The Sights of Silence

By Emily Snyder '21, August 25, 2020
Fiona Okumu ’21 grows her silent film festival at Ithaca College.

The silent film industry has deep roots in the City of Ithaca. The Wharton Studio Museum at Stewart Park preserves the legacies of brothers Theodore and Leopold Wharton, whose work in the early 1900s made a lasting impact on the entertainment industry.

This cinematic history inspired Fiona Okumu ’21 to carry on that legacy in 2016. That’s when, as a senior at Ithaca High School, the writing for film, television and emerging media major founded the “Silents Roar!” Film Festival for Youth in the Southern Tier.

Okumu approached the museum with the idea to showcase short silent films created by young filmmakers in the style of the Wharton Brothers. Diana Riesman, the museum’s executive director, loved the idea and helped Okumu organize the premiere.

“I was driven to be innovative just like the Wharton Brothers were a century ago,” Okumu said. “They utilized their constraints to create films that are still amazing to watch a century later.”

Since coming to Ithaca College, Okumu has utilized the resources of the Roy H. Park School of Communications to enhance the festival. In 2019, Okumu worked with former dean Diane Gayeski ’73 to make the school the presenting sponsor for the festival, a partnership which has not only provided funds for prizes and promotion, but allowed the festival to take place in Park Auditorium on campus. 

“‘Silents Roar!’ is not only a wonderful project for a student like Fiona to expand her experiential learning, but it’s a great recruiting tool for the Park School since it provides a platform for regional high school students to learn more about our film and television curricula,” Gayeski said.

This year, the Coronavirus pandemic forced this year’s festival to be streamed online. But the festival was still a success. Following the screenings of the films, a jury composed of Ithaca College film professors and other media professionals awarded Spencer Strickland and Colin Rauch 1st place for their film “The Boogeyman.”  

And although the festival went virtual this year, Okumu believes that unique challenge presented an opportunity to expand its reach even further in the years to come.

“I want to inspire teens to see filmmaking as a potential career and give them the resources to continue on their filmmaking journey.”

Fiona Okumu ’21

“One of the main tenets of the festival is accessibility,” she said. “I think it would be great to continue to livestream the festival so students who are unable to make it to Ithaca College for the screening and awards ceremony can still watch their films,” she said.

Okumu plans to pass down her role as managing director to an Ithaca High School student when she graduates this spring. But for now, she’s focused on ensuring that the next generation of aspiring filmmakers have opportunities to explore the field.

“I want to inspire teens to see filmmaking as a potential career and give them the resources to continue on their filmmaking journey,” she said.