In modern urban life, silence is hard to come by. Wherever you are reading this, just close your eyes and listen–even when life is at its quietest, we nearly never escape the sounds of air conditioning, traffic, and aircraft. In Patrick Shen's documentary, In Pursuit of Silence, he takes the opportunity to explore our relationship to silence and how noise shapes our mood, relationships, and health.
The film takes an interesting kind of Cinéma vérité approach, gliding from subject to subject without a narrator or clear narrative direction. Rather, it begins with quiet scenes of natural settings and introduces us to a man who has taken a vow of silence and is walking across America. Gradually we meet authors, scientists, naturalists, and psychologists who study noise and silence who give their thoughts while the film continues to travel to different isolated environments to measure their relative decibel levels. Over time, the film finds its purpose in the very real problem of noise pollution, and illustrates the health issues that it is causing.
In Pursuit of Silence is the kind of documentary I love; while it clearly has an agenda and a point to make, it does so through exploration, not preaching. In fact, it almost seems as if the anti-noise pollution agenda is only found about halfway through the film, which really embodies the spirit of documentary itself as an exploratory act rather than an essay.
It helps that the film is extremely well crafted. It is shot beautifully in remote locales all over the world, from lush Japanese forests to frozen Alaskan lakes. This is contrasted well with the cacophony of urban living that is portrayed through sharp editing. The film takes the time to linger on shots to allow the viewer to really take in the sounds and environment. It is to Shen's credit (he also edits the film) that despite this meditative slowness that permeates the film, it never drags.
In a film about the lack of sound itself, the sound design must be noted and applauded as well. How does one capture the concept of silence and quiet with sound? Steve Bissinger does a phenomenal job doing so by using carefully crafted soundscapes of these extraordinarily quiet environments, creating a peaceful yet dense soundtrack. In much of the film, the visuals are truly the background, with his sound work the real focus, and in quiet we are able to dive into the sound and search for the smallest hints of wind, leaves rustling, and birds chirping with our ears. It is a wonderfully rich representation of the human experience of quietude, and a real achievement in the world of sound.
In Pursuit of Silence will, for many, be a revelation. It is a film that seeks refuge from our noisy lives, and points out the real dangers that it can cause–the World Health Organization, the film notes, ranks noise pollution second only to air pollution as one of the most critical health issues in the world. While Shen gathers numerous perspectives from many doctrines, the film never becomes too wordy or philosophically complex to grasp. It feels, in many ways, like a successor to Koyaanisqatsi, but doesn't pander to the same art-house crowd.
This film is essential viewing for those in need of a little less noise in their lives, a little less stress and a little more beauty, and Patrick Shen and company are documentarians to keep a close eye on.
Read more about In Pursuit of Silence on the film's website, and look out for screenings near you. Upcoming festival showings include the Cleveland International Film Festival, the San Francisco Green Film Festival, and the Dallas International Film Festival.