Silent No Longer: Film reveals life in Ukraine, then and now

Silent No Longer: Film reveals life in Ukraine, then and now
BECCA MARTIN-BROWN
bmartin@nwadg.com

Thanks to Montopolis, an Austin, Texas, based indie chamber music group, and a new score, a 1929 silent film “gives historical context to the invasion” of Ukraine by Russia, says composer Justin Sherburn.

“‘Man With a Movie Camera’ was filmed largely in Ukraine,” the Montopolis founder explains. “For obvious reasons, the film is more relevant than ever. … It shows the people there NOT in crisis, but just living their lives like anyone else. Working, playing, and relaxing with their families.”

Sherburn made a name for himself in 2009 when he was approached by a director to write and perform the music for a theatrical adaptation of the French film “Le Balloon Rouge.”

“I had been a sideman in rock, country, tango and jazz groups for many years, but this was my first time composing and arranging for a modern classical chamber group,” he remembers. “I enjoyed the process, and after the production ended, the players continued on with me to form Montopolis.

“At first, working on these silent films was a way for me to practice composing and dig into learning how to arrange,” he explains. “After a few films, I began to develop a consistent approach. I tend to write music for these films that is not period-appropriate. We gave one of the first samurai films ever made, ‘Orochi: The Serpent,’ a proto-punk garage rock, MC5 and Stooges sounding score that was a lot of fun. We gave an old western, ‘The Tollgate,’ a traditional tango score.”

“I was actively researching silent films when I came upon ‘Man With a Movie Camera’ in 2010,” Sherburn goes on. “I was stunned at just how modern the movie felt. Many old silent movies are fairly boring and slow paced. This movie feels like a modern music video. It’s exciting, abstract, strange and dynamic. It invites you to experiment musically. Also, there are no dialogue cards that slow down the action. It is a visual roller coaster ride from beginning to end.”

The presentation is the first hosted by the two-year-old Cinema of the Ozarks, founded by Jason Murphy as Northwest Arkansas’ first nonprofit “art house movie theater organization.”

Justin Sherburn

“We both were somewhat familiar with the film, but I had not heard of Montopolis, so it’s been fantastic becoming familiar with their work, which is so unique and could not have come at a more needed time given the terrible circumstances in Ukraine,” says Robbie Wilson, executive director of development for Cinema of the Ozarks. “History seems cyclical sometimes, because in 1919 Ukraine was attacked much like in our time, so I see some parallels to history in addition to the juxtaposition of the original intent of the film — propaganda — and the beautiful morphing away from that in Montopolis’ presentation of it. The score features these amazing motifs of beautiful Eastern European folk melodies, some of which are Ukrainian, so it is a musical and artistic triumph over the original intended purpose of the film.”

Directed by Dziga Vertov and filmed by his brother, Mikhail Kaufman, in the cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa, “Man With a Movie Camera” was groundbreaking in both its cinematic techniques and the absence of actors, shot instead using Soviet citizens “interacting with the machinery of modern life.” Although it was largely dismissed when it was released, the British Film Institute’s 2012 Sight & Sound poll voted it the eighth greatest film ever made. Iconic film critic Roger Ebert wrote: “It made explicit and poetic the astonishing gift the cinema made possible, of arranging what we see, ordering it, imposing a rhythm and language on it, and transcending it.”

Sherburn’s first score for the film was “largely indie rock … that sounded more like the Flaming Lips and Arcade Fire.” But in the new version, which audiences can see and hear April 16 in Rogers, he incorporated “more traditional Ukrainian folk melodies, the Ukrainian national anthem, and a few pieces by Valentin Silvestrov, my favorite Ukrainian composer.”

There are no actors in the 1929 silent film “Man With a Movie Camera” unless you count the cameraman. (Courtesy Photo/Cinema of the Ozarks)

“I hope that the film and live score helps our audience empathize even more deeply with the plight of the Ukrainian people and take action by donating to reliable, effective charity organizations and pressuring their representatives to do what they can to end the war,” he says. “I also hope our audience will have a good time, see an iconic work of art, and enjoy the music.”

Cinema of the Ozarks is just beginning its quest to offer “a wide array of programming that features thought-provoking new releases from Hollywood, as well as independent studio films, documentaries and foreign films that people here rarely, if ever, have had the opportunity to see on the silver screen,” says Wilson. “Man With a Movie Camera” also serves the group’s mission to “reach out to and connect with the community to promote thoughtful dialogue about important issues of the day through the medium of cinema, and to educate people of all ages about the humanities through the cinema arts.”

“We will be everywhere,” Wilson says.

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FAQ

‘Man With a Movie Camera’

With Montopolis

WHEN — 7 p.m. April 16

WHERE — Arkansas Public Theatre at the Victory in Rogers

COST — $12

INFO — arkansaspublictheatre.org, cinemaozk.org

Categories: Theater