A Tale of Two Festivals: The Kansas Silent Film Festival and The True/False Documentary Film Festival

One of the great things about being a film geek in Kansas City is that we are in throwing distance of a pair of two wonderful festivals that celebrate terrific movies from the past and first-rate documentaries.
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One of the great things about being a film geek in Kansas City is that we are in throwing distance of a pair of two wonderful festivals that celebrate terrific movies from the past and first-rate documentaries that have yet to start their theatrical runs.

The Kansas Silent Film Festival, February 25-27, White Recital Hall, Washburn University, Topeka Kansas.

Since 1997, the Kansas Silent Film Festival has usually played around the week of the Academy Awards. This year the festival will be populated with entries that were either nominated for or won the little gold men. When you get a chance to see some of these films, you'll begin to wonder if sound was a giant step backward.

Here are some the film coming to the festival that I've had the pleasure of viewing:

Speedy (1927)
Harold Lloyd wasn't a silent comedian as much as a bespectacled WMD. With his sunny personality, it was amazing how much mayhem his characters could achieve in a 90-minute run. In Speedy, he tears through the Big Apple, creating comic insanity from Coney Island to Yankee Stadium. The real Babe Ruth plays himself in the film, riding in Lloyd's cab. He'd probably be better off with Travis Bickle behind the wheel. Lloyd expert Annette D'Agostino Lloyd hosts the film, and organist Marvin Faulwell and percussionist Bob Keckeisen will accompany it.

The Circus (1928)
Charlie Chaplin won a special Oscar for this film because he was one of cinema's first multitaskers. The writer-director-star sends the Little Tramp to a circus where he creates enough chaos for about three films. Particularly fun is a sequence where he walks a tight wire while being attacked by a legion of angry monkeys. It seems Chaplin wasn't content simply to make his films and move on. The score viewers will here in Topeka will be one he composed himself later in life.

Wings (1927)
The first Best Picture Oscar-winner answers an important question people who've never seen silent movies mike ask: Why should we bother seeing them at all? Much of the current appeal for this saga of World War I aviation is that if you think you see the actors doing something dangerous: they really were. Olathe, Kansas native Buddy Rogers, who later married Mary Pickford, stars as an ace and actually did his own flying. In the areal shots, you can see his hair flapping in the wind because he was actually doing it. When I interviewed him back in the 1990s, he confessed that, "I could cuss at the Germans because it was a silent movie." Wings is an impressive spectacle that no insurance company would back today. Blink, and you'll miss a chance to catch a young, unknown actor named Gary Cooper. Nicholas Eliopoulos, an expert on both Rogers and Pickford will present a tribute documentary, and Faulwell will accompany the film.

If getting a chance to see these films with live accompaniment weren't enough, David Shepard, who has made a career of restoring silent movies to where they can be viewed again, will be on hand. Additional accompaniment will come from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, which plays authentic 1920s music, and keyboardists Greg Foreman and Jeff Rapsis. Some additional titles playing at the festival are The Last Command, 7th Heaven and a rare short featuring Chaplin titled A Thief Catcher. For more information, go to: http://www.kssilentfilmfest.org/index.html

True/False Film Festival, March 3-6, Columbia, Mo.

Speaking of Oscar winners, several have made their way to the home of the University of Missouri Tigers to show their films, including Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) and James Marsh (Man on Wire). Marsh returns this year to present Project Nim, about a chimp who was raised by human beings and learned sign language. Marsh will also be presenting his previous films The Burger and the King and Wisconsin Death Trip.

Some other intriguing offerings include:

  • Bobby Fischer Against the World: An in depth look at how Fischer went from being a Cold War hero to a pariah. Director Liz Garbus will be presenting the film.
  • Life in a Day: Collected from 80,000 videos that were all shot on July 24, 2000, this unique view of the planet was assembled for viewing by Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September, Last King of Scotland). Some of the shooters will be there to represent their work.
  • Page One: Inside the New York Times: Director Andrew Rossi follows Times reporters during a particularly turbulent period at America's Paper of Record. Rossi and producer Josh Braun will be there.
  • The Black Power Mix Tape 1967-1975: A new look at the Black Power movement, featuring Stokely Carmichale that features previously unseen footage from a Swedish archive. Director Goran Olson will be on hand.

If the chance to see these and other films and the opportunity to meet the filmmakers aren't enough of a reason to attend True/False, I'll give you a few of my own after having attended for the previous three years:

  • Unique Setting: Columbia has about 100,000 residents, who are remarkably accommodating to visiting geeks like me. You're also a few blocks from where American frontiersman Daniel Boone lived once lived. There are dozens of great eateries like Bangkok Gardens, Shakepeare's Pizza and the venerable burger joint Booches. There's no excuse to eat at Subway when there's this much great local food and atmosphere. One of the most memorable moments I had in Columbia was following Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men when we were accosted by a Subway employee in a sandwich costume after we'd already eaten better food. Mr. Bichlbaum politely suggested that Subway could do the world a favor by breaking up into smaller, local eateries. After having sampled several of them, I concur.
  • Walking Distance: All the venues playing films or running workshops are within walking distance of downtown Columbia. Once you've found a place to park, you're set for the day. Besides, the town has a lot of unusual shops you might miss if you go tearing down the road.
  • Real Preshow Entertainment: Before each show, you'll get to hear buskers from all over singing their hearts out. Two years ago, I got to meet punk goddess Exene Cervenka just before she opened for Ondi Timoner's film We Live in Public. They Might Be Giants have played there, and you definitely don't want to miss the parade downtown on Friday night.
  • All of the festival passes have sold, but there are still tickets for the screenings. They have a well organized cue system that makes getting into the films pleasant and convenient. For more information, go to www.truefalse.org or read my previous account of the festival here.

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