Doyenne of the Bay Area film scene, Gail Silva has spent decades championing films and building up the Bay Area filmmaking community. (Pictured: Silva with Bay Area independent filmmaker James T. Hong at the 2006 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.)

Essential SF: Gail Silva

Michael Fox November 3, 2010

It would be a simple matter to collect testimonies to Gail Silva’s extraordinary impact and influence on the Bay Area film community—and beyond—from the countless artists and novices she has counseled, coached, prodded and pushed in the last 30-plus years and counting. But an extensive public appreciation already exists, you see, in the hundreds and hundreds of films, long and short, that prominently acknowledged her contribution in the end credits. The longtime executive director of Film Arts Foundation (of blessed memory) and creative and strategic consultant for a host of individual clients, Silva is deservedly included in the inaugural class of Essential SF honorees.

[Editor's note: Silva is honored along with other vital Bay Area film luminaries and institutions in SF360 Presents Essential SF November 8 at the Lab. More at]

It is her nature, however, to sidestep compliments and turn the spotlight on the filmmakers she so deeply admires and adores. But make no mistake, Silva has never been a shoulder-patter, or a cheerleader voicing platitudes, or a first-grade teacher comforting those lacking in dedication or talent rather than suggesting they try a different art form or line of work. She is flinty, blunt, coldly critical. But when she encounters crisp, quality filmmaking, or is touched by gutsy personal revelation, she’s as excited and proud as if she’d made the piece herself. And she’ll tell everyone she sees or speaks to about it.

Silva was born in San Rafael and grew up in rural southern Sonoma County when it was a good deal more remote and removed than it is today. “Because I lived so far out,” she recalled recently, “I never went to films as a kid.” OK, she saw a few Hollywood movies in Novato and at the old Rafael, but it wasn’t until she moved to San Francisco in 1965 and discovered the Art in Cinema experimental film series at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (in its now-forgotten Civic Center location) that she fell in love with the poetry and power of the moving image.

Silva met a film student, Tim Blaskovich, who became a filmmaker and her partner, and she devoured his books as he pursued a succession of film degrees. All the while, she was working in an unrelated industry. Until, that is, the day in 1979 when she joined the staff of a 3-year-old collective of Bay Area film and videomakers. Silva came aboard as co-director of Film Arts Foundation, eventually headed it, and quickly built the nonprofit organization into the largest regional independent media-service entity in the United States. At its peak, Film Arts boasted 3,200 members.

“I don’t want to take credit for any of this,” Silva declares. “The credit’s not mine. Julie [Mackaman, the beloved co-director and development director who joined Film Arts in 1983] and I, neither one of us had a background in film. I got the job [in 1979] because they couldn’t pay anyone. I had been in for-profit publishing for nine years by then, and I was ready to do something else. And I could balance a checkbook. That’s what they needed. I’m not kidding about that.”

And that bit about Film Arts not being able to pay a salary? “[Co-director] Chris Dorr and I could get paid when we raised the money to get paid,” Silva explains. “That was the deal. I think it was 10 months before we raised our first substantial grant, and then we started getting paid.”

It’s a useful reminder that filmmakers weren’t on the radar of foundations, municipalities and the like in those early days of the American independent film movement. There was Hollywood, PBS, and a largely uncharted and undeveloped netherworld consisting of those seeking to make documentaries, shorts and narratives outside either system. The idea of procuring grants for individual filmmakers wasn’t even a glimmer, however, when Silva joined Film Arts. The priority was basic management skills.

“They needed an organizer,” Silva remembers. “I had, since moving to the city, continued to see films all the time. I loved movies. Certainly on the surface, the business part was an entrée point and also a way I could help filmmakers. My background was business, so I was good at thinking strategically. And sometimes thinking strategically has to do with how to present and how to create a story, first on paper and then on screen, that is compelling and has a way to speak to larger issues and audiences.”

Silva is describing her meetings with filmmakers to clarify and guide how they thought about and shaped their projects. For many Film Arts members, these consultations were the most valuable benefit the organization offered. That’s not to diminish the countless classes, workshops and panels that provided an entry point for so many would-be artists, or the affordable and well-maintained rental equipment (that had been the original raison d’etre for the nonprofit’s founding), or the bimonthly magazine (one of the first outlets this writer contributed to), or the annual Film Arts Festival, which for years was the primary hometown showcase for local film and videomakers in all genres. All of these activities made Film Arts Foundation the buzzing hub of a vital, productive group of artists. But back in the Proterozoic Era of the early ’80s, local filmmakers were nowhere near as connected.

“The people were there,” Silva says, deflecting the suggestion that she had a special gift for creating community. “All I and Chris, and later Julie, had to do was wrangle them. It wasn’t that much work. You just start having events, make some noise about it and people start showing up.”

Of course, events and screenings and open houses—and classes—were magnets for young people, as well as those considering a change in careers. 

“It used to be said that Film Arts was the supplement and the alternative to film school,” Silva remarks. “That meant that it was a place where you could come and we didn’t ask you what you did in your day job. You could say, ‘I want to make movies,’ and you could take a class and check out equipment and just go do it.”

As the organization solidified and membership grew, Silva developed plans to meet other filmmaker needs. She had never forgotten the struggles of Tim Blaskovich and his peers to raise money to make their films. Her proudest accomplishment, arguably, was creating the Fund for Independent Cinema in 1983. Film Arts had sufficient credibility by this point that Silva could approach funders like the Hewlett Foundation with a proposal that the organization serve as a conduit for funneling money to filmmakers. FAF set up an application, jury and monitoring process, and obtained and routed hundreds of thousands of dollars that hadn’t previously been available to media artists.

“We attracted entities that didn’t want to fund individual films, but gave the money to us to re-grant,” Silva says. “We were trying to be advocates. We were trying to say, ‘They won’t all run away to a Caribbean island with the money. They’re going to complete the work.’ And we funded people for the first time—Lynn Hershman, Jay Rosenblatt. The first film that [fellow Essentials SF honoree, the late] Marlon Riggs did that wasn’t an educational documentary, Tongues Untied, we funded.”

For her part, Silva developed a national reputation as an eagle-eyed judge of local talent. She has long championed Bay Area films, especially documentaries and experimental shorts, to the programmers of the Sundance Film Festival, as well as Berlin, Toronto and countless smaller festivals, She sits on numerous juries, foundation panels and festival screening committees, ever-excited to tout the next must-see film or diamond-in-the-rough filmmaker. But her not-so-secret passion, it must be said, is Bay Area filmmakers.

“This has always been a place of artists,” Silva says. “This is the end of the country, you can’t go any further, so all kinds of interesting people shuffled into this place where you were free to say what you thought or do what you wanted to do.”

And Silva’s paramount contribution was a singular ability to guide those people as they pursued their vision, in the face of daunting constraints and inevitable crises of self-confidence.

“My thing is I would have loved to be a creator, but I didn’t come with those genes,” Silva says, with a self-deprecating chuckle. “But I had a certain amount of, maybe, intuitive insight to ‘translate’ what people were trying to say cinematically. Therefore, I became sort of a listening post. Film Arts was a place you could go and talk about what you were trying to do and get responses. I did a little bit of coaching and a little bit of therapy. I was a good listener, and sometimes when a movie is in someone’s head it’s difficult to find a way to describe it in words to someone else. It was a place you could bounce stuff off, and I could perhaps re-characterize it and bounce it back in a way that was strategically beneficial in efforts to find money, to market a new work, to find multiple audience possibilities. I helped them construct their pitch, whether it was written or in person.”

One of the fascinating aspects of baseball is that the greatest managers in the game’s history were average-to-poor players. As a lifelong baseball fan and steadfast Giants backer, Silva knows that. The enormous body of work produced on her watch and with her input and guidance stands as her remarkable legacy. Of course, there’s no way to measure the number of viewers who were, in turn, educated and touched and inspired by those films. It would be only slightly more feasible to tote up the filmmakers who had successful careers, and achieved creative satisfaction, thanks to Silva’s wisdom and friendship. She can try to evade the kudos and downplay her talents, but Silva’s contribution to Bay Area film is nothing short of profound.

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