The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the presentation and preservation of silent cinema, and the education of the public about silent film as an art form and as a culturally valuable historical record.
Throughout the year, SFSFF produces events that showcase important titles from the silent era, often in restored or preserved prints, with live musical accompaniment by some of the world’s finest practitioners of the art of putting music to film. Each presentation exemplifies the extraordinary quality that Academy Award-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow calls “live cinema.”
Silent-era filmmakers produced masterpieces that can seem breathtakingly modern. In a remarkably short time after the birth of movies, filmmakers developed all the techniques that would make cinema its own art form. The only technique that eluded them was the ability to marry sound to the film print, but these films were never meant to be viewed in silence, and it is often obvious that music was a part of the production as well as the exhibition. The absence of recording on the set, though, meant that the camera was free to move with a grace and elegance that allowed visual storytelling to flourish and made film more than just an adjunct to the stage.
It is through these films that the world first came to love movies and learned how to appreciate them as art. They have influenced every generation of filmmakers and continue to inspire audiences nearly a century after they were made.
More than two decades ago, Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons had a magnificent idea. They wanted to share their love of early cinema with the world and they knew that presenting silent films as they are meant to be seen—in beautiful prints on a big screen with live musical accompaniment—could thrill modern audiences. Today, their creation has outstripped their wildest dreams and grown into the largest and most prestigious silent film festival outside of Pordenone, Italy.
Over the years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has become an internationally renowned destination for filmmakers, scholars, and movie lovers. Every year enthralled audiences partake of new discoveries and old favorites accompanied by the likes of the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, Matti Bye Ensemble, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Alloy Orchestra, Stephen Horne, and Guenter Buchwald.
In the last decades, the festival has presented hundreds of rare and classic silent film programs, all with live music performed by the most accomplished composers and musicians in the field.
We have published hundreds of original essays by writers and key figures in the study of silent-film history, preservation, and music, and have supported film preservation efforts by exhibiting major restorations. We also preserve numerous silent titles every year through our ever growing preservation department. Since 2013, SFSFF has collaborated with organizations such as BFI, MoMA, Cinémathèque Française, EYE Filmmuseum, Library of Congress, the Film Preservation Society, and Gosfilmofond, to restore important films from the silent era—including several previously lost titles.
Every year the Festival brings authors, archivists, and filmmakers to the stage to help audiences appreciate the history, preservation, and continuing influence and importance of these early works of cinema art.
In one of our proudest moments, in March 2012 the Festival presented the American premiere of Kevin Brownlow’s five-and-a-half-hour restoration of Abel Gance’s legendary Napoleon with Carl Davis conducting his celebrated score—truly the cinema event of a lifetime!
In 2015, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival celebrated its 20th year exhibiting the artistry, diversity, and enduring value of silent movies. And in November of the same year, the Festival was voted in as an associate member of the Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF), joining archives the world over in preserving and providing access to the world’s film heritage.
When founders Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons put on the first San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 1996, 1,800 people attended the one-day, three-film event. Over the years, annual attendance at SFSFF events has grown to more than 25,000 with dozens of films screened.
Image credit: Pamela Gentile