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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Joys of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Guest writer, Anne Marie Kelly brings more info, and insights to her experiences at the 2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, with a particular emphasis placed on restoration and preservation. Which makes since when you realize this use to be the gal’s stock and trade.

There are many ways to enjoy a movie. You can love it for sheer entertainment value, sharing stories, laughs, and tears in a dark theater. You can appreciate it for its production process, the behind-the-scenes anecdotes and difficult-to-film scenes that made the end product more rewarding. You can honor it for its historical value, preserving the celluloid shadows of a time since passed. And if you attended the San Francisco Silent Film Festival from May 28th to June 1st, you could enjoy silent film in all of these ways and more.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, lacks the star power and Hollywood glitter of other film festivals, but the focus of this festival is not on showmanship, but rather on cinema. Crowds flock to the historic Castro Theatre for five days to hear Academy Award-winning archivist Kevin Brownlow deliver his thoughts on digital preservation (he's for it) and laugh along with Serge Bromberg from Lobster Films as he explains how he got cans of nitrate out of a nearly-impenetrable collector's house (through the window). At SFSFF, the archivists are the stars, and the laborious process of finding and restoring lost pieces of film history is celebrated.

And what a lineup to celebrate! Every kind of silent film was on display thanks to these men and women's talents. Crowd favorites like Flesh And The Devil and Ben-Hur were screened next to Man Ray avante-garde shorts and a recently remastered Norwegian melodrama called Pan. The festival highlighted those rare gems previously lost or forgotten. MOMA screened some unfinished work on a series of rushes for a film by Bert Williams, a once-internationally famous African American Vaudeville performer. The highlight event this year - it was on all of the posters - was a different kind of lost film: Sherlock Holmes, William Gillette's play-turned-movie, long since considered lost, but recently rediscovered in a French archive. As fascinating as these films were, the story behind their discovery and preservation was often as exciting as the movies themselves.

The job of film preservation is far from glamorous. It involves long hours in dusty vaults handling rusty cans. Restoring a great filmmaker's work can seem like reflected glory, especially as modern audiences are less likely to pay attention to the litany of preservations at the end of a screening or the back of a DVD box. At San Francisco Film Festival, these restoration rock stars were given the ovations they deserved. They save movies, on celluloid or on hard drives. They are the reason we have future films to enjoy.

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