With In Pursuit of Silence director Patrick Shen has tasked himself with exploring our ever changing relationship with silence. A difficult task for any filmmaker and one that could have easily seen the project get lost in an attempt to cover too much or too little theoretical ground. I am however delighted to say that Shen has managed to create a well-balanced and thought provoking documentary with something to say, or perhaps, whisper.
The film opens with a stunning shot of an isolated tree in the middle of an Iowa cornfield. The shot lingers for enough time for one to appreciate every inch of the image. As lush as this image was what I was drawn more strongly to was the composition of sound and this was to happen time and time again. The opening montage is an audio/visual soundscape that covers areas as diverse as Japan, Belgium, Taiwan and India. Each shot, while visually very pleasurable seems always subordinate to the sound. While watching one feels the influence John Cage’s infamous silent composition 4’33’. This is no coincidence as Shen returns to Cage time and again throughout the documentary though archival footage of performances and interviews regarding the nature of silence. What could have been a forced attempt to re-tread the ground covered by Cage over half a century ago becomes a genuinely affecting use of silence. The filmmakers spent one minute of silence with every interviewee before beginning an interview and one feels the director doing the same to the audience throughout.
With such an abundance of silence, while watching the film I felt myself falling into a meditative state. In a truly globetrotting journey Shen and his team interview an international cast of soft spoken eccentrics. From the manager of a Kyoto Tea House to a belligerent New York school girl. With such varied opinions I never found myself wishing there was someone more interesting to listen to. And after seeing such an array of characters all of whom are concerned with our ever strained relationship silence I came away with the revelation that silence is its own language.
With that being said I will admit that my reading may be somewhat biased due to my having recently moved to London. I was struck by how my own relationship to silence has dramatically changed as I watched Shen monitor the decibel levels of a moving tube and a busy restaurant. The latter of which threw up one of the more interesting bits of trivia that technically people should be wearing earplugs to dinner in New York City, such is the level of noise pollution even indoors! This brings me onto one of the other aspects of In Pursuit of Silence, that while it may be soothing and meditative it also works as a kind of ‘doomsday documentary’. As experts and academics from around the world lamented our aversion to peace and quiet I couldn’t help but recall the alarmist tone of films like An Inconvenient Truth. As I walked out of the cinema and descended into Tottenham Court Road tube station I began to panic at that thought of what damage I was doing to my poor overstimulated ears. And I’m quaking at the thought of going to another gig.
Following two successful Kickstarter campaigns and over two years of filming in over eight countries Patrick Shen has crafted a film that is part mediation and part manifesto. In their pursuit of silence they may have just struck gold.
Dir: Patrick Shen
Scr: Patrick Shen
Featuring: George Prochnik, Pico Iyer, Helen Lees, Susan Cain
Prd: Patrick Shen, Andrew Brumme, Brandon Vedder
DOP: Patrick Shen, Brandon Vedder
Music: Alex Lu
Runtime: 81 mins
In Pursuit of Silence is out in cinemas 21st October