Hippfest comes alive with the sound of silence

The 1920 movie The Last of the Mohicans was spectacular - even without the sort of lavish film score you'd expect today.  Musician David Allison gave a live performance of part of his own accompaniment to the otherwise silent movie at the opening of this year's HippFest.  That's the evil Magwa sneaking up behind him.
The 1920 movie The Last of the Mohicans was spectacular - even without the sort of lavish film score you'd expect today. Musician David Allison gave a live performance of part of his own accompaniment to the otherwise silent movie at the opening of this year's HippFest. That's the evil Magwa sneaking up behind him.

The Bo’ness film festival - the sort of event any town would be proud to make a song and dance about - has notched up another brilliant five days’ run.

This year’s effort is being described as “a triumph” by its director, Alison Strauss, and not just because it reliably attracts its regular crowd.

HippFest has quietly (in fact silently) evolved into a festival able to boast no less than five complete sell-outs this year.

While modern cinema regales us with a trashy monster movie featuring a computer-generated giant ape (does that sound at all familiar?) the archaic artistry of a bygone age offers a different kind of magic.

The annual festival of silent film at the Hippodrome in Bo’ness is a niche venue with a cult following, with fans travelling from as far away as California to sample the flickering images of yesteryear paraded over five days in March.

It seems plenty of intrigued newcomers are finding - possibly to their initial surprise - that some of the classic films produced almost a century ago are often sharper and better-observed than many of today’s formulaic CGI-packed nine-day cinematographic wonders.

Blockbusters like The Battleship Potemkin (1925) or Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” (1927) are epics which no amount of digital wizardry could possibly replicate today.

In the days before talkies an organist, or even a small orchestra, had to supply the musical dramatic tension to go with the images on screen.

The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival, to give the festival its full Sunday name, saw a three per cent boost to ticket income this year, and unlike some much bigger arts festivals clearly appeals to many local people as well as visitors.

Voted ‘best overall event’ by audiences was Call of the North, which included a selection of short silent films by pioneering Scottish filmmaker Isobel Wylie Hutchison, whose documentary records of her travels are preserved by the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive.

The evening featured song settings of Hutchison’s poetry from award-winning writer, actor and singer Gerda Stevenson, accompanied by Rob MacNeacail, and music written and performed live by Japanese composer Atzi Muramatsu whose composition was inspired by the explorer’s life and work.

Second place went to the New Found Sound event which is part of HippFest’s wider youth engagement programme. The event showcased new film scores by local school pupils from St Mungo’s High School, performed by Falkirk Schools Senior Orchestra with live accompaniment by the Junior and Senior Trad Bands from the area.

This innovative event also included a short, modern-day silent film created by Falkirk’s Champions Board (young people who have been, or are currently in care) made possible through funding from Cashback for Creativity.

The Penalty, starring the great American actor Lon Chaney as a criminal mastermind bent on sadistic revenge, is to tour Scotland this year thanks to support from Film Hub Scotland - a member of the BFI Film Audience Network.

This film is accompanied by a new score commissioned by HippFest and performed by Scottish jazz guitarist and composer Graeme Stephen and cellist Pete Harvey.

Outwith the auditorium, the coveted Shop Window Display Cup (sponsored by Bo’ness Town Centre Management) was awarded by the Bo’ness Fair Queen to the Ivy Tea Room - outright winners for the second year running.

Alison Strauss said: ”The Hippodrome has been vibrant with the immediacy of live music, silent film and enthusiastic cinema-goers.

“The town has been positively thrumming with the Festival atmosphere, and you can feel the pride in the air. “A first look at the feedback has shown how much impact the Festival has – people really value the chance to see rare films, the gorgeous cinema, the calibre of the musicians, the inclusive atmosphere, and the sense of fun”.

She added: “This year we drew a good number of first-timers (for both the Hippodrome and silent film) as well as visitors from far afield, who travelled specifically to attend.

“But just as precious to me is that we continue to draw the local audience on whose loyalty the Hippodrome depends year round.

“It really is a privilege to share these memorable, communal cinema experiences with such terrific audiences.

HippFest is organised by Falkirk Community Trust with key funding from Falkirk Council”.

It is supported by BFI Audience Fund, using money from the National Lottery, through Creative Scotland’s Open Project Fund to engage more audiences across the UK with silent cinema.