San Francisco Silent Film Fest About Much More Than The Movies

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Author and Hollywood Forever Cemetery tour guide Karie Bible meets historian Kevin Brownlow.

I will preface everything that follows by staying this: the programming at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was, in a word, extraordinary. A balance of genres, countries of origin, and artistic styles meant that each day remained stimulating and unexpected (we at SFQ will be reviewing the specific titles in the forthcoming issue of the magazine). As much as it sounds like a cliché, there truly was something for everyone.

However, having now returned home and reflected on the festival for a little while, I must admit that the memories that stand out the greatest have absolutely nothing to do with the films that were screened. Instead it was the gathering of like-minded film buffs, a four-day summer camp of sorts for people who all speak the same language but are oftentimes dispersed across the country. People I only knew through social media felt like old friends as soon as I met them face-to-face (in addition to the stack of business cards from new acquaintances and colleagues).

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The spectacular Castro Theatre, ground zero for the festival.

Claire Inayat Williams has been writing for SFQ for going on two years, often covering the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and Day of Silents on behalf of the magazine. Despite our close collaboration over those years, it was only Wednesday night after The Man Who Laughs that we finally connected in person. Throughout the entire festival, during which we watched at least half a dozen films together, we were incredulous that we’d met just days before. I feel indebted to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for facilitating such friendships.

Claire wasn’t the only SFQ author in attendance. Lea Stans, whose wonderful Silent-ology blog is essential reading for any silent film fan, flew out from Minnesota to attend. I’d only met Lea once before, over dinner in Hollywood, so the opportunity to talk over dinner and drinks was a nice change of pace from our usual Facebook messages. Mark Pruett, another name familiar to readers of the magazine (with wonderful articles on Baby Peggy and Ford Sterling, amongst others), came down from Oregon. Being able to thank Mark and Lea in person for their scholarship and support of SFQ was long overdue.

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The author, Silent-ology’s Lea Stans, and Matías Antonio Bombal.

I could go on and on about the wonderful people I was able to spend time with over the course of the weekend. Karie Bible and Beth Ann Gallagher, names which should be familiar to many in the silent film community, were absolutely delightful to spend time with. Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, a close friend and mentor of Claire’s, was another of the many people I enjoyed speaking to thoroughly. Also deserving a special mention is the one-of-a-kind Matías Antonio Bombal, who happened to be celebrating his birthday on the Sunday of the festival. Matías is a classic film and music extraordinaire, and genuinely one of the most pleasant people I’ve ever had the good fortune to spend time with.

The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum was well-represented, selling books, DVDs, and other assorted paraphernalia on the mezzanine. I can’t say this enough—the museum is truly a silent film fan’s Mecca, and no matter how many silent film landmarks I visit across the country I will always maintain that Niles is the most impressive and enjoyable to visit.

And then there were the VIPs. Meeting Buster Keaton’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter—immediately after a screening of Battling Butler, no less—was absolutely thrilling. Leonard Maltin was jovial as always; I had a brief but touching conversation with him about the late Chuck McCann. But the real thrill of the weekend, what left my heart racing with excitement, was the presence of Kevin Brownlow, on his 80th birthday, introducing Mare Nostrum. Readers of the magazine should not be surprised by the fact that I—like many—consider Mr. Brownlow to be the single most important factor behind the current level of interest in silent films. My experience with him ended up being more than I ever could have expected, but that’s a story for another time.

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Beth Ann Gallagher, Lea Stans, the author, Buster’s daughter-in-law Barbara Talmadge, his granddaughter Melissa Talmadge Cox, and Karie Bible.

What I hope this all-too-brief rundown of the festival has conveyed is that the films themselves are, in many ways, incidental. I do not mean to diminish anything that was screened—as I said, in the near future both Claire and myself will be providing in-depth reviews for many of the features. But what struck me more than anything, though, is how the San Francisco Silent Film Festival acts as a summer camp of sorts, a chance for like-minded people to shut themselves off from the outside world for a couple of days. And while the films are certainly lovely to see in such a historic theater, it is the human element that I will remember long after plot details have become hazy.

Visit the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for information about next year’s festival, as well as the annual Day of Silents to be held this winter.

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