Silence is Golden: Heritage of Silent Cinema
What’s the latest movie you’ve watched this month? Are you content with watching the 2D version or you’d rather watch the film in 3D glasses to get the full experience?
We enjoy watching films because of the sound and visual effects. Some of us watch a particular film franchise because of the actors, or the director and particular production staff we are following, or because the story fascinates us, or because we’ve read it before from a book. While some do so because they want to see what amazing CG effects the production team has come up next. Most importantly, we go to the cinemas to bond with our family and friends.
Films have become an important experience in our lives, and even in our homes just watching television, we are experiencing the technology of cinema every day. We have become so used to the technology that we often take it for granted. We only notice when something goes missing such as when the sound is off or the visuals are not crisp and clear.
Film technology has come a long way but it was not always that way. While we are getting excited by the latest technologies in film, the beginnings of film is not as flashy as the visual effects we see now. In fact, it started rather silently, without sound.
The Era of Silent Cinema
Back then film-watching was predominantly a visual experience and music was just an accompaniment to the movie played by a live orchestra or band. This meant that every time a movie was screened, the music played would also be different according to the available orchestra or band. This also means that the music would not always be a perfect accompaniment to the visuals and thus audiences had very different experiences for each viewing.
A lot of silent films have been produced by different cinemas around the world. In the Philippines, it is estimated that 94 silent films were produced from 1897 to 1922 but most of these were lost in the wars and very few have survived to this day.
In the recent 6th International Silent Film Festival held last August 24-27, 2012 in Manila, the history of silent cinema in the Philippines is briefly described in the event pamphlet as follows:
"On January 1, 1897, movies were first shown in the Philippines by a Spanish entrepreneur named Pertierra, at his salon in Escolta, Manila. He obtained a Gaumont Chronophotographe from Barcelona and showed a program of shorts imported from France in 1898. Spaniard Antonio Ramos shot the first movies in the country – four very short actuality films.
On August 23, 1912, the first locally made full length film with Filipino actors, LA VIDA DE RIZAL, was premiered. The hour-long film was written and directed by Edward Meyer Gross, an American resident who was married to popular zarzuela diva, Titay Molina, who also acted in the film.
In 1917, Jose Nepomuceno founded Malayan Movies, the first fully Filipino-owned film company. In 1919, he produced and directed the first all-Filipino full-length film, DALAGANG BUKID (Country Maiden), In 1922, the first and only Visayan silent movie was made in Cebu, EL HIJO DISOBEDIENTE. By 1933, Nepomuceno also had produced the first 100% all –sound film, ending the silent era. Approximately 94 local full-length films were made during the silent era – 36 by Nepomuceno, thus making him the Father of Philippine Cinema."
Noticeably, the history is rather short, not just because this is a brief description but also because we do not have a long list of all the films that were made during this period. However, silent films have not lost their significance in today’s modern film productions. In fact, many young film makers today make films using silent films as an inspiration.
For the 6th International Silent Film Festival, the Philippines had 2 entries all directed by Raymond Red. The first one was Pelikula (5-minutes) and Eternity (25 minutes). Musician Diwa de Leon and his band provided the sound accompaniment to the 2 films using the hegalong, a Philippine two-string lute/guitar combining it with music genre from today.
Of these film productions, Red states that what brings him to make these films is a deep interest in silent cinema and it saddens him to realize that a lot of films in the silent film era are now lost forever.
Other countries who had entries in the festival included Germany - Metropolis, Spain – La Casa De La Troya, Japan – I Was Born, But…, Italy - La Signora Delle Camelie and the USA – Safety Last.
Metropolis by Fritz Lang
Safety Last by Harold Lloyd
The Heritage of Silent Cinema
In the festival, Max Tessier, a French film critic and historian, states that the silent film era can be considered the golden age of cinema in terms of the revolution of the visual from painting and literature. Silent films (and all films for that matter) come alive when they are projected or screened. In this way, the heritage of silent films can be preserved and passed on to the next generations.
Tessier defines heritage as “keeping the cinema’s memory drive and learning from its richest aspects.”
From watching silent films, one could learn the most basic way of telling a story for the screen. Where sound is absent, other factors are provided to make the story clear to the audience. A familiar example would be Charlie Chaplin, who spoke no words but entertained his audiences all the same.
It is from learning through these films that modern film producers such as Raymond Red derive their inspiration to create new ways of telling or retelling a story on the big screen. It also from these films of the past that audiences can differentiate and appreciate the developments of film in today’s cinemas. It is from these films that modern film producers are able to “re-imagine the dilemma of the film maker during that time” as Red does in his films.
Keeping the Heritage Alive
According to Tessier, “Restoration of silent cinema is a matter of will, passion and money. Too many films have been lost due to neglect.”
Special screenings, such as film festivals, are not the only way to keep the heritage of silent cinema alive. Restoration efforts also include the research and digitization of these films which require support from both public and private sources.
We are fortunate that film enthusiasts fulfill their part in keeping the heritage of silent cinema alive. However their efforts can only go so far due to the lack of funds from government and the private sector. But we can support their efforts in many ways.
The primary way to show support is to be there at the film festival screenings and to bring your friends too. You can also talk about it. With the technology of social networking sites, it will not be difficult to share the information about these efforts to your friends.
You can also learn about it in your school and conduct special screenings. You can request for the help of government and local agencies as well as private groups of enthusiasts in your own area.
You can also organize a drive to donate to the organizations involved in the preservation of these films or to petition local government agencies to help support their efforts.
These small efforts may not seem much, but we must do all we can for the bigger goal to be successful. We must remember that preserving our heritage is very important for we can only learn from them if we are able to keep a tangible record of their existence to inspect later on.
- History of Silent Cinema in the Philippines quoted from The 6th International Silent Film Festival screening pamphlet
- Quotes taken from notes during the 6th International Silent Film Festival, August 26, 2012, at the Shangri-la Plaza
- Eternity by Raymond Red (thumbnail image)
- Metropolis by Fritz Lang & Safety Last by Harold Lloyd
Posted on: Jul 08, 2012
Filed under: Music & Film