San Francisco Silent Film Festival reels in the years 

There are few places where a silent film can be viewed as it was originally intended. Watching Buster Keaton with your Netflix subscription on your laptop can’t compete with the Mighty Wurlitzer organ of the Castro Theatre, which will get a significant workout during the 16th San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which runs from Thursday to July 17.

The festival, which has become a destination for film enthusiasts worldwide, is the largest of its kind in the United States and continues to provide an exciting and diversified program, with many of the films having been unearthed from the vaults of cinematic history.

Something that didn’t always survive was the music, which the festival takes great pains to re-create in an effort to return to the live-performance qualities that were originally part of every cinematic experience, and the birth of film itself.

“Generally, the films were not scored by directors,” says Anita Monga, artistic director of the festival. “The score and live performance was often provided by the organists in hometown cinemas.”

The festival often commissions new scores with musicians who understand the medium of silent film, using not only the Mighty Wurlitzer, but small orchestras and ensembles. 

“Seeing a motion picture with live music is a hybrid art form; each performance is one of a kind,” Monga says. “The musicians have to watch the film as they play.”

Many of the festival’s highlights are films that have not been seen in a number of years, some never or rarely screened in this century.

“Upstream” is one such film, and it represents an unusual moment in the oeuvre of American director John Ford, who is most famously known for his Westerns starring John Wayne.

Chosen as the opening-night flick, “Upstream” was discovered among a batch of American films in the New Zealand Film Archive and is part of an ongoing preservation project.

“With the advent of the Internet, there is better communication about film archival work and its possibilities,” Monga says. 

One of the great feats of the festival is its diversity. The silent-film era offers far more than Charlie Chaplin swinging his cane. This year alone, the festival boasts films from Japan, Germany, Georgia, Italy, Sweden and the U.S., and includes a variety of genres, such as kid-friendly animated shorts from the Disney archives and a fascinating documentary by Herbert Ponting, the photographer and cinematographer of Captain Scott’s ill-fated 1912 expedition to the South Pole.

“I think many people have a prejudice — that I too share — that silent films can be herky-jerky, often played at the wrong speed and overacted,” Monga says. “But we’re showing films that have real relevance to modern audiences, allowing a window into a world they might not otherwise know about.”


San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., San Francisco
When: Thursday-July 17
Tickets: $14-$175

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