In Pursuit of Silence is a feature-length documentary from Patrick Shen that addresses a very necessary topic. It is by no means a piece frustrated at the lack of silence in a modern world full of noise – there is appreciation for the wind rustling through trees, birdsong and even sounds of the city. Rather, it is a meditation on the ways in which different people seek and experience silence, from religious and ceremonial causes to better learning environments in an inner-city school, and how it can benefit us in a wider sense.
An American who has taken a vow of silence, Zen Buddhist monks, a conductor of tea ceremonies, a sound technician for a national park; the subjects of this film are not truly silent, but wish to put themselves in environments quiet enough to simply listen. What this does is open up an interior state of watching, be this meditation, calm or even the appropriate state to see the world around us for what it really is. Even instances that would be regarded as ‘silent’ are not – John Cage’s 4’33, a musical piece with not one note played, has the sound of the audience occasionally coughing, and the anechoic chamber at -13db has the sound of your central nervous system and blood flowing through you. Shen’s film tells us that pursuing silence is really a pursuit of awareness, and we seek it to open ourselves up to a sense often over-stimulated in a world full of loud transport and busy cities. It was a shame, then, that at the end of the screening I attended, almost everybody in the audience left without taking even a moment to enjoy what the entire film was analysing, dissecting and appreciating: the few minutes of total silence, as the credits rolled.
The visual representation of silence in Patrick Shen’s film is of sounds and their source. Its editing in particular was wonderful as it placed the audience in the appropriate meditative state to understand and gain awareness for why silence is no longer a commodity in the modern world around us. The shots that come to mind are those that lingered – though I felt were more infrequent than I would have liked – such as that of a lone tree in a field in Iowa, which both opened and closed the film. Shen allows you to watch for so long that you begin to feel as though you could match each individual rustle to their leaf. Your mind drifts from its awareness of watching a film to a more organic experiencing of the scene itself, and being in a darkened and quiet room. Its effect on me was akin to that of when I watched four 16mm films by avant-garde filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky a few years ago at the BFI Southbank cinema. The four films, Summer (2013), February (2014), Avraham (2014) and December (2015), celebrated ‘the silence of visual experience and poetic realism’, silent and delicately projected at ‘the sacred speed’ of 18 frames per second. Long takes of flowers gently breathing in the dark, nature seen through a pane of glass, close-up studies of people; all of these, in silence, begin to take on the devotional quality that he words beautifully in his book Devotional Cinema. There were glimpses of this quality in the longer takes of In Pursuit of Silence. It delighted me, then, to see Dorsky’s name appear in the credits as editing consultant.
In Pursuit of Silence is interesting in this sense, as it follow a documentary format yet also has many qualities of meditative films such as those of the Avant-garde and Italian Neo-realism. I did feel, however, that there could have been more of this experimentation – I would have appreciated more opportunities for the audience to understand what the interviewees were analysing and explaining by being given more longer takes to simply watch in ‘silence’. Nevertheless, Shen’s film is able to convey beautifully – both through explanation and exemplification – that silence is not ‘without sound’ but is a removal of the dissonance, and its universal benefit is to allow for experience and awareness.
IN PURSUIT OF SILENCE is in UK cinemas from 21st October.