Co-Founder and Co-Festival Director
Toronto Silent Film Festival
Shirley successfully started the first Toronto Silent Film Festival in the spring of 2010. The festival has been growing in size and importance ever since. She is also a member of the Toronto Film Society, one of North America’s oldest, since 1979 that included three terms as a member of the Board of Directors and two as Vice President. Shirley has contributed to several projects involving early and classic cinema including screening notes, research papers, magazine articles and television shows.
Interview conducted on 03/30/2017 (Telephone Interview)
throwdown815: Just to start off, what prompted you to start this film festival?
Shirley Hughes (Toronto Silent Film Festival): It was so long ago I can't remember. You start festivals off for, at least I do anyway, for a whole host of different reasons. One, I like seeing silent film up on the big screen with live accompaniment, which is how it should be done and how it was originally done. I want to recreate that experience for audiences. I want to re-establish the audience for it, so a little bit of audience restoration as well. I also wanted to, and I hate to say the word educate because I don't believe you educate audiences at all, I believe that audiences educate themselves. But I wanted to allow the audiences to explore an art form which they may have been unfamiliar with. They may have heard about a few things here and there but they may not have had the opportunity to experience it. I wanted them to be able to explore that art form in any way that they chose to. I wanted to maybe expand the range of their film-going experience. I certainly wanted to reintroduce an art form back into a festival which, you know, we strive very hard to make it very, very accessible to everybody. In other words, we don't take an overly excessive academic approach to it. We do have film notes which inform people about perhaps the making of the film or a little bit about the filmmakers and such, but we don't take one of those approaches of, "You need to see this film because it's good and therefore good for you." We want it to be a very inclusive club. We want them to explore and maybe become curious about other things so they can explore more on their own. We take an awful lot of feedback from our audiences. They may suggest certain things to us, which we may be able to, or not able to, explore.
td815: And how do you typically choose your film selections?
SH: We don't specialize in any one country of silent film, although a lot of them do come from the United States because we were the biggest producers of silent film. We've had films from Germany and France, from Japan, from Soviet Union, Canada, the U.S. and such. For the first few years, we just put films together that we thought would go quite well together, and in recent years we've had a little bit of a theme. It's reasonably loose-based. For instance, this year we're doing films that were accidentally preserved, so films that may have been lost but have been rediscovered in what would be considered kind of odd circumstances. Some of them are lost in plain sight, some of them were found at auctions and things like that. We do have a theme every year, but it's fairly open-ish.
td815: Would you say that you have a target audience, or is the festival even for people who aren't interested in silent film at all?
SH: Well, the wonderful thing about films and going to see films is that no one forces you to do it, you know? With any film festival the audience always takes the lead, but I guess to answer your question - no, I don't have a target audience. My target audience is everybody. We have kids coming to screenings. Obviously they're comedies and stuff like that, not hardcore drama, but we have parents bringing their little kids. I've had kids the age of five at screenings. I've had people into their 80s. The target audience for silent film presentation around the world is skewing younger and younger every year. This isn't just me saying that, that's the British Film Institute. I always talk to the people at our film festivals, depending on where they are and stuff, but you get a lot of range of people. You get middle-aged people, you get older people, you get kids coming to stuff, parents bringing their kids. I've had teenage boys walking into and buying tickets for the Black Pirate, which is sort of your archetype pirate film, and they're coming out going "Wow, this is great," and then I see them the next year. The only thing you can do as a film festival producer in any film festival is to do the best that you can with what you can, then present it to the audience.
td815: To you, what makes silent films so special and something worth preserving and sharing to the younger generation?
SH: All it is, is a visual way of telling the story, which is inherent in every film that we do right up until today. Silent film especially really makes the audience focus because they have to focus on the visual images moving on the screen. As modern film-goers, and I see a lot of films, the amount of information a film-goer and audience member gets orally from a film through dialogue is stunningly large. You can't do that with silent film because, of course, the dialogue you don't actually hear. You hear internally because you're actually working a different part of your brain when you watch silent film. So actually, for new people it can be a little bit - and this is gonna come out incorrectly - it can be a little bit mentally tiring for them because they're not used to watching films [like this]. They're used to having films sort of come at them and that's it, but they're not usually interacting with the film with the extent they have to do with silent film. You're watching the film because there's no oral dialogue and it's a visual storytelling method you actually internalize the voices. The voices you're hearing are the ones which you create, so it does create a different kind of bond between the audience and the film. The live musical accompanist is kind of like the third artist in the group, and I do consider audience to be part of the art-process of watching film.
td815: Given that the festival is about preserving the past in many ways, do you get funding from the government at all?
SH: I get occasional funding from the Toronto Arts Council. Like with all public funding, it is a little bit hit-and-miss, so I don't count on it at all. If I get it, it's a great bonus, and I can use that money and I can expand what I was going to do within the festival with that extra money. I got funding for this year, which is going to pay for my special guest coming up from New York. It almost pays for him, not quite. But I'm very grateful for that. I don't get Ontario Arts Council grants at all. I don't get Canada Council grants at all.
td815: As far as organizing the festival goes, is this a full time job for you?
SH: No, this is purely volunteer. No one gets paid, except for the accompanist and festival venue owners and the usual paraphernalia. No, I work full-time elsewhere. So does my co-founder and partner. He works full-time too. I'd love to get paid for it but we don't have enough money for that. Any money we make, I just pour it back into the festival.
td815: In terms of being able to watch silent films during the year outside of the festival, is that something that's available in Toronto?
SH: A little bit. TIFF occasionally runs a silent film. The Revue has a silent film program. It runs from, I think, September to June once a month. People like Reg Hartt, who's really done a fantastic job since the 70s and 80s putting up really wonderful silent films, he doesn't have live accompaniment, but he's extremely good at putting scores together for films. Those are the three main avenues for that. Occasionally other film festivals have too, depending on what their theme is. Some of them are certainly a lot more open to showing a silent film.
td815: What about the Toronto Silent Film Festival as a group, do you guys organize events throughout the year?
SH: We do. We'll be doing a screening at The Fox at the end of April, and we're gonna be doing screenings there in the fall. At least a couple. One's gonna be Buster Keaton's celebration because this is the 100th anniversary of Buster Keaton entering films. We usually do a Halloween screening at The Fox, as well. Yeah. Besides the festival, we support other festivals that screen silent film, like the Vintage Film Festival in Port Hope in the fall, and stuff like that. We try to encourage that as much as possible.
td815: Given how niche silent films are, do you ever have the opportunity to collaborate with other film festivals around the city?
SH: No, not really. I mean, every festival has its own niche. There are an awful lot of film festivals, and some are big and some are small. Having talked to an awful lot of different organizers over the years, I can very safely say that there's no poaching of audiences between festivals. Like I say, people are free to go and see what they want to see. Occasionally, I'll get emails from different film festivals going, "You know, we're thinking of showing a silent film. Here's a couple of things we're thinking of. What do you think?" but that's about it.
td815: Just to change gears a bit, there's a lot of talk these days about the value of watching something in theatre given the rise of home entertainment options. I would think that this is even more true for silent films, especially given the concept of experiencing it with live music and taking in the general atmosphere of the overall performance. And this is probably a very basic question, but would you agree with that?
SH: Well it's like saying, "Which is a better experience? Going to see an opera live, or hearing it on a CD?" Is the experience of going to see a curated art show at the AGO better, or do you pick up the postcards? You're talking two different medias, actually. Obviously my answer is yes. Unless it's a really short silent film, I don't watch it on my computer. I mean, I'll fall asleep because it's a completely different media and a different interaction. These films are designed to be seen at a certain size. All the filmmakers back in the 1920s had was a theatrical performance, so they were physically designed in terms of their look to be seen on a big screen. They knew that there was gonna be live accompaniment for the bigger films, and they wrote scores for orchestras to play to it. They knew that that's what it was, so to sit there and watch Ben-Hur 1925 on your iPhone, yes you can do it, but why? I mean you're missing 90% of what you're watching. You're not really watching the film.
td815: Okay, to end things off. Let's shift back to the festival. Is there anything new for the 2017 edition of the festival?
SH: Yes and no. We get a lot of audience who are new, and we get a lot of audience who come back every year. We like to challenge the audiences a little bit. They may be used to Buster Keaton, but they may not be used to other comedians, so we like to introduce them to different artists of that era. Everybody goes gaga over Louise Brooks for obvious reasons, but there are other artists of the era which were much, much, much bigger than her which they probably haven't seen before. We showed an artist last year who was a massive star back in the 1920s called Colleen Moore, and she was the original flapper. People are used to seeing Clara Bow in it and thinking she's the biggest flapper there was around. I'm going, "Well, no. Colleen Moore actually kind of started it all." She was a huge, huge massive star back in her day and actually starred in a very feminist-forward film.
td815: It almost sounds like a bit of a history lesson mixed into the festival.
SH: I had people coming up saying, "People back in the 1920s were just like us." I said, "Well of course they were." People's natures don't change a heck of a lot, and they were astonished at how close socially we are with people back in that day. I mean, yes, things have changed, and a lot of things have changed much for the better, but the way people have to react to things, the way people had to deal with certain issues, are really not a heck of a lot different than what we deal with now. It is a little bit of a social and historical exploration when you see a film. You seeing a film, let's say, from 1919. What was happening in 1919 in North America? They just finished World War I. A lot of people didn't come back. A lot of people came back very damaged. You are right in the middle of a depression right after the war. You're also right in the middle of the biggest pandemic in history which killed 55 million people worldwide. You had the Soviet Union starting up. You had different monarchies fall in Europe. I mean, it's a huge sort of social and historical context which you can explore a little bit if you're willing to. People in the 1920s. What was happening in the 1920s? There's certain things which we take for granted nowadays like a social net which they didn't have. There's also a massive influx of people going from a rural existence into an urban existence, and how did that effect the social outlook. You'll see an awful lot of films where they have, basically, the city was regarded as sort of the big bad place. Not a place of innovation and inclusion. Whereas the country was seen as sort of the purity of the American spirit. Again, it's an interesting way of dealing with certain subjects. You can explore a lot more and learn a lot more about what that film was saying in that time and place. How were populations and social systems changing, and how fast they were changing, and how is that reflected in the films? It's really no different than modern films and how they associate different world events through the prism of a camera. The filmmakers back in those days did exactly the same thing.
td815: And final question, what would you say is your favourite film festival experience to date?
SH: Oh good lord. I don't think I can answer that one. I don't really have favourites of anything. My favourite could be something I haven't even experienced yet. I've gone to a lot of film festivals in Toronto, I've gone to a few film festivals down in the States - I just like the atmosphere. I like the people around me. There's people with an awful lot of depth of knowledge out there, and just sort of being around them and absorbing what they know, and asking questions of them, I can learn an awful lot which really enhances my experience. But I don't really have a favourite film festival experience.