Sound of Silent Film Festival lets music do the talking in 14 shorts

On YouTube this year instead of the big screen, the event enlists composers to write new scores for modern movies without dialogue.

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Live musicians accompany a screening during the Sound of Silent Film Festival in 2018.

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Jerky, simplistic and outmoded. Such prevalent if misguided views of silent films have been increasingly debunked as film festivals give them proper screenings and reveal the depth and richness of these century-old cinematic treasures.

Chicago’s Sound of Silent Film Festival goes even further, bringing this venerable form into the 21st century. It returns June 26 and 27 for its 15th year with 14 contemporary films without dialogue, each with a new score performed live on tape by a six-member classical ensemble.

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Sound of Silent Film Festival

When: 7 p.m. June 26 and 27

Donations: Suggested $20

Info: Register each day at acmusic.org for a streaming link


“You really understand the power of music and movies when you distill it down this much,” said New York filmmaker Greg Emetaz, who will be represented by two movies that each run about nine minutes.

As in recent years, the festival was supposed to have taken place in March before audiences at the Davis Theater, 4614 N. Lincoln, with the film lineup divided between two performances at 7 and 9:30 p.m. The presentations were delayed by the coronavirus and instead will be streamed on YouTube with no public present.

In this new format, the movies and music will be divided between the two evenings with each session beginning at 7 p.m. The streaming will be free, but organizers are hoping that viewers will consider making a donation to support the cost of the event.

The festival is one of the signature presentations of Access Contemporary Music, a non-profit organization founded by Seth Boustead in 2004 after he completed his master’s degree in music composition from Roosevelt University.

Boustead created the event as an alternate way for composers to get their music heard, and in the beginning he didn’t know much about the cinema world or silent films in particular. “To me it was always a music event, and it happened to have film,” he said.

But with the help of Robert Steel, an associate professor in DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts who oversees the festival’s film review panel, Boustead came to understand that it was as much a film festival as a music festival.

In the intervening years, he said, it has steadily improved in quality and has attracted increasing numbers of entrants with the event being repeated several times in Austin, New York and Mexico City. This year, it received 130 cinematic submissions, both what Boustead calls “truly silent films” and, as a concession to contemporaneity, ones with sound effects but no dialogue.

He and a film review panel winnowed those entries to 13 that each run three to 12 minutes, and the organizers brought back an audience favorite as a way to mark the festival’s 15th anniversary. Among the 15 offerings are two by Emetaz: “Get the F K Outta Paris” and “Death by Omelette,” a thriller and comedy respectively.

Emetaz was attending a film festival in New York, when someone mentioned the Sound of Silent Festival in Chicago, and he was immediately intrigued. “I was like, ‘That sounds incredible,’ and that night I submitted both of these films that I have that are effectively silent films,” he said.

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“Death by Omelette” is one of two films by Greg Emetaz to be featured in this year’s festival, presented on YouTube.

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While making “Death by Omelette,” which revolves around a potentially ominous miscommunication, he realized the movie would be more effective without dialogue. Instead, text messages perform the role that intertitles (text cards) used to play in old silent films.

“It’s an exciting genre now,” Emetaz said, “because it’s like we’ve come full circle back to writing notes to each other like you did in pre-telephone times when everyone was exchanging those kinds of messages.”

After the films were selected, each of the participating composers was asked to choose their top three preferences for the ones he or she would like to score. “Every year, I think this is the year that composers are going to fight over a film, and we get lucky every year,” Boustead said.

Steel has composed four scores for the festival, starting with one for Mark Playne’s “Love at First Sight” in 2014 and continuing this year with another for “Get the F K Outta Paris.” The latter has an edgy, dissonant feel that he said took him “way out” of his comfort zone.

“I thought it was a great opportunity,” he said, “not only for composers, but I also thought it was great opportunity for filmmakers to have scores performed live with their films. I wanted to be part of it.”

While it’s impossible to know for sure, Boustead believes that the Sound of Silent Film Festival is the lone such event in the world. “Every year I look to see if anyone is doing what we’re doing,” he said, “and I do think we are the only one.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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