Friday, August 6, 2010

A silent film is anything but silent

As a silent movie fan on the internet puts it quite eloquently: To accuse a silent movie of being silent makes about as much sense as accusing a mime f performing a theatre piece without speaking a single word - because to screen them without live musical accompaniment would be equivalent to screening the latest Hollywood blockbuster with the sound turned off.
-Goethe-Institut Press Release on the 4th Silent Film Festival

Among all the film festivals we have here in Manila, my absolute favorite is the annual International Silent Film Festival. The ironic thing is, out of all the film festivals, this is the hardest one to bring my friends to. One mention of Cinemalaya and I have a whole gang wanting to go with me. But when I say "Silent Film Festival", I mostly get "Are you serious?" or "I'll pass" as a response.

I guess I can't blame them for the hesitation. Many are afraid that they will be stuck in an extremely quiet theater for two solid hours. They conjure up this image of a theater so quiet that everyone can hear you crunch into your potato chip. (I've been to one of those new experimental silent films they show at the Angelika, and yes, you can hear everything. But no, this silent film festival doesn't show those types of films. They promote to good old 1800's type of silent film viewing.)

So this is my defense of the good old silent film. Not an expert's but a fan's POV :D

Back in the 1880's, the silent era of film began and it went on through 1929, even though the first "talkie" was introduced in 1927 - The Jazz Singer. That's about a good 30-something years. Now, you don't think people of the world spent that time sitting through perfectly quiet theaters just watching a bunch of moving pictures, do you? The truth is that there was actually musical accompaniment that came with the silent films.

While the films themselves were easily distributed to different theaters, the music had to be performed live. Bigger theaters had orchestras while smaller ones had solo pianists. So the experience already varied depending on what sort of theater you went to. Add to that the variety that comes in with the musical performances -- because while some of it came from pre-compiled photoplay music, there was plenty of room left for improvisation by the musicians.

I imagine it to be like the experience of watching a play or a musical -- although you know there is a general template, you're always in for a little bit of re-interpretation and variety at each performance. I loved the thought of it because I'm one of those people who do enjoy watching a play twice or thrice throughout a run (well, when I can afford it) just to see what surprises pop up at these different performances. Wouldn't it be interesting if you could watch the same movie twice and get a slightly different musical score the second time around? I'm still hoping to try that someday because the Silent Film Festival doesn't show silent films exactly like they did in the old days. And they only show each film once.

Nevertheless, what the Silent Film Festival brings is another interesting twist to the silent film experience -- foreign silent films matched with local Filipino musicians.

Take a Japanese film and have it scored by Radioactive Sago Project? Or an old German one scored by Out of Body Special? I can't imagine how it would turn out, and that's exactly why I go to these film screenings.

Last year I caught the German film "People on Sunday" scored live by Nyko Maca + Playground and it was awesome! So I'm looking forward to what combinations they have this year and how familiar musicians try their hand at interpreting old, black and white films from Italy, Japan, Spain and Germany.

I highly recommend you catch at least one of the films they're showing this weekend. Tickets are free! To be extra sure that you have a seat, you can call up the respective cultural institutions and reserve tickets for the films that you want.

Goethe-Institut: Nana Enerio l t: 817 09 78 l email:
Italian Embassy: Joseph Kalinga l t: 892 45 31-34 l e-mail:
Instituto Cervantes: Antonio Nartea l t: 526 14 82 x 115 l
Japan Foundation: Roland Samson l t: 8116155 - 58 l email:

Oh, and one last tip -- don't sit too close to the band because the lights in their area and their movements are too distracting!

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About the films:

Assunta Spina

Year: 1914
Directors: Francesca Bertini, Gustavo Serena from the play by Salvatore Di Giacomo
Cast:: Francesca Bertini, Gustavo Serena, Carlo Benetti, Luciano Albertini, Amelia Cipriani
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 62 min
Country: Italy

Italian silent screen goddess Francesca Bertini appears in her most famous role in Assunta Spina, an operatic tale of love and sacrifice. Based on the play by Italian poet and playwright Salvatore Di Giacomo (1909), Assunta Spina is a tragedy set in Naples at the beginning of the twentieth century. After being assaulted by her jealous lover Michele, Assunta becomes the mistress of a corrupt man called Federigo so that she can visit Michele while he is in prison.

When Michele is unexpectedly released, he discovers Assunta’s “betrayal”, setting the stage for
the film’s tragic finale.

By carefully preserving the regional customs, Salvatore di Giacomo captured the unique essence of Napolitanità: the ability of the Italian working class to maintain their dignity even as they struggle for survival. Assunta Spina was shot largely on location, capturing precious glimpses of life on the streets of Naples , and fortelling the rise of Italian Neorealism.

Kodakara Sodo (Kid Commotion)

Year: 1935 / Shochiku Kinema Kamata Film Studio
Director: Torajiro Saito
Cast: Shigeru Ogura, Yaeko Izumo, Shotaro Fujimatsu, Akio Nomura, Jun Yokoyama,
Teruko Kojima, Kazuko Kojima, Mutsu Soga, Reiko Tani, Eiko Takamatsu, Reiko
Takigawa, Nagamasa Yamada
Genre: Comedy
Runtime: 34 min

The Fukudas are poor with several children to feed. They are soon to be blessed with their seventh child. However, Mr. Fukuda has no work and can hardly afford to pay basic utilities. Fortunately, they have a well, so it did not really matter when the water was turned off as they cook rice over an open fire.

But then, when Mrs. Fukuda was to deliver the baby, it created a lot of problems. Mr. Fukuda rushed off to find a midwife. However, there wasn't a midwife in town who could help since they all rushed over to attend to the birth of the rich baron's pig. Further, when he tried borrowing money from the local geisha house - by using his daughter as collateral, it was not even possible. Things were looking pretty glum when the wheel of fortune spins Fukuda's way… This film is a rare example of a silent Japanese slapstick film and the most celebrated film by Torajiro Saito (director) who was famous for his comedy movies. The influence of Charlie Chaplin is evident in the film, which showcased Saito's outstanding sense of humor. The benshi’s (motion picture narrators) use of humorous words is one of the film’s attractions.

La bodega Wine Cellars

Director: Benito Perojo
Screenwriter: Benito Perojo based on the novel of Vicente Blanco Ibanéz
Year: 1929
Runtime: 75 minutes
Production: Julio César S.A.-Compagnie
Générale de Productions Cinématographiques
Cast: Conchita Piquer, Valentín Parera, Gabriel Gabrio, Enrique Rivero, María Luz Callejo,
Regina Dalthy, Jean Coste, Colette Darfeuil, Joaquín Carrasco, Mme. Guillaume

La bodega (1929), directed by Benito Perojo and based on the novel of Vicente Blanco Ibanéz (1905), has for a plot the Andalusian wineries where there was an atmosphere of feudalism and clerical exploitation, coupled with a correlative misery and civil unrest. Also, during those times, the masters sexually harass their workers.

The film recounts the love affair of Rafael and María Luz, the daughter of Fermín who works at the wine cellars of Pablo Dupont in Jerez. When Rafael gets wounded in a smuggling operation, he was taken care of by María Luz. Now, Luis Dupont is known in Jerez for his scandalous festivities in which he is joined by her cousin Lola, called “the marchioness”. In one of these feasts, one farm employee is killed by a bull because of their jokes. With his licentious behaviour, Luis courts María Luz whom he knows since childhood before Rafael’s eyes, while the marchioness harasses Rafael continuously. One harvest time, María Luz gets drunk and gives herself up to Luis. Ashamed of what happened, she abandons Rafael without giving explanations.

Berlin, die Sinfonie der Großstadt

Year: 1927
Director: Walter Ruttman
Genre: Documetary, Avantgarde/
Runtime: 70 min
Country: Germany

This classic German silent film directed by Walter Ruttmann is a valentine to the "new" Berlin of the late 1920s, enjoying a renaissance after the dregs of the Depression. It is also a prominent example of the city symphony genre, which characteristic feature is to portray the life of a city, mainly through visual impressions in a semi-documentary style, without the narrative content of more mainstream films.

Berlin Symphony of a Great City is a cross section of the life and rhythm of a late spring day in Berlin, from dawn to midnight, a visual impression, created out of the millions of energies that comprise the life in a metropolis.

About the musicians:


Arvin Nogueras (a.k.a. Caliph8) directs his restless energies into another live film scoring project with Assunta Spina. He has assembled a new roster of collaborators such as Kakoy Legaspi on guitars, Il Primitivo on the sampler/ drum machine, Minister Zero on electro-acoustic manipulation and Khavn De La Cruz on the piano. In this one genre-defying session, they will bring into being off-kilter experimental music that involves hints of free jazz, psychedelia, electronica and classical music. This group of collaborators will explore the dynamics of baresequenced rhythmic railings while shaping it with live improvisations that range from stark minimalism to a rich amalgamation of aural elements.


The eight-piece ensemble from the suburbs of Quezon City, Philippines plays a critically acclaimed mix of spoken word poetry, jazz, punk, soul, afro-latin, metal, and a mad sundry of musical styles sprinkled with massive doses of humor and irony. The Radioactive Sago Project's perennially surprising stylistic excursions have earned them a cult following, from critics to art fans, even to discerning rock audiences.

The band is fronted by four-time Palanca Award-winning writer Lourd de Veyra, along with alumni from the UP College of Music (Francis de Veyra-bass, Jay Gapasin-drums, Junjie Lermaguitar, Rastem Eugenio-saxophone, Pards Tupas-trombone, Arwin Nava-percussions, and Wowie Anzano-trumpet). The Project first made waves performing in the literary circuit, eventually expanding their repertoire and personnel as they blasted their way into the Philippine rock scene, defying prevailing musical trends. Manila was unprepared for that sucker punch that was their self-titled 2000 major label debut, one that combined screaming horn sections with funky grooves, jazz chords suddenly morphing into heavy punk riffs, all topped of with absurdist, sarcastic spoken word vocals. Four years later, the band continues to chart hitherto unexplored musical terrains with their second effort Urban Gulaman. The independently produced album shows the band's technical and compositional confidence growing from strength to strength- and still defying expectations by adding more elements like cha-cha and bossa nova without turning down the decibel level.

The band's third album is the critically-acclaimed Tangina Mo, Daming Nagugutom Sa Mundo, Fashionista Ka Pa Rin, which has gained praise from Pulp Magazine, Burn,,, among others. After being the first local album to earn Pulp Magazine's top rating, the album grabbed the coveted to spot on the FHM 100th issue's list of top 100 albums from 2000 until the issue's release in 2008.


The band Tanglaw was formed in 2007. Its music draws upon many different genres, most notably funk, various world music, jazz, hip hop, dub and ambient styles. Tanglaw explores different permutations with each performance not just relying on the purist approach. The aim is to express and to innovate, to entertain and to stimulate, and of course to have fun doing it. The band performed an “improvised and on the spot” musical score of a documentary shown during the 2009 Green Papaya Art Gallery for Biomodd Manila Exhibit and film showing. It also participated in the 2010 Genre Bar Cubao X World Music Event along with other bands from underground world/ethnic music scene.


Formed in 2004, Out of Body Special has come a long way with their own brand of Un-Rock, Hip-hop fusion music. The eclectic mix of each member's talents and influences, coupled with a healthy sense of groove, soul, and a trademark semi-serious disposition, has created nothing less than music that, true to their name, gives you a feeling of sweet disorientation, of both the sensual and sentimental sort. This should not be construed as something alien, bizarre or drug-induced; on the contrary, the songs touch upon familiar dimensions within all of us.

*All photos courtesy of Goethe-Institut press release

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