Interview: Anita Monga, Artistic Director of the SF Silent Film Festival
Some of the greatest directors of all time—F.W. Murnau, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, and Carl Dreyer, to name a few—thrived in the silent era, and the best directors of today constantly refer to their work for inspiration and guidance. Knowledge of the silent era is essential to every true cinephile and greatly enhances the pleasures of movie-watching. The problem is, the only way to truly experience a silent film is by seeing it in a theater with live musical accompaniment, which isn’t necessarily doable for most of us.
But fear not! If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area this weekend, you’re in luck: From Thursday, July 18th to Sunday, July 21st at the Castro theater, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is going to be presenting an amazing lineup of beautifully restored silent films accompanied by gorgeous live music. This is the only way to truly enjoy these classic movies, and the experience will be a treasure you’ll never forget.
Festival director Anita Monga sat with us to talk about the festival’s history, why silent film isn’t “boring”, Alexander Payne, Citizen Kane, her favorite silent comedy star, and much more.
For festival information and ticket info, visit silentfilm.org
Let’s talk a bit about the history of the festival. How long has it been going on?
The festival started 18 years ago as a one day event. Steve Salmons and Melissa Chittick invented it. It was a success from the beginning. It’s now grown into a four day event, and we have events year round also. It’s probably the biggest and most successful event of its kind in the Americas.
How long have you been involved in the festival personally?
I think this will be my fourth festival.
I assume one of the main goals of the festival is to get people excited about silent film. Over the past four years, have you seen a growth in enthusiasm from the community?
My major focus is to get people into the theater. I think when people think of silent film, they think it’s going to be boring or that it’s something their college professor thought would be good for them to complete their education. Consequently, a lot of people saw their only silent films done silently or with horrible accompaniment, at the wrong frame rate, or they’ve seen a horrible print. A lot of these films are amazingly modern and have a lot to say about modern audiences. We always take great care to pair [these films] with musical accompaniment, and we don’t dictate to the musicians, but we pick them carefully, ones that have to have respect for films. We work with them closely to pair them with films that we think they can bring to life.
With silent film, there’s this hump to get over. Like you said, a lot of people view silent film as boring or irrelevant. I had the same apprehensions, but when I saw Murnau’s Sunrise, it was a revelation. How do you get people over that hump and get them in the theater?
That is really, really difficult. You just keep hounding. Really, it’s word of mouth. People who have been [to the festival] realize how extraordinary it is. We kind of have a reputation of making things fun so that people are willing to take a little bit of a chance on us, and once they do, they see how beautiful it is. We started an initiative which we are not doing this year because we asked several people who are too busy, but we do this thing called “The Director’s Pick” which we’ve renamed “The Filmmaker’s Pick”. We’re trying to draw this connection between modern filmmakers and the silent era. Filmmakers are well aware of what happened in the silent era. People who work, particularly people who have a strong visual sense, are very cognizant of the amazing strides that were made from the birth of cinema to Sunrise. It was all there. It was a way of telling a story visually and you had to supply your own music. It was an amazing art form that led to everything that happens today.
We’ve had Alexander Payne, Terry Zwigoff, Phillip Kaufman, and Pete Doctor come to introduce a show and talk about the filmmaking, something about the direction or the acting that draws for our audience that this was something that inspired them. Audiences appreciate that from a craft-person’s point of view.
People talk about silent film like it’s this ancient thing, but it’s only 100 years old. The techniques Murnau, Chaplin, and Keaton were utilizing are still just as effective today.
They’re very effective and they’re very informative for people making films now. Shakespeare’s plays have something for modern audiences. Our festival is not what I like to call an “etched in amber” approach. We’re not trying to recreate a historical moment. What we’re trying to do is bring these movies to life. I programmed the Castro for many years, and at one point there was a restoration of Citizen Kane. I showed it for a week and people were coming up to the box office and saying, “Is this really a good movie?” I think the feeling that, “This is a classic! You must see this!” make people think, “Boring!” When you see Citizen Kane, it’s unbelievable. It deserves every accolade you could possibly give it, but it’s like when people are force-fed Ivanhoe in school. People think, “This is good for me. It must not be entertaining.”
San Francisco is a very film-friendly place. The audience is the best in the world. But for silent films, you can’t do this at home. You can’t. You can stream any number of films, but you can’t recreate what we’re doing with live music. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience.
You’ve got a great lineup for this year’s festival, a lot of excellent films.
They’re all so amazing, but one that I hope doesn’t get lost in the fray is The Weavers. It’s based on an incident that happened in the 1840’s, an uprising. They ran the manufacturer out of town, they smashed the factory. It was known as the Potemkin of Germany. Prix de Beuté is wonderful for Louise Brooks. It was always considered a lesser film, but it’s actually pretty great. It has one of cinema’s most famous endings, but I’m not going to give it away! [Brooks] is spectacular in it. It was her last starring role. We’ve got a beautiful print of The Golden Clown from Denmark. The Outlaw and his Wife is hot off the presses. The Swedish Film Institute just did its complete restoration. I don’t think anybody has seen it in the United States. It’s exquisite, with Victor Sjöström directing. The script is so beautiful.
Who’s performing the musical accompaniment for that one?
The Matti Bye Ensemble from Sweden. They’re also doing The Golden Clown and The Joyless Street. Everyone needs to see The Joyless Street! We’re also doing two restorations that we had a hand in—The Half Breed, a Douglass Fairbanks film that was thought lost for many years. The restoration just happened in collaboration with Cinemateque Francaise. We’re giving the Silent Film Festival Award to the Cinemateque. The second film we had a hand in the restoration of is The Last Edition, which was filmed in San Francisco. It has this amazing footage of San Francisco in 1925. It’s all along Market Street , the Civic Center, in the Chronicle building. It’s a lovely, action packed film.
Then, there’s a last minute addition that we’re going to show before The Weavers. I got an email from Ken Winokur of the LA Orchestra. He was traveling in the Ukraine and went to the Dovzhenko Centre where they showed him a Dziga Vertov trailer for The 11th Year. He was so excited about it that he and Beth Custer created a score they’re going to be presenting the world premiere of. The trailer is animated in this insane way. You wouldn’t believe that it was made in 1928.
You’ve got Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in your “Kings of Silent Comedy” shorts program and Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!, which is your closing night film. Can you rank them from best to worst?
Oh, that’s easy. Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, Chase.
Ah, Charlie Chase in last place?
Between Chase and Lloyd, I don’t know how to rank them. Keaton is tops. Chaplin is amazing.
What’s your favorite Keaton? Sherlock Jr. is mine.
It’s hard. There are so many wonderful things in all of them.
I think Keaton is one of the best ways to bait somebody into watching silent movies. It’s easy to appreciate his work.
His films are so modern. Knowing that he did all of his stunts is amazing. Nobody does better or more amazing stunts than he. I love the whole Rube Goldberg [feel.] I think he’s very observant of human nature. For me, Chaplin is amazing, but there’s a little sentimentality that I don’t love. But, I think he’s absolutely genius. Next year we’re going to be doing major Chaplin stuff because it’s the centennial of the Tramp character.
The image of Lloyd dangling on the minute hand of the clock in Safety Last! is one of the most enduring images in cinema, but very few people have actually seen the film.
It’s so wonderful. Those effects are pretty amazing. In the ’20s, people did these extraordinary stunts, and one of the big stunts in New York City was “The Human Fly.” These people would scale the sides of buildings, and that’s where Lloyd got the idea for the stunt.
I think a lot of the visual discipline that was so key to the silent era is lost in a lot of modern cinema.
The great filmmakers have all learned from the silents. Take Alexander Payne. His scripts are so much about the script and the dialog, but the reason I grew to see his incredible eye is because I saw him at a silent film event in Los Angeles. I was like, “Oh! He loves this!” When I contacted him, he was incredibly enthusiastic because he does go to silent film events.
Not every film made in the silent era was great. There are people working today who have that discipline. As technology makes it easier for people to make films, I think you get more and more people who may not understand what goes into a film. You can make an adequate film. Your first film might be ok, but your second film might not unless you’ve learned these skills. The really spectacular filmmakers of today are still doing what the filmmakers of the silent era did in terms of thinking about their stories in visual terms. What Hitchcock did pretty obsessively was storyboard his films within an inch of their lives.
You’ve got a couple animated features included in the program.
Well, we have the Winsor McCay show. John Canemaker is this great writer and showman, and he’s going to present the program. McCay’s most famous characters were Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur. Filmmakers were always thinking about how to incorporate drawing into moving image. You see this trope in Tex Avery bits where the animator’s hand will be bringing something to life. In Gertie, there are a couple of live action tricks with the person on stage interacting with the character. John is going to be interacting with Gertie. Then, of course, there’s Felix the Cat. He’s going to be in our Kings of Silent Comedy program which might be the best entry point for newcomers to silent film.