Scene from All's Fair in Love and War by Miles Howell

The Power of Music and Image: The International Youth Silent Film Festival

by Dan Cross


Every film fan and history buff in the Metro East should already appreciate how fortunate we are to have not only an actual, operating drive-in movie theater (the Skyview, one of fewer than 400 drive-ins left in America) but also one of the last remaining theater organs at the historic Lincoln Theater.  Now, that giant, wonderful pipe organ, which can be heard between movies every weekend evening, has given us something else to be thankful for here in the Metro East.  It helped Belleville attract a fantastic film event that will take place on April 11: the International Youth Silent Film Festival.


Founded by Jon Palanuk in Portland, Oregon six years ago, the festival challenges young filmmakers (only those under age 21 can compete) to make a three-minute silent film in one of seven different genres (romance, comedy, science fiction, etc.).  Completed films are sent to a panel of judges (which has included filmmakers Gus van Sant and Tom de Santo and novelist Chuck Palahniuk).  The winning entries then screen with live musical accompaniment.  The festival has expanded to four locations in two continents (the US and Australia) and is still growing.


The event at the Lincoln will feature the best films from the Midwest region, which spans eight states.   Accompanying the films on the Lincoln’s mighty pipe organ will be Nathan Avakian, who, at age 17, won the National Young Organist Competition held by the American Theater Organ Society.  Avakian also composed the seven musical themes that will make up the soundtrack of the films.


“That is one of the surprise gifts the festival gives to audiences: the thrill of seeing an organist performing live along with the movies,” says festival founder Palanuk.


Palanuk started the festival after seeing Avakian perform a live film score in Portland.  “I was so moved by the experience, I kept thinking that I would like to help bring silent films with live music to new audiences, especially young people.”


The idea took off.  “We have received many more submissions than we expected,” Palanuk explained.   “The technology required to make movies is getting cheaper and more available all the time.  We get some hi-def submissions, but we also get some very grainy, cell phone movies, but the format of silent movies often makes grainy images work incredibly well.”

Scene from Agression by Maeve and Fiona Donley

The positive effect the festival has on the young filmmakers who participate is significant.  Palanuk explains, “One of my favorite things about the festival is the amazing transformation you see in these young filmmakers; many are shy and introverted at the beginning of the night, but we invite all the filmmakers up on stage, and by the end of the screening, their chests are up in the air, you can see the capes waving behind them; it is magic!”


Two of the young people who experienced the thrill of seeing their film screen in the festival are Maeve and Fiona Donley, who, at age 16 and 14 respectively, made a film called “Aggression” which won First Place in the Midwest Region in 2013.

Scene from All's Fair in Love and War by Miles Howell 2

“It was AMAZING to see Aggression on the big screen!” Fiona explained.  “It took many hours of intense work, but that’s all worth it to screen your movie in front of a live audience!”


The Donleys’ award-winning film is a very clever and funny thriller about a girl who suddenly finds household objects coming to life and turning against her.  The film includes sequences with brilliantly executed stop-motion animation, amazing when you consider the age of the filmmakers.


“We learned how to make movies simply by trial and error,” says Fiona.  “If we did something and it worked, we continued to do it. We actually began with stop motion animation, which is part of the reason why we put some into “Aggression”.”


Fiona’s entry to this year’s festival, which Palanuk describes as absolutely brilliant, is a sci-fi story about a rover’s adventures on Mars, done completely in 3D animation.  “The IYSFF has been an amazing opportunity for me,” Fiona says.  “I believe that it has set me on a more serious path of filmmaking than before.”


Another young Midwestern filmmaker who has excelled in the festival is Miles Howell, who made his winning movie “All’s Fair in Love and War” when he was 15.


“Most of what I know about making movies comes from experience.  The only way you can really get good at filmmaking is by actually making a film and discovering what you can do better next time.”


Howell is not only surprisingly talented for his age, but also incredibly articulate about the benefits this festival provides to young people:


“I think that this festival is a perfect opportunity for anyone who wants to be a filmmaker. It’s sort of like a test-run to gauge how well an audience receives your message, or to see how your cinematography looks in a theater as opposed to a computer screen. Plus, the feedback you get from the judges and audience members is a really beneficial tool that you can use to hone your storytelling capabilities. Another cool thing about this particular festival is that the films must be silent, which allows the participants to tell their stories purely through images. You have to find a more creative way to express an idea rather than just having a character say it outright.”

Scene from Agression by Maeve and Fiona Donley 2

If all this is not enough to convince you how cool this event is, and how lucky we are to be hosting it in Belleville, let me add a few more things:


1) The emphasis on live musical accompaniment has led the festival to form a partnership with the American Theater Organ Society to help preserve and restore historic theaters with organs.


2) The festival also collaborates with educators to create curricula that high school teachers can use to help students learn filmmaking.  “We often work with teachers with no film experience,” says Palanuk, “teachers in other areas, like English or history who want to use filmmaking as a learning tool for their students.”


3) Filmmakers enter the contest for free.  “We are not interested in making money,” Palanuk explains.  “Our goal is creating confidence in our young people, to give them an opportunity to have adults applaud what they do; we don’t want any economic barriers getting in the way of that.”   How cool is that?


4) Last but not least, tickets to the festival are FREE for students (including college students) with a valid school ID.  How cool is that????


Visit for more information, to reserve tickets, and to watch some of the winning films from previous years.  There is only one showing of these films, at 1:00 on Saturday, April 11, so don’t miss it!


Come out and celebrate our community’s beautiful, historic theater, the talent and hard work of America’s next generation of filmmakers, and the glorious history of cinema, an age when stories were told solely through the power of music and images.


What:  The International Youth Silent Film Festival


Where: The Lincoln Theater, 103 East Main Street, Belleville IL


When: Saturday, April 11th at 1pm