The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival (HippFest) is back this March to allow silent film fans and cinema aficionados to feast on archive film and musical performances. Neatly, this year the festival, nestled in the heart of Bo’ness across from the dizzy heights of Grangemouth, offers a screening of Anthony Asquith’s Shooting Stars (1928), which gives a glimpse behind the scenes of a 1920s film studio.
Bryony Dixon, the silent cinema curator at the BFI Archive who also works closely with the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival, spoke with SNACK about what makes HippFest such an incredible festival and why cinema fans should attend this special screening of Asquith’s film.
Can you tell us about the joy of HippFest and what precisely it is about the festival that brings you back up year after year?
My job as curator at the BFI National Archive, and my particular specialism in silent film. I used to work with Alison Strauss [HippFest director] many, many years ago when she worked at the BFI, so these are kind of strong connections. It’s a very friendly festival; it’s not pretentious. The programme is great because it’s all the stuff I like, of course, and a lot of films come from the archives. So I’m involved in looking for film prints of a show that are kept in our archive and advising on films that are in other archives or that might be playing at other festivals. It’s a nice, close connection and a very pleasant event to attend.
And do you think that there’s something about the Hippodrome and Bo’ness that makes it the ideal spot for such a festival?
Totally, because the one thing you get with the Hippodrome is that it’s an original venue, quite near to the condition that it would’ve been in when these films were released – this is quite rare – and it’s a particularly nice one. It’s very authentic and there’s something about the building and everyone being together in this sort of circular space that is all very comfortable and immersive. It’s rather unique that it gives the opportunity for a live music performance against the silent film.
Yes, and this is the crucial thing. I think the thing that I most like about silent film is the fact that it’s a performance. With smaller screens, you don’t get that same connection you get with big screenings and live music. You get that sense of occasion. Everybody’s there doing the same thing and experiencing the same thing. It’s a one-off event, it’s quite special. And the other thing is that with silent film in particular, because there’s no dialogue, you have to concentrate, and that effort of concentration means you have a more immersive experience.
We touched upon your silent film specialisms at the BFI, but what first drew you into the art of silent cinema?
My immediate fascination with it is a way of seeing the past. My fundamental job is to make sure that silent films continue to exist, because film is a fragile medium – it will just decay and fall to bits if you don’t intervene and do some technical processes so that it continues to exist. So we copy it from format to format all the time because it will all just decompose. That side of it’s quite fascinating as well.
And why did you choose Shooting Stars for this year’s HippFest? Have you long been a fan of Asquith’s work?
I can honestly say the thing I’m most proud of having done at the BFI, during my 30-year career, is the rediscovery of Anthony Asquith and putting him back on the map. He was not known outside of his sound films at all until we restored [1928 silent drama] Underground, Shooting Stars, and other films of his that he made in the silent era.
I don’t suppose that the decision to include this in this year’s HippFest had anything to do with the release timing of Babylon, the new Damien Chazelle film?
Oh, it’s got everything to do with that. The whole thing about the 1920s was on film audiences’ radar, so it’s the perfect time to show a film about filmmaking in the 20s – a very different world because obviously, Hollywood is Hollywood [the setting for Babylon] and Cricklewood is Cricklewood [location for Shooting Stars]. They are very different places in the 20s, but the subject is similar.
HippFest is at the Hippodrome, Bo’ness, from 22nd till 26th March