The Wharton Studio sign and tower, circa 1915. Credit: Photo provided by Diana Riesman

ITHACA, N.Y.—With Ithaca’s history as a staple of the silent movie industry throughout the 1910s as a foundation, a new film festival celebrating movies and music together will debut this week. 

In collaboration with Cinemapolis, Wharton Studio Museum and Finger Lakes Film Trail, the Silent City Film Festival will take place from Wednesday, Oct. 4-Sunday, Oct. 8, showcasing feature films, documentaries, animated shorts, music videos and student films from a wide range of different genres. While the festival focuses largely on silent cinema and music, several selections do not fall into either of those two categories.

The opening night of the festival will take place at Cinemapolis, playing “H4z4rd” and “Fantasy A Gets a Mattress” while the rest of the films will show at Deep Dive, a restaurant and bar on Old Taughannock Boulevard in Ithaca which is usually known for its live music offerings. Tickets for the festival will be sold at the door although they can also be purchased online

Jack Clausen, co-owner of Deep Dive, saw an opportunity to celebrate the interplay between music and cinema with the goal of keeping it affordable and accessible for the community. In becoming friends with Dallas Hallam, the eventual organizer of the Silent City Film Festival, the two discussed the opportunity to expand Ithaca’s film festival scene.

“Even though Ithaca has a very vibrant film culture and a few different events, there isn’t really a holistic film festival here,” Hallam said. “Recently, there was the Reproductive Rights Festival and the weekend after us there’s the Experimental Film Festival. Those are awesome, but they’re very niche.”

When Clausen and Hallam began discussions to create the Silent City Film Festival, they initially saw it as more of a lark.

“We were having so much fun with it and getting so much great stuff from all over the world that the festival just began to grow into something that we saw having real potential for the community,” Hallam said.

With Deep Dive recently opening in September 2022 and never being involved with a film festival before, Clausen recognizes that this will be a major experiment.

“Dallas and I are really interested in the idea of taking spaces that wouldn’t necessarily be considered a cinema and using them as one,” Clausen said. “People don’t go to the cinema as much as they used to and I think what’s interesting right now is giving people a different experience where you feel like you’re part of something special. I think that’s a real appeal here.”

Many Ithaca College students are represented in the festival through the Emerging Filmmakers Showcase. Ben Rymer, a junior Cinema Production major at Ithaca College, is one of them.

His documentary “Material Objects” follows the local band of the same name, telling their backstory and love of playing together. With the project’s blend of film and music, Rymer decided to apply after hearing about the opportunity from the Roy H. Park School of Communications and was accepted.

“It feels really good, especially to do it with a bunch of other student filmmakers,” Rymer said. “I’m really proud of it, but now other people see the merit in it as well.”

The festival also coincides with Silent Movie Month in Ithaca, a yearly celebration. When Diana Riesman, executive director and co-founder of the Wharton Studio Museum, first moved to Ithaca and found out about its silent film history, she wanted to bring that unique story to life.

“Silent Movie Month is a nice way to devote the month of October to try and engage young people who don’t typically go to the movie theater anymore and certainly aren’t the main audience for silent film,” Riesman said. “I think live music is a good way to engage them.”

As part of Silent Movie Month, Wharton Studio Museum is co-producing a historic theaters walking tour with local preservation organization Historic Ithaca and co-sponsoring Cornell Cinema’s screening with live music of the silent horror classic, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

For Riesman, the work of the Wharton Studio Museum and Silent Movie Month helps tell Ithaca’s unique story while preserving the overall memory of that time in film history.

“If people don’t take care of [local historic locations] or promote them, they disappear or they’re taken down and that’s it,” Riesman said. “They can never be reclaimed. It’s about film and historic preservation and putting this region on the map where early movie-making happened.”

Down the road, Hallam and Clausen share long-term goals of growing Silent City Film Festival into a larger festival that brings the whole city together.

“Our goal is to turn this into something that spreads throughout Ithaca, if not the whole Finger Lakes Region over time, turning it into a major cultural magnet,” Hallam said.

For Hallam, another crucial aspect of film festivals that showcase independent work, like Silent City Film Festival, is that it’s the only place where people get to see films that are made because they had to be made.

“People making money or a living at their art is what they hope happens, but it’s not why they do it,” Hallam said. “When you go to a film festival, you get to see work made by people who had a burning passion to create this work. There’s just nothing else like it.”