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  • Kaleb A. Brown

2022 Pordenone Silent Film Festival: Reality of The Other

Updated: Oct 28, 2022

A still from one of the Dutch Colonial Films

During the initial planning phase of this project, I intended for this second half to focus on the festival’s“Dutch Colonial Films” program. They seemed to be a perfect contrast to the lofty nature of Ruritarian films. These were propagandistic, quasi-documentaries about the Netherlands’ holdings in Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies. I imagined that these films would exemplify the Other, which in media refers to an identity that is distinguished as being separate from a dominant identity (in America, this is understood to be white, Anglo-Saxon, straight, protestant males), usually via stereotypical depictions. An example of this could be the common depiction of Native Americans as being “savage” or the depiction of Libyans in Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985) as violent terrorists.

I decided not to focus on the “Dutch Colonial Films” as I found myself face-to-face with an example of the Other that was more personally arresting.

During the third night of the festival, the short film Pictures from Morocco (1910) was screened before the feature. It was (purportedly, as the catalog casts doubt on the film’s accuracy) about the Shilha people of Morocco. It wasn’t the type of film most would care about. But of course, me being the nerd I am, I was absolutely gushing at the use of color. The headwraps, the grass, the dirt, the camels, and the clothing were all beautifully colored in, making them positively pop from the rest of the frame. The careful coloring was a notable upgrade from the crude colorization of the prior short in which the colors looked like scribbles in a coloring book, constantly shifting and barely contained in the outlines of the positive space.

Then I was blindsided by the ending. The second to last intertitle describes the group as “not Arab” before showing a closeup of a man. I found it a bit odd, but I didn’t give it much thought. Moments later, the final intertitle pops up, saying something along the lines of “those of more primitive stock are often found among them.” My alarm bells immediately started ringing — the term “primitive” being used to describe people should raise giant red flags. My stomach dropped as the intertitle faded to a closeup of a Black man. His skin is dark, his hair is kinky, his lips are particularly thick, and his teeth are somewhat crooked. I don’t describe the man this way to disparage him — he’s beautiful and doesn’t deserve mockery, but that’s exactly why he was filmed. The filmmakers chose a man that would best fit their bias, using his image to say that people who look like me are “primitive.” Then the film ends, just like that. My eyes were so wide they were fit to burst out my sockets through my glasses like a cartoon character.

Now, if I’m being fair, the festival did have a warning about the film, it was just in the catalog, which I don’t read before I see a movie. This is what I’d like to call “my b.” While you could object to the fact that this was shown during the main event for the day, I actually think this was good on the organizer’s part — if you’re going to show something like this, you shouldn’t hide it away, you should make people acknowledge less flattering aspects of silent films. The experience left me hurt, but I was able to put it out of mind for a bit thanks to the interesting feature that followed.

Then it happened again.

A day later, festival director Jay Weissberg helped introduce The Chicken Thief (Marion/McCutcheon 1904). He explained that it contained harmful stereotypes of African-Americans as thieves and that it showed the startling reality of racial relations in the U.S. 40 years after the Civil War. He said that it was on us to preserve even the nasty side of history in order to learn from it. I thought I was prepared for what was to come. Jay also revealed that accompaniment would play a composition by an African-American poser. I thought it was cool that, at the very least, the experience would acknowledge the work of a Black creative.

The film opens with a good thirty seconds of a Black man eating fried chicken with his mouth agape, smiling like the fool the audience at the time would have seen him as nothing more than. We then cut to a long take of two Black men stealing chickens from a farm, stuffing them into a sack. They exit the left side of the frame and moments later, the white farmer enters the right of the frame, shotgun in hand. We then cut to an external shot of a Black family eating dinner. That’s the joke: that they’re Black, they’re poor, and they’re eating. I should note at this point that the music isn’t helping. It’s a very jazzy, soulful piece. Normally, it would be great, but it seems to add a level of authenticity to the farce, as if it’s saying that the stereotypes are real, since this is actually what a Black person might listen to at the time. Honestly, silence would have been more poignant. We then cut to two Black men running. One of them gets their leg caught in a bear trap, forcing him to limp as he and his partner are chased by a mob of cops and the farmer. One of the men is shot and I actually started to cry at the absolute horror I was witnessing. Then the movie cuts to the final shot of the family dancing a jig because that’s all Black people are to the directors — just stupid, thieving jive turkeys. I’m glad the couple next to me didn’t turn to see my rage-filled scowl.

It was at this point that I knew I had to pivot. Covering the “Dutch Colonial Films” wouldn’t be good enough, it wouldn’t convey the hurt of The Other. When you’re the one Othered, you can’t be impassively analytical. Watching The Chicken Thief left me livid. I was shocked.

And yet I wasn’t.

When I began this essay, I said that I wasn’t sure how I discovered silent films. That’s a bit dishonest. Sure, while I’m indeed uncertain of the steps that led me to watch it, I do know which silent film was my first: Broken Blossoms (Griffith, 1919), starring Lillian Gish. It tells the story of Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish), the abused daughter of a boxer and Chen Huan, a Chinese Buddhist missionary who travels to London to spread his religion. The two form a sweet bond, finding comfort in another person who lives on the periphery. That being said, the movie never feels saccharine and it’s poignant in how dour it is. It’s the movie that made me fall in love with Lillian Gish as an actor, as she so vividly conveys Lucy’s tortured existence and her enduring soul without saying a word. I found her nothing short of angelic. I was mesmerized.

Lillian Gish as she appears in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish as she appears in Broken Blossoms

For as many positives as Broken Blossoms has, it has one glaring flaw that has made it so I've never recommended the movie.

The actor who portrays Chen, Richard Barthelmess, is in yellowface. If that wasn’t enough, Chen is never referred to by name in the narration, only as “The Yellow Man.” When I watched the film, instead of thinking about how uncomfortable this depiction made me, I simply said it was “fair for its day,” the catchphrase of all mealy-mouthed apologists.

Poster of Broken Blossoms with Lillian Gish
One look at the poster tells you all you need to know

My reaction towards Broken Blossoms would characterize my relationship with silent cinema going forward: fraught with cognitive dissonance. In order to maintain the illusion of an ideal fantasy, I had to wrap myself in delusion. This is perhaps best seen in the way I perceived Lillian Gish, The First Lady of American Cinema herself.

Birth of a Nation poster
Perhaps the worst influential film

Lillian Gish is most associated with director D.W. Griffith, who is most infamous for his 1914 film, The Birth of a Nation. If you haven’t heard of this film (in which case you’ve earned my undying envy), then know that it’s steeped in Lost Cause ideology, features horrifyingly racist depictions of Black people, and played a significant role in the 20th-century revival of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s also often touted as being the codifier for the Hollywood feature film, making Griffith a part of film studies canon. Regardless of how important it may-or-may-not be to American cinema, I haven’t seen it. As you can imagine, for obvious reasons, I’m not too jazzed at the idea of spending three hours of my life watching this drivel. The important thing you need to know is that, thanks to my knowledge of the movie, my thoughts of its director can be summarized in this image.

Yet this unbridled hatred doesn’t extend to his starlet, Lillian Gish, whom I should note starred in Birth of a Nation. In order to see Lillian Gish, I’d watch other Griffith movies, making sure to tiptoe around The Birth of a Nation. I told myself that Griffith was the problem, not Gish. In my mind, she was innocent. I held her on a pedestal to the point where I became hurt and angry when, in 2019, Bowling Green University removed her name from a theater due to her role in Birth of a Nation. I took the stance of the actors who signed an open letter in opposition. "My Lillian couldn’t be racist! This was just one movie, she shouldn’t be punished for it!" In hindsight, it’s embarrassing to recall. I was full of myself in thinking my reverence superseded the hurt brought on by honoring the star of a high-profile, racist film. And just so we’re clear, there’s no indication that Lillian Gish regrets her role in such a racist film — on the contrary, actually. She heaped praise on Griffith. I justified this by saying she was a consummate professional. But there’s no such excuse for her America First membership during World War II. Not even my mind is flexible enough for the mental gymnastics required to explain away her longstanding Republican National Committee membership in the eighties. In a letter to the First Lady at the time, Gish wrote, "Every time you and Ronnie open your mouths you echo my thoughts." There’s really no justification for that, at least none that absolves her of her role in Birth of a Nation. I’m sure if given the chance, she’d chomp at the bit to star in a similarly racist film.

Yet a conclusion so obvious still probably would have eluded me if I hadn’t attended this year’s festival. For years, I hid, and did a pretty good job of it, if I do say so myself. But on October 1, 2022, the jig was up. In its extensive programming, the festival taught me that you can’t hide from the shadows. They have a tendency to grow and shift, eventually engulfing you. It didn’t matter the subject matter; I kept finding myself face-to-face with the Other.

In The Forbidden City (Franklin, 1918), Norma Talmadge and several other cast members don yellow face to depict the Chinese characters. And although the film depicts an interracial relationship, nine years later, I wasn’t as willing to brush it off as being “fair for its day.” In a documentary about Japan, the narration marks them as being different from the presumed white audience by remarking that the Japanese citizens “all have strange and distinct faces.” While seldom appearing in the films themselves, middle-easterners are Othered, being used as shorthand for promiscuity — ”Turk” and “Sheik” seem to be common insults during this time. Women may find themselves Othered as well, marked as having less agency than men. In Norma Talmadge’s Yes or No? (Neill, 1920), an otherwise good movie is brought down by narration that seems to prop up loyalty above all else, going so far as to ignore better reasons to praise the female lead in favor of “she listened to her husband.” Just Around the Corner (Marion, 1921) is an uncomfortable film from start to finish, with the central message seeming to be that if you’re a woman, you need to stay away from such temptations as city life. As a girl, you’re to be shepherded by your father or brother and as a woman, you’re to be married so you’re shepherded by your husband lest you and your family fall to ruin.

Norma Talmadge Forbidden City
Norma Talmadge along with Charles Fang, the only adult Asian actor in The Forbidden City

And I really cannot stress enough that there's no sanctuary. As much as I praised it an essay ago, Ruritania isn’t immune either. Admittedly, it’s not as obvious, but it’s still there if you know where to look. In her book, Inventing Ruritania Vesna Goldwater links the idea of Ruritaria to Balkan kingdoms. The characterization of these fictional countries as being backward and exotic suddenly feels a bit too real, too close to prevailing attitudes towards certain Balkan communities. Both British and American strains of the Ruritanian romance often featured an outsider traveling to the country due to their characterization of being more “cunning” and “civilized.” Occasionally, the protagonist would change the political system entirely in order to fit more with American values. The whimsy dies a bit as I can’t help but think of my actual government’s dogged desire to stamp out socialism in the 20th century.

When you’re the Other, it’s harder to connect with media in the way it’s intended. This is why I say I “almost” feel anemoia when watching silent films. While some of these movies can be beautiful, there’s always something questionable lurking around the corner, something that yanks you out of the fantasy and douses you with harsh reality. It’s hard to feel wistful for a time period when you know you wouldn’t be welcome there.

And it would be one thing if these feelings of alienation were confined to the past, if we lived in a post-bigotry world and films like the Chicken Thief only showed, as Jay said, "the realities of racial relations 40 years after the Civil War." If this were the case, the Otherness of silent films would only be a historical curiosity. I'd be able to view it with only an analytical lens and marvel at how far we've come. But, of course, our society is still flawed. When I see the Otherness of yesterday, it reminds me of the injustices of today. The attitudes on display fan the flames of my anger and fear that smolder within me here and now. During the Chicken Thief, when I watch a Black man being chased and shot by a crowd of white men, I can’t help but see Ahmaud Arbery being murdered in a racially-motivated hatecrime. When I watch the same movie and am expected by the director to laugh at the Black family eating, I’m reminded of my own anxiety, wondering if people see me as less-than if I eat a bit messily in public. When I see the obsession with women being “loyal” and “pure” in movies such as Yes or No? and Just Around the Corner, I see the current, terrifying desire by my government to exert control over women’s bodies. It’s all very draining.

Part of the collegium’s purpose is to pass a love for silent movies onto the next generation: people like me. It can be difficult for people of marginalized identities to watch these films because they can dredge up present trauma, trauma someone understandably might want to wrestle with when watching what should be entertainment. And it’s not much of a learning opportunity, either, because there’s not much to learn if you’re living it.

You might assume that I’m frustrated with the festival, but this isn’t a condemnation of Pordenone. If anything, this has been an extended criticism of myself and the way I’ve gone about watching silent films. Recall Jay’s words during his introduction of the Chicken Thief, about how we must preserve the past, even the nasty parts of it. I didn’t do this. I allowed my cognitive dissonance to take the wheel of my perception, steering clear of the potholes of silent cinema. In doing so, I created a warped ideal that didn’t exist. By ignoring the negative aspects of the medium instead of reckoning with them, I tacitly endorsed them. I enjoyed my time at the 2019 festival more, but the 2022 festival was more helpful. The 2022 festival grabbed my head, pried my eyes open, and forced me to look at something I actively avoided even though it had always been staring at me. My cognitive dissonance has finally been shattered. Naturally, I’m left wondering “what now?”

The obvious answer would be to walk away from silent films and never look back. I’ve made it very clear that problematic aspects are prominent and I’ve made it even more clear that I can’t ignore them any longer. I struggle to say the good outweighs the bad, so it would make sense to just stop watching.

You can probably tell that I’m someone who tends to scrutinize the obvious answer.

My solution is somewhat in the middle. It’s hard for me to ignore the positive aspects of silent film, even if it’s now just as hard for me to ignore the negative aspects. Yet I can mitigate the harm they bring in highlighting them. I’m not sure how to make people my age interested in silent films, but I know the wrong way to do it is by hoping they ignore how Othering it can be. I’ll continue watching these films, and I’ll continue loving them too, but I can’t revere them.

I know this doesn’t work for everyone. I won’t fault anyone for not wanting to get into silent films. I’ve spoken before about the marginalized time traveler’s dilemma. I won’t dangle proverbial keys in someone’s face, saying, “sure, there’s horrible bigotry but ooh, look at this fancy technicolor sequence.” There’s no understating just how badly these movies can hurt at times. It can be hard to love these kinds of films. There’s good, there’s bad and it’s up to the individual to decide if the latter is worth the former. To be perfectly honest, I also won’t fault anyone for being baffled at my ability to keep enjoying these films, for thinking it makes me a bad person. I hope more people will join me in appreciating what the past has to offer, but I understand if they’re turned off by seeing what the past asks of us.

I thank Pordenone for helping me see these movies with clear eyes. I see them not just in terms of my fantasy, but their reality. I can't help but recognize the magic and beauty in these movies even if I recognize that, more often than not, I’m The Other.

Pordenone town hall at night moon Jupiter
Despite it all, I think there still is light in the darkness.

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