There are so many great silent film screenings in London right now, and I trust you are keeping up with the nationwide listings run by our friends the Silent Film Calendar. But I had to pause a moment and let you know about this event – a real one-off.
The Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image is showing a newly restored, but rarely shown Ukrainian silent film on 29 April, with a live score by Crimean Tatar folk and jazz guitarist Enver Izmaylov and an introduction by scholar Dr Olena Palko.
Charlie Chaplin is in the house. Naturally, this being his centenary year and all. Naturally, also, he is speaking Japanese. Because all the characters in Charlie Chaplin films speak Japanese – to a Japanese-speaking audience that is. And also to us lucky types in Pordenone tonight who saw a programme of Chaplin shorts with the accompaniment of Benshi Ichiro Kataoka along with Gunter Büchwald and Frank Bockius. Clearly they had all been in cahoots and the riotous combination of voice and music was expertly judged. A little Benshi can go a long way with me, but that’s how it’s meant to be I think: exuberance squared. The Japanese movie fragment that preceded the Chaplins, Kenka Yasubei (Hot-Tempered Yasubei, 1928) was an inspired choice – all the brawling and boozing of three or four Keystones packed into a frenetic half hour.
There was yet more exuberance to come at the end of the evening with Pansidong (The Spider Cave, Darwin Dan, 1927). This Chinese silent, once thought lost but recently rediscovered in Oslo, was introduced charmingly by the director’s grandson, who was seeing it for the first time tonight. I hope he enjoyed as much as I did: it was a silken concoction laced with surprises in which a glamorous girl gang of “spider-women” entrap a monk in their cave, among the spirits. There’s magic, and swordfighting, and some very witty subtitles. Mie Yanashita accompanied tightly on the piano and percussion, including a clattering cymbal that made many of us jump – right on the nose of that wedding-night moment.
But it’s not time for bed quite yet. Here’s what else happened today. The short version: lots. I’m going to begin with something really quite beautiful. Several things in fact.
The mountain footage in 'Colored Views from the Entire World' with musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne was particularly magical. #GCM33
The leopard-skin trim on a Paul Poiret evening coat, scarlet fireworks in a sea-green night sky, vicious yellow flames engulfing a city tenement, a bowl of fresh oranges amid Sonia Delaunay’s sumptuous Orphist designs, gold sequins twinkling on a chorus line and a freshly dyed sugar-pink frock: the first shorts programme in the Dawn of Technicolor strand was a many-splendoured thing. Many different colour processes were on display from Kelley Colour to hand colouring to Natural Color to … far too many to name here. But this was as entertaining as it was instructional, and all beautifully and kaleidoscopically accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, accordion, and xylophone … at least. Married in Hollywood, the parting shot, was a Multicolor finale from a lost black-and-white sound feature. It must have been an impressive technical achievement, but it was also incredibly cheesy. Quattro formaggi.
It’s tricky to describe this as a silent film, though, seeing as it has diegetic sound – real diegetic sound, which was all recorded on set, not added in post-production. Nor can we classify it “dialogue-free” … there appears to be plenty of dialogue in The Tribe, but all of the words spoken are in Ukrainian sign language. There are, the trailer proudly proclaims, no subtitles or voiceover to soften that blow. I can’t find figures for how many people in the world speak Ukrainian Sign Language, although this site affirms it is in a healthy state, and two years ago, the Daily Mail reported that inventors in Ukraine had developed a “super glove” to turn UKL into audible speech via a smartphone app. The point is that I suspect none of the Cannes judges were fluent in it, and for them, and most of us, this film will play more like a silent than a talkie.
It’s a violent, gritty, sexually explicit film: the grim story of Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a teenager at a boarding school for deaf-mute children. Said school is rife with gang violence and prostitution, and Sergey clambers his way to the top of the tree before risking it all by falling in love with the wrong girl. There’s little gloss here: the cast are all non-professionals, and UKL speakers, rather than hearing actors. Slaboshpytskiy made a short, and similarly brutal, film set in a boarding school like this one a few years back, a real-time drama called Deafness/Glukhota (2010) in which a police officer grills a deaf-mute teenager in his car – while suffocating him with a plastic bag.
Slaboshpytskiy constructs his film with no dialogue and no subtitles, allowing the story to be enlivened by the magnificent pantomimic acting of deaf-mute non-professionals, in a brilliant balance of clarity and ambiguity that puts hearing audiences in a fascinating, active position …
The Tribe peels away the tenderness of its protagonists, communicating in the purest cinematic forms the rawness hidden behind the fragility of youth.
I like that phrase abut the hearing audience being put in a “fascinating, active position”. Doesn’t that go straight to the heart of why we love silent cinema? In his review for Variety, Justin Chang expands on this idea, writing that:
Sans dialogue or translation, each interaction effectively becomes a puzzle to be solved, and Slaboshpytskiy is brilliant at using ambiguity to heighten rather than dull the viewer’s perceptions. Even when the meaning of a particular exchange eludes us, a greater sense of narrative comprehension begins to take hold.
The trailer for The Tribe is hugely intriguing too: I love the strict, square framing and its icily distant long takes. In the foreground of a shot of gang members signing vigorously to each other, one toughnut shoulder-shoves another – a gesture that is as clear as any dialogue. After a screeching hairpin camera-move, a young man’s confusion in the face of a semi-naked and angry young woman in a bedroom reminds us how much of teenage life is a struggle to negotiate a path between our own feelings and those of the people around us. And who could fail to be impressed by the stirring declaration that “for love and hatred you don’t need translation”.
The Tribe plays twice during the London Film Festival. It screens at 8.45pm, 15 October 2014 in NFT1, BFI Southbank and 8.30pm, 17 October 2014 at Screen 5, the Vue West End Cinema. Buy tickets here.