for the films. These authentic touches added another facet of the Silent Era to the overall experience, conjuring up a time when each movie theater was equipped with its own piano player. Coleman said that because even the imperfections and mistakes of the musicians are one of a kind, “the audience’s experience was truly unique.”

The most refreshing thing about the Silent Film Festival was not just its sheer scope (more than 75 student artists worked on the 16 films, according to LaRocco), but that many of the students had never worked with 16mm film. Students were taught how to use the film equipment by Sabu and various faculty members, and Fire Escape maintained and troubleshot the equipment throughout the course of production.

Even under the experienced leadership of LaRocco and Kolak, some things were bound to go wrong. LaRocco recounts, “Last Wednesday Ben got a call from the lab telling us that our splicer (the machine we use make cuts within films) didn’t work right. The lab couldn’t make the print, and if we wanted to screen the films, we would have to re-splice all 2800 feet of film. We were surprisingly calm about this: Ben, Dinesh, filmmaker Molly Ashford and I put on a few pots of coffee Wednesday night and redid every single cut in the festival.” Despite a few technical glitches during the screening, it seemed like the overwhelming student response was well worth the effort.

The Silent Film Festival may or may not remain a University tradition, but Kolak affirmed, “I do feel that every year an event of the nature of the Silent Film Festival (as in many short works with a common theme, genre, or educational purpose) should be Fire Escape’s major project.” Judging by the Silent Film Festival’s success this year, both in exposing student filmmakers to the basics of cinema and introducing audience members to the “silent film aesthetic,” Fire Escape has plenty to look forward to in the coming years.