In Pursuit of Silence
In Pursuit of Silence asks us politely to shut up and listen.
Have you seen Mad Max Thunder Road? Noisy, wasn’t it? In Pursuit of Silence is the polar opposite, a quiet film constructed like a BBC4 Horizon documentary on particle physics, but with less drama and no plot.
If you like car chases, don’t go: it’s not that kind of pursuit. This is a gentle exposition on the value of silence in our lives, its mental and physiological benefits. At 81min, it’s like going to an extended mindfulness class, but without being judged by passive-aggressive I’m-more-yoga-than-thou vegans.
The film will take you from the quietest place possible – the Orfield Labs anechoic chamber in Minneapolis – to Mumbai, the noisiest city on Earth. It will introduce you to Trappist and Zen monks, a tea ceremony master, a BMW engineer, and John Cage’s seminal 4’33” composition.
Unsurprisingly, In Pursuit of Silence is not on a wide release schedule. But there are nine screenings in London, including the London premiere on 21 October at the Picturehouse Central on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street.
Now, a vested-interest alert: I’m drawn to the idea of silence. In my early twenties I read books like Morton Kelsey’s The Other Side of Silence, the works of Christian mystics like St John of the Cross, and studies in Zen Buddhism. If anything, given the subject, this film contains a bit too much yakking for my liking. But I also get that it’s a film made to encourage the uninitiated to re-evaluate and appreciate silence.
Silence isn’t the complete absence of sound in the same way that -273.15 deg C is absolute zero temperature. For starters, nature isn’t silent. A stiff breeze will register 45dB on an open hillside even with no birdsong. You are a source of noise yourself. Lie in a sensory deprivation chamber and, even if you’re lucky enough not to suffer the cacophonic whistles and buzzes of tinnitus, the silence will be disturbed by your own drumming heartbeat and rasping breath. Rather, silence is stillness.
This film is anathema to the 21st century. Leave aside the racket we are involuntarily subjected to from noise pollution caused by aircraft, road vehicles and static machinery, we jam headphones in our ears, consume every latest twitch of social media, validate our existence by articulating every fleeting thought and transitory ‘experience’, and sit in meetings competing for domination by spewing a torrent of words.
Silence is about letting go of the distractions; about surrendering the need to wring every second out of consciousness by imposing our own aural environment.
“When there is silence there can be no dominance,” says the tea master.
Silence asks us politely to shut up and listen.