Championing Silent Cinema: Bristol Silents

Two weeks ago I trundled to the pub to watch a special club screening of The Bridal Procession in Hardanger (Rasmus Breistein, 1926), courtesy of Bristol Silents; and I’m still thinking about it…

Bristol Silents aim to raise awareness, knowledge and appreciation of Silent Film amongst the film going public by presenting as wide a range of silent films as possible. [They] also aim to provide education programmes designed to increase understanding and appreciation of this unique art form.

After the astounding success of The Artist (2011), silent cinema is in vogue, and Bristol Silents are facilitating a growing and curious audience.

“The event negated any preconceived notions of what a silent film screening should or could be.”

The film was introduced by Peter Walsh (@soylent_grey) a PhD student at the University of Sheffield who specialises in early cinema. Peter gave crucial context to the film which enriched the experience of viewing. The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Marit Skjølte and also an interpretation of the above image, which is a definitive romantic landscape painted by Adolph Tidemann in 1848. Tidemann’s work exists in the Norwegian cultural imagination similarly to Turner or Constable in Britain. The soundtrack of The Bridal Procession comprised of traditional Norwegian folk music. The print that was screened is the result of a recent six-year restoration by the Norwegian Film Institute. The event negated any preconceived notions of what a silent film screening should or could be (i.e. stuffy, old-fashioned, outmoded) and was, in fact, a delight.  Furthermore, the context was a contemporary lens through which the film was illuminated; reinforcing the relevance of silent cinema. It was also an unexpected insight into Norwegian cultural history.

Bristol Silents are kind of a big deal; after all, in 2005 they established the Slapstick Silent Comedy Festival which occurs every January in their namesake city. The festival continues to build a formidable reputation and grows in popularity every year. In January 2012, Slapstick Festival presented their 8th offering and had a fine programme of films and events; they opened the festival with Buster Keaton’s 1926 feature The General, introduced by Griff Rhys Jones. On their website they state “the festival grew out of Bristol Silents ongoing dedication to focussing on and bringing back to life classic films from the early days of cinema”.

Bristol Silents’ have an inspiring commitment to show silent films in the best possible conditions, cultivating a new audience of silent cineastes. They claim:

Silent film screenings can suffer from poor quality prints, sometimes with sub-standard or totally inappropriate musical accompaniments and often the films can be shown at the wrong speed. In addition, the historical/social context and conditions of the film may not be known, so audiences may struggle to understand the action and read the nature of the film.

At the April Club screening of the Bridal Procession their mission statement was certainly upheld.

I’m looking forward to their next club screenings, the first: Ernst Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) held at the Kings Arms, Bristol on Wednesday 9th May at 8pm. And on the 14th May Aelita Queen of Mars (Yakov Protazanov, 1924) with a live musical accompaniment by Minima, held at Hamilton House in Bristol. If you’re a keen bean, Senses of Cinema have published a fine essay on the Aelita Queen of Mars. R|R will be at the screenings, so look out for our thoughts on the events.

Coinciding with this Silent Cinema love-in, The British Silent Film Festival ran from the 19th – 22nd April 2012 at The Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge, check it out next year.


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  3. Never give up on the silent cinema. You will learn so much and gain a wealth of understanding in a time when the eyes and not the voice told us how people thought and what they were going through.

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