Festival films get new view through poets

Like many events of its kind, the Silent River Film Festival will offer a climactic night in which speakers take the stage and wax poetic about the movies the audience has witnessed over the past few days.

In this case, though, the speakers will not be award recipients. They’ll be actual poets.

The Irvine-based festival, entering its fourth year, plans to add a literary component to its program when the screenings begin Oct. 17. Director Kalpna Singh-Chitnis is a published poet and founder of an online literary magazine, and she’s seeking kindred spirits to attend any number of the festival’s 50 films — and then write poems about them, with a reading scheduled during the event’s second-to-last evening.

The late Roger Ebert once called movies “the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts,” and that’s what Singh-Chitnis hopes to hear when the poets take the stage. As part of the guidelines, she’ll give them the option of writing from the viewpoints of the films’ characters. With items on the program dealing with war, women’s rights and homophobia, there may be some raw emotions shared.

“If we write a poem on Gaza or Iraq or something, how did we even relate to that?” Singh-Chitnis said. “We are not there. Film is such an effective medium to give that experience one-on-one that we don’t have to be physically there.”

It’s not the first time Singh-Chitnis has tied Walt Whitman’s medium into her festival; the event got its name from the title of one of her poems. She’s already lined up a handful of writers for Silent River this year, and she may join the ranks herself if no others sign up.

In the meantime, she’s urged other poets to contact her if they’re interested. Those who volunteer by Oct. 10 will get free passes to screenings and may be interviewed on camera throughout the festival. If only a handful of takers emerge, Singh-Chitnis will invite all of them to read on awards night; in case of a surplus, she’ll have a judging committee determine three finalists and have the others read at a workshop after the festival. (Singh-Chitnis’ magazine, Life and Legends may publish their work as well.)

Those eager scribes could mean something else for Silent River: media attention. The festival, held mostly at the Edwards Westpark 8 and Irvine Civic Center, has drawn a decent turnout in the past, but it’s struggled to stay afloat with minimal sponsorship. Sony and Regal Entertainment Group are the only listed backers so far this year.

“We have knocked on every single door for sponsorship,” Singh-Chitnis said. “People choose to sponsor other festivals with more influential people in [them] rather than a humble community of writers and poets running a festival.”

Still, this year, Silent River has another influential ally — even if he’s a ways outside of Irvine.

Greg Laemmle, the president of Laemmle Theaters, will host the final night of this year’s festival at the Music Hall cinema in Beverly Hills on Oct. 20. Singh-Chitnis approached Laemmle about a partnership, and Laemmle, whose theaters provide venues for about two dozen festivals each year, was happy to oblige.

In particular, Laemmle supports Silent River’s effort to bring other cultures to Southern California screens. The other festivals backed by his chain spotlight films from Poland, Hungary, Israel, Iran and elsewhere.

“There are a number of these specialized festivals, and they do a terrific job of bringing greater attention to certain segments of the international film scene,” Laemmle said.

Cyprus, for example. Friday night, two weeks before the main event opens, Singh-Chitnis will host a launch party at the Irvine Civic Center, featuring food, live entertainment and announcements of award nominations. The night’s main attraction will be a screening of the romantic comedy “Committed,” which hails from the small Mediterranean nation.

The regular festival, as in the past, will emphasize films from the Eastern and Western hemispheres, with many of them stressing sociopolitical issues. The documentary “Alex and Ali” tells the story of a romance between two men in 1970s Iran, while “Femme,” executive-produced by actress Sharon Stone, interviews 100 women around the world.

The Music Hall night will offer a double feature of the Australian crime thriller “The Reckoning” and the American comedy “Odd Brodsky,” which was shot in part at the Beverly Hills theater. If the final night proves successful this year, Singh-Chitnis may program future festivals almost entirely in Beverly Hills, with only opening night reserved for Irvine.

Even still, that one night in her hometown will be important to her — if only to honor the festival’s local roots.

“By nature, I’m a fighter,” Singh-Chitnis said. “I don’t like quitting. And I don’t want to leave.”

If You Go

What: Silent River Film Festival launch party

Where: Irvine Civic Center, 1 Civic Center Plaza Drive, Irvine

When: 6 to 9:30 p.m. Friday

Cost: Free, but $10 donation requested

Information: (949) 394-5148 or