Brig sat down with Alison Strauss, Festival Director of HippFest, Scotland’s only silent film festival to talk a little about the history of the creation of the festival, and the delights (and sometimes challenges!) of the role.
HippFest is a much loved, niche little gem that takes place right in the heart of Bo’ness, just outside of Falkirk, in the oldest cinema in the whole of Scotland: The Hippodrome.
The role and programming of the festival
Brig: Can you tell our readers a bit about your role within HippFest?
“Of course. My day job is Art Development Officer in Film and Media for the Falkirk council, and I programme the Hippodrome the entire year round. I’m also the founding director of the Silent Film Festival.
“This means I’m the artistic director primarily, but because we are a very small team, my role includes fundraising, recruiting, and being the spokesperson.
“However, I have a team around me of fantastic people who might have specific professions, such as PR, social media, and marketing. All sorts of things. I’m part of a wonderful team.”
Which factors inform your decisions regarding the programme of the festival?
“There are multiple factors. It is a constant balancing of many elements. On a very banal level, one of these factors is financing. One of the things I have planned in working with a storyteller, and this was possible due to there being a storytelling fund in Scotland that we utilised, so practicality is considered in that sense.
“Obviously, there is also that flow through the programme to consider. I’ve always resisted a concrete theme as I find it restrictive for people. We are quite a small film festival and only run for five days, so it is a case of being very selective with the films I choose.
“Talking about this flow throughout the programme, it is how they interact and “rub off” one another that you consider. Something funny, something sad, something scary, a bit of a mixture for everyone.
Country of origin
“It would be easy to have a silent film festival where everything is from America, or everything is from Germany because of the output of silent films in these countries. However, one of the things I really like is going deeper than the surface: these countries tended to dominate the film industry at the time. We have films from Sweden, Denmark, Ukraine, and even China. I always try to make sure there’s something British in there too!
“I think that a lot of people can be dismissive of British silent film, and Britain’s overall contribution within film history. Not rightly so! When people talk about silent film in Britain they tend to focus on Hitchcock. There is so much more than that!
“Another key factor for me is presenting a film that is going to capture the imagination of the audience. That’s why this year I’ve chosen Shooting Stars as our closing gala. You often need a hook as people are watching films that are over 100 years old.
“Although I don’t have a theme, I tend to prioritise Scottish stories, Scottish talent, etc. Another big thing is women. We all know that women aren’t necessarily represented enough in the medium. There are wonderful examples of female film-makers and I make it a priority to try and dig up and research as much as possible on some of these amazing pioneers that may have been forgotten through erasure and time.
“Every year there are new discoveries about women who have been written out of film history. For example, this year we are shining a light on this amazing animator called Bessie Mae Kelley Todd. She was an animator working in America in a male-dominated sphere and was admired by figures such as Walt Disney. She has a Mr and Mrs Mouse creation that predates Mickey and Minnie Mouse!
“There were all these photographs of the animators from the studio, consisting of all these men, with one solitary woman. It had been assumed she was just the tea lady or similar. Turned out she was producing her own films and animation. I never get tired of doing this, until they are all rediscovered!”
The origins and background of the festival
Can you illustrate a little more about the creation of the festival and why silent film became the main focus?
“The original initiative was to carve out a place for the Hippodrome within the cultural landscape. We knew we wanted to host a film festival and did wonder briefly about the idea of an archival film festival.
“But you know when an idea is exactly right? When it makes sense. There is not another silent film festival in Scotland, and the heritage of the building opening in 1912, which was right in the thick of the silent era, it just made perfect sense. The heritage of the building combined with the heritage of the medium. It was really the cinema itself that made the idea inevitable!
What are your favourite parts of preparing and running- of course within a team of other talented individuals- the festival?
“When it comes to the organising, there are so many elements, but honestly, it is just a privilege to be working with the musicians, academics, writers, speakers, and critics who are there. How lucky am I to have a reason to hang around some of these fantastic people!” she says, laughing.
“But during the festival itself, that privilege becomes hanging out and being in the presence of the audience and feeling that cliché of the film being on the screen and the musicians starting and it’s all happening at once, it really is like alchemy. It is magic. The elements you have worked on come together and it never gets old!”
What film would you personally recommend students definitely see out of the fantastic lineup you’ve got scheduled?
“That’s a difficult question! First of all, I take such pleasure in matchmaking people with films. If I could meet each student individually, I could find out a little bit about them and prescribe a film and can again do this matchmaking. Some people might be into the avant-garde, some people might be totally turned off by that.
“I think broadly, one of the films I was lucky enough to see last year that we are bringing to HippFest, is a film called His Majesty the Barber. We are kindly being loaned this material by the Swedish Film Institute. It is a film that people really have not seen. I feel confident in saying that no one will have seen it unless they saw it in Italy last year. It is just so funny.
“You’ve got a rom-com with a feisty heroine, and the standard handsome love interest. Very comical, he is a bit of rebel who is just graduated from university. He really wants to be a barber. However, his family want him to aspire to better, despite his grandfather being a barber.
“The plot scampers along, and it is just very funny. She is an heiress and it’s just truly wonderful. It is a very funny film and very well made. It is one of those films that you feel shocked at the speed of. You might think it has gone so quickly as the plot rattles along!
“John Sweeny is playing his accompanying score, and he is very happy to be doing it. He messaged me telling me he was very glad to be performing alongside this fantastic film!”
“I defy anyone to not be truly entertained by it!”
HippFest runs from March 22 – 26 in Bo’ness at the Hippodrome. The full programme can be found here.
Featured Image Credit: Bo’ness Hippodrome