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HippFest 2021 – Silent Film: Gothic Masterpieces, Live Music, and Movie Queens

This year’s Silent London Awards presented HippFest with the ‘Best Real-World Film Screening of 2020’ prize, for their showing of 1915’s Filibus: The Mysterious Air Pirate. Festival organisers previewed the film, accompanied by live music from pianist Jane Gardner, at Bo’ness’ Barony Theatre one week before 2020’s HippFest was cancelled amidst the pandemic and subsequent lockdown.

2021 sees HippFest make a triumphant return for its 10th anniversary celebration, with events going online for the first time. Running from Wednesday 17th till Sunday 21st March, the programme features a cocktail of curated favourites alongside obscure gems from the silent era of cinema, accompanied by music from stellar international talents. The new virtual format could attract a larger audience than those usually able to attend Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema in person, and should entice those curious about silent film to take a punt.

Beauty Prize (Prix de beauté )

If you’ve never ventured into a viewing of a silent film and assume it’s all jangly frames and ham acting, you may be surprised to find the genre is as innovative and varied as anything being put out today. Hollywood’s first ladies are again front and centre: this year’s programme features the incomparable Marlene Dietrich, the ‘Queen of the Movies’ Mary Pickford, and iconic star of the era Louise Brooks, as well as the original Hollywood sex symbol Rudolph Valentino.

The rich programme is bursting with myriad reels from all over the world, and kicks off on opening night with Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul. Starring Paul Robeson, the first African American actor to achieve star status, this audacious 1925 melodrama was a contentious piece of cinema when it was released. Presenting the story of a demonic ex-con using the righteous façade of a minister to swindle townspeople to ruin, Micheaux unapologetically made the film with a Black audience in mind at a time when Black culture was attempting a more integrated approach.

Body and Soul

Micheaux’s films are complex and tackle social issues, including racism, head on. This will be explored in an introduction by film historian, documentary filmmaker, and Yale University Professor Charles Musser. Also featured is accompaniment from acclaimed international jazz musician Wycliffe Gordon.

One of Thursday’s highlights, Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life is a show stopping record of an almost impossible-seeming journey. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, directors of King Kong, portrayed half a million animals travelling across Iran, accompanying the Bakhtiari tribe on their epic seasonal trek across harsh terrain to reach summer pasture. The film highlights the extreme hardships the Bakhtiari faced, as well as their bravery and ingenuity, with intimate insights against a staggering backdrop of beautiful scenery.

Guilty love and erotic obsession take centre stage on Saturday with Marlene Dietrich’s turn as the femme fatale in 1929’s The Woman Men Yearn For. Rearranged from the cancelled 2020 programme and with a new score from Frame Ensemble, commissioned in collaboration with Yorkshire Silent Film Festival, this drama sees main character Henri, on honeymoon with his new bride, glimpse a woman through a frosted train window.

Instantly bewitched, he’s soon drawn into a seedy love triangle with Dietrich and the menacing Dr Karoff. Director Kurt Bernhardt’s expressionist style paired with Deitrich’s enigmatic presence will have you absorbed, along with the pre-screening introduction from Hannah McGill.

The Woman Men Yearn For – Image courtesy of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung

For those of you engrossed by the child prodigy tale of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, you’ll be transfixed and tickled by Chess Fever on the Sunday. Chess Fever was released in 1925, the same year as the International Chess Tournament was held at Moscow’s Hotel Metropol, when Soviet citizens became gripped by the game. This fast-paced Russian comedy short from Directors Vsevolod Pudovkin and Nikolai Shpikovsky explores a couple’s love affair reaching a stalemate because of the hero’s chess obsession. The film’s showing will have musical accompaniment from John Sweeney and an introduction from Festival Director and Falkirk Community Trust’s Alison Strauss.

Chess Fever

Sparrows will have you chirping on the festival’s final day, as the world premiere of a brand new restoration is screened, with a score from Taylor and Cameron Graves specially commissioned by the Mary Pickford Foundation. For those not familiar with Pickford’s gothic masterpiece, she plays Molly, the oldest charge of Mr. Grimes’ dismal baby farm, who attempts to provide the loving maternal care the orphans need and leads a daring escape across an alligator-infested swamp in a sinister and suspenseful package.

Mary Pickford in Sparrows, 1926 –Photo courtesy Mary Pickford Foundation

With a festival pass enabling you to take advantage of the entire programme and participate in interactive events throughout the five days, get ready for March’s unmissable season of silent film.

HippFest 2021 runs from Wednesday 17th till Sunday 21th March

Visit hippodromecinema.co.uk/silent-film-festival for further details and to book

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