Three little words of Italian you need to learn if you attend Il Cinema Ritrovato: Cento Anni Fa. This must-see strand of the festival, curated by Bologna’s silent cinema supremos Mariann Lewinsky and Karl Wratschko, dials back the programming clock by a century. The name means simply: a hundred years ago.
So it was that this week, in between blasts of restorative Italian sunshine and shots of iced coffee, I spent a week in the 1922 cinematic universe: a world of gorgeous location photography, penetrating psychodrama, impeccable slapstick and to generalise, a healthy number of female-led films (including a handful of nasty women). It was clearly a good year for the movies, so much so that even though I skipped some of the Cento Anni Fa screenings as they were already familiar to me (or outside my days at the festival), that left plenty of room to explore some less well-trod pathways through the year, one massive restoration project and at least one cult classic that I had been saving up for a big-screen viewing. Here are some of those highlights.
Birds Eye View is one of Silent London’s favourite film festivals – a celebration of female film-makers with an exceptionally strong and musically adventurous silent cinema strand. Last year, even though the festival was on haitus, the Sound & Silents programme brought us a selection of newly scored Mary Pickford films. This year, in keeping with the overall theme of the festival, the screenings have an Arabian flavour.
The two films in the Sound & Silents segment are, to be frank, German – but the first, Lotte Reiniger’s trailblazing cutwork animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) is based on a story from 1,001 Arabian Nights, as also, perhaps more loosely, is the second, Ernst Lubitsch’s boisterous harem farce Sumurun (1920). Achmed, widely acknowledged as the first animated feature film, and still as elegantly beautiful today as in the 1920s, probably needs no introduction from me.
The latter film is a slightly guilty pleasure of mine – a rather well-made romp, enlivened by the sinuous presence of the young Pola Negri, and the more demure charms of Swedish ballerina Jenny Hasselqvist. Lubitsch himself appears as a leery clown with hunchback, but his real star turn is behind the camera, crafting a fast-paced and vivacious comedy out of unpromising material. Sumurun had been a stage hit for Max Reinhardt’s company in Berlin, and Negri had starred in both that production as well as one back in her hometown of Warsaw – perhaps it’s therefore no surprise that this film is so slick, with such larger-than-life performances, including Paul Wegener as a bully-boy sheik. I will concede, of course, that it is rarely, if ever, politically correct.
Sound & Silents is as much admired for its musical commissions as its programming, and it’s intriguing that these German Arabian pastiches will be accompanied by scored from musicians whose roots lie in both Western Europe and the Middle East – British-Lebanese Bushra El-Turk and Sudanese-Italian Amira Kheir.
Multi-award-winning contemporary classical composer Bushra El-Turk creates a new work for a chamber ensemblecombining classical Western and traditional Middle Eastern instrumentation, accompanying The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the world’s first feature-length animation. Currently on attachment to the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Programme, British-Lebanese El-Turk’s acclaimed work has also been performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and London Sinfonietta.
Singer, musician and songwriter Amira Kheir blends contemporary jazz with East African music for a multi-instrumental 5-piece band, scoring landmark fantasy-drama Sumurun (One Arabian Night). Kheir has recently won acclaim for her ‘beautiful and fearless’ (Songlines) first album and her BBC Radio 3 and London Jazz Festival debuts.
The Barbican’s Watch Me Move animation exhibition continues all summer, and is well worth a look. These two events may be of particular interest to silent film fans, though. On 1 September, writer Marina Warner will be giving a talk in the gallery about “shadow play” animation, from Lotte Reiniger, through to more contemporary artists such as William Kentridge and Kara Walker (below):
The lecture is followed by a shadow play animation workshop – Warner will be joined by artist Reza Ben Gajra, and you’ll learn all you need to know to create your own piece in the vein of The Adventures of Prince Achmed.
Both events take place on 1 September 2011, at 6.30pm and 7.30pm. Tickets for the talk cost £10, and for the master class £12. For more details, click here, and here.
It is shaping up to be a great summer for outdoor cinema screenings in London – and that includes silent films as well. For starters, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd are camping out in Canary Wharf with Neil Brand and the Create London festival is putting on these two gems in an unusual location in Hackney. The Folly for a Flyover is a temporary arts space in Hackney Wick, situated right under the A12. It opens later this month and is hosting five weeks of events. You can read more about this exciting project here on their website.
First up, Sawchestra are back with another interactive silent film show. The group make beautiful music from musical saws, children’s toys and other outlandish instruments and you can join them in playing along to Lotte Reiniger’s classic animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed on 25 June. That same night you will also have the chance to watch a selection of short films from Itsnicethat.com. The show starts at 8.30pm on Saturday 25 June and tickets cost £4. More details here.
July brings more delights, as the Folly hosts a screening of George Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon and other early animations, with a live score from the musicians at the Guildhall Electronic Music Studios. This event might sound a little familiar – that’s because it’s a repeat of the Barbican show on 26 June, which I wrote about in more detail here. This looks great, and I hope the atmospheric location adds to the strangeness of it all – in a good way, I mean! The show starts at 8.30pm on Saturday 9 July and tickets cost £4. More details here.
These screenings are of the Create London festival, a series of cultural events in London’s Olympic host boroughs. For more information on these and the other events in the festival, check out the website.
And thanks to @susan_carey on Twitter for the tip.
When is a silent film screening not a silent film screening? When it’s a cine-concert perhaps…
Clarinettist Arun Ghosh‘s event at the Southbank Centre in April is all about fusion. Playing as part of the Alchemy Festival, which celebrates the convergence of UK and Indian South Asian culture, the Cine-Concert also merges film and music in an unusual way. Ghosh and his musicians will perform his score to Lotte Reiniger’s pioneering animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) – and as they play, their silhouettes will be projected on to the screen, mingling with Reiniger’s animated cut-outs. What’s more, the soundtrack itself takes inspiration from a diverse range of musical and cinematic references:
Ghosh’s revitalised score – written for clarinet, bass clarinet, double bass, vibraphone, cello and percussion – draws upon the cinematic orchestration styles of retro 70s blaxploitation, Bollywood melodrama, classic westerns, and the infamous Hammer horror films, with elements of hip-hop, jazz and traditional Middle Eastern sounds.
It might not be a traditional silent film screening, but it promises to be a fascinating night out. After the film-performance, there will be further live performances in the Front Room at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – these too will have been curated by Ghosh.
Arun Ghosh Cine-Concert: The Adventures of Prince Achmed plays at the Purcell Room on Saturday 23 April 2011. Ticket prices £13 or less for concessions and they are available here.