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Preview: Hippodrome Silent Film Festival 2024

4 min read

Now, if you've ever attended a then you know that cinema is not the only art on display, but that programming is an art form in of itself. Aside from what films are actually being shown, stories can be woven through the strands in which films are presented, the order in which films are shown and even their accompanying introductions or Q&A's. In the case of the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival, in which the films are almost all over a hundred years old, the ability to tell a story through the selection of its films is all the more important.

Taking place in Bo'ness, Scotland, the festival finds its home at the gorgeous Hippodrome Cinema, Scotland's oldest purpose-built picture house, and is one of the only UK festivals that centres entirely on showcasing silent cinema with live musical accompaniment.

The Hippodrome, Bo'ness

Talking about the challenges that face a film festival entirely dedicated to silent cinema, Festival Director Alison Strauss points to people's preconceptions of as the primary factor that affects attendance. Naturally, the decline of modern audiences' attention spans is brought up, to which Strauss notes how many viewers “find the thought of watching a whole feature film quite a challenge but conversely will be happy to invest in long-form TV.” With this in mind, Strauss believes that it works as a strength for silent cinema, with many of the films having a reduced run-time when compared to the contemporary film landscape. “The very first films would have been like little TikTok's” she jokes.

Discussing the preconceptions of silent movies further, Strauss believes that many of the differences between new and old films are purely superficial. “If you enjoy rom-coms now there's no reason you wouldn't enjoy a fantastic rom-com from 1927!” Exploring the surface-level differences between earlier and contemporary movies, Strauss points to The Nortull Gang, one of this year's programmed screenings. The picture stars an ensemble of female talent and follows the lives of four hard-working office girls in the male-dominated world of early-1900s Sweden. “The whole Me Too movement, office politics, glass ceiling, women's friendships. It just reminds people that this is a story that's been explored a hundred years ago as well.”

As far as audiences' preconceptions go, Strauss points to films like The Nortull Gang as defying expectations. Specifically, Strauss accepts that there is a belief that older cinema is outdated, and believes in programming films that challenge this idea. “It's all about a hook.” With this ideology, much of the programming takes films whose portrayal of sex, race, and politics were ahead of the time for the 1920s but are more aligned with the beliefs of today. In this sense the can persuade viewers with pictures in which the gap seems less daunting, getting bums in seats and opening viewers' eyes to silent cinema in the process.

The hook doesn't just come down to recent political events, however. “There's always a connection you can draw for people to make the film relevant to them.” With this in mind, Strauss points to music, “Taylor Swift is releasing a new song all about Clara Bow.” That's sure to sell some tickets to the Friday night gala of the Clara Bow-led Mantrap.

Considering this, it's clear that the programme for this year's 14th edition is incredibly tight, and jam-packed with these ‘hooks' to tempt audiences to multiple screenings and events. Some notable examples are the family-aimed early morning comedy screenings throughout the weekend. Screening both Steamboat Bill, Jr. and a double bill of short films, the breezy comedy on offer is sure to entice families along, whilst big names of the silent era like are certain to attract those looking to watch a silent film for the first time. 1922's Oliver Twist is sure to be popular due to the story's familiarity with audiences, whilst the Friday night gala, Mantrap, is certain to garner some interest for those looking for an eventful start to the weekend – and possibly some aforementioned Swifties.

Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr.

It's not just the films that provide a hook, however, but also the events running throughout the festival alongside the screenings. Perhaps most exciting is the fascinating exhibition ‘Pen-to-Picture,' which runs at the Bo'ness library until mid-April. Exploring how cinema helped bring literature to the masses, the exhibition displays over one hundred pieces of cover art from film-tie-in novels. Originally conceived to capitalise on the emerging craze for moving pictures, the series of books captivated new readers with their illustrated covers of loved and, in some cases, long-lost titles. Free to enter, the exhibition offers a unique illustration of a publishing phenomenon that allowed readers to indulge their love of the colour, excitement, and glamour of movies through the pages of a book.

Whether it's your tenth year at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival or your first time trying out silent cinema, Alison Strauss has this to say about the importance of keeping silent cinema alive: “If you want to understand and appreciate cinema now, it can only make your appreciation better and stronger and more in-depth if you can see where it's coming from and what it's inspired by.”

The 14th edition of the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival runs from the 20th – 24th of March.