Patrick Shen, director of In Pursuit Of Silence, introduces this week’s Discover Tuesdays screening.
The paradox of making a film exploring silence and then choosing to talk about it with audiences, buyers, and financiers in order for it to exist and have a life apart from me is not lost on me. I’ve been navigating this paradox for nearly four years now and it still hasn’t gotten any easier.
Back when my new film In Pursuit Of Silence was but a seed in my mind, many of the tell-tale signs suggesting I continue the pursuit popped up all around me. The rapidly growing stacks of books, the 3-am scribbles in my notepad. Yet the idea of making a film about something as abstract and elusive as silence terrified me. To make matters even more anxiety-inducing, the volumes upon volumes of literature and decades of highly revered works of art devoted to this very subject elevated it to that of something sacred, way beyond the reach of the intellectualising and demystifying that most documentaries are known for.
I considered making a silent film, one resembling perhaps the work of one of my cinematic heroes, Nathaniel Dorsky, whose entire body of work is silent. But that kind of work requires a level of maturity that I knew I hadn’t achieved yet as a filmmaker. A purely conventional documentary also wouldn’t suffice, as I was keenly aware of the paradox of using spoken words to convey silence. Silence, after all, exists in the space between our words and points to a reality beyond them. Wouldn’t any attempt to discuss silence simply shatter the very material I intended to pay homage to?
But then I pondered my own journey with silence. The existential yearnings of adolescence that sparked my journey inward; the listing in the newspaper that led to my visit to a movie theatre one afternoon in 2007 to see Into Great Silence, the beautiful film by Philip Groning; the words of authors and poets like Mary Oliver, Rilke, Rumi, Henry David Thoreau, and Pico Iyer. It dawned on me that my journey with silence had been fuelled, in a way, by an experience of words both spoken and written: words that gave me insight and context within which to explore the spaces in between. Perhaps silence is indeed “both the precondition of speech and the result or aim of properly directed speech”, as Susan Sontag wrote. I began to appreciate the idea that these spaces in between would not exist without the interruptions of sound perforating the silence. And I wondered if we’d even know where to look for silence without those interruptions. What I began to discover was that silence and speech were inextricably tied to one another, and that silence, far from being what we in the West would define as the “absence of sound”, is also inextricably tied to our experience of the world.
The resulting work is not a documentary just about silence but one that also embodies it, through a careful weaving of contemplative moments and respectfully placed “perforations” intended to give it shape and personality. Just as being amidst the world of sound and speech doesn’t negate my experience of silence, cinema also doesn’t necessarily negate the possibility for an audience to experience it.
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