Heirs to a Great Tradition

Heirs to a Great Tradition

It takes guts to make a silent film about our noisy world. We are urbanites; our lives are filled with sound, and it seems that the essence of our city, with its millions of people and machines, could only be captured by something very loud. A silent film—about Toronto, anyway—seems awfully abstract.

But silent films are always abstract. They show us a world in motion, but deny us the sound of its movement. They remind us that most things we see, we also hear—and that everyday sound, forgettable as it is, can be comforting.  When you board a bus, don’t you always hear its rumbling engine, the hiss of its brakes, and the buzz of passenger’s conversations? It’s all so normal it can be ignored. But if those sounds were missing, replaced by dead silence or a piece of music, do you think the image of the bus would be so banal? It could be comical; educational; terrifying. It could be anything.

The filmmakers taking part in this year’s Toronto Urban Film Festival have no choice but to keep the silent tradition alive, because the video screens on which their minute-long films will be shown have no speakers. This is a challenge, but they’ll rise to it. And then they’ll place their work on one end of film history’s beautiful symmetry. For it was silent films, a mere minute in length, that first made movies a worldwide obsession, more than 110 years ago.

Some of those films still exist, such as the work of French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. The Lumières’ static camera recorded scenes of everyday life:  workers leaving factories; men playing cards, and so on. For us, they serve as passive glimpses of a world so long dead we could only read about it otherwise.

The Lumières’ fellow Frenchman, George Méliès, saw cinema’s fantastical possibilities. Méliès made films that looked like theatre, if it was freed from the laws of physics. He allowed two-dimensional and three-dimensional beings to co-exist, and let a real man climb into a cartoon rocket and fly away. We accept it all because the absence of sound puts us in a strange place, from which we can embrace worlds built of such pure creative fancy.

Sound would have weighed down Méliès’ films, obliging him to add realistic noise to magical space. And it would do the same to a modern silent, like Joe Pascale’s 2009 TUFF award winner, Urban Jungle.  Pascale offers us photorealistic Toronto landmarks wrapped in cartoon vines; he puts a lion atop Honest Ed’s. The lion’s mouth moves, and we hear nothing. But if we did hear the roar, then why not the sounds of the street below? And then, the predictable cries from passers-by? Give a little, and you must give everything.

Then there’s Lorène Bourgeois’ Water Children. Of the 2009 TUFF standouts, it’s perhaps the simplest—a single scene of children among the waterspouts at Yonge and Dundas Square. Bourgeois drains her image of colour, making the children into playful shadows against the bright spray. It’s beautiful, and unencumbered by the sounds of traffic she must have heard. What remains is innocent joy.

But Water Children has another gift. In its simplicity, it guides us back to the Lumières, who also captured our common humanity by placing their lens before real people, doing things. This is how silent art is made, in any era: from the willingness of filmmakers, and audiences, to really see.

Chris Edwards writes Silent Volume, a blog dedicated to silent film. He is based in Toronto.