Patrick Shen has built an impressive career in film through the overt exploration of elemental themes, like the fear of death (2003’s Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality), or the search for wisdom (2009’s The Philosopher Kings). With the 2015 documentary In Pursuit of Silence, Shen has embarked on perhaps his most fundamental cinematic inquiry to date.
Drawing frequent and favorable comparisons to the wordless 1982 cult classic Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, In Pursuit of Silence employs a mix of powerful imagery and sparse, but cogent commentary in exploring silence as a concept, as an entity, as an under-valued but vital resource.
“In a way, I think I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of silence, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate what I was drawn to,” says Shen. “Silence represents what’s mysterious and unspoken about the world. I wanted to explore not just the physical, but also the metaphysical aspects of silence.”
The silence in Shen’s film isn’t so much an absence of sound as an absence of words, and of noise. Sound still permeates the film, albeit subtly, whether it be the rustle of wind in trees or the distant cawing of birds, or the soft strains of composer Alex Lu’s ruminative soundtrack.
Shen says his intent was to find and convey meaning primarily through image and motion, rather than words, in an environment free from the distractions of manmade aural clutter. “One thing about communicating in an unspoken way is that it speaks to all of us,” Shen says. “There’s a part inside all of us that words can’t touch, nor should we try to articulate that part of ourselves using words.”
Growing up in Southern California, Shen said he fell into filmmaking “by accident.” A musician who played in a handful of rock bands in his late teens and early 20s, Shen took a video production class so he could learn how to make his own music videos. “Suddenly, I felt like I had found my voice as a human and as an artist,” he says of his first production experience. “It felt like the piece of the puzzle I had been missing in trying to find that voice.
“I think what has motivated me as a filmmaker has been the notion of asking the questions I’ve been asking myself on an existential level. The films are a reflection of my own journey and those specific chapters of my life.”
Shen says In Pursuit of Silence was informed by the work of several other writers, filmmakers and artists. The writings of John Cage were pivotal, as was his seminal silent composition, 4’33”. Authors such as Helen Lees, Pico Iyer, and George Prochnik — all of whom have written books on the subject of silence — offer commentary throughout the film.
The film also features a protagonist, of a sort, in the person of college-student-turned-pilgrim Greg Hindy, who is visited throughout the course of a cross-country hike in the wake of his graduation.
Shen tells that for Hindy, “something about the typical trajectory of a recent grad didn’t work… He had aspirations toward exploring performance art, and he felt he needed to do something drastic on that level to explore that portion of his being.”
“Something drastic” turned out to be taking a year-long of silence, and setting off on the aforementioned trek, from New Hampshire to L.A. without a cell phone. Shen says he located Hindy by contacting his father, who was tracking his cross-country movements through his bank card receipts.
“He did all of his communicating with us by writing notes,” Shen says. “And he explained, very beautifully, in one of his notes that silence is something that shouldn’t be explained, but explored. He didn’t feel good about trying to articulate it.”
In the final analysis, Shen says he hopes In Pursuit of Silence will provide “an invitation (for audiences) to explore silence. We hope it raises more questions than it answers.
“I hope people will re-emerge from the film and see the world in a different way. Because silence is a way to peel back all the layers, the character armor that we all have, and experience the world in a more real and authentic way.”
In Pursuit of Silence will screen Thursday, April 28 at 7 p.m. at Regal Cinemas Downtown West.