News & Reviews
Sierra Magazine Review: IN PURSUIT OF SILENCE
A new documentary argues that noise pollution is reaching a fever pitch
BY KATIE O'REILLY | APR 18 2017
NATIONAL PARKS PRESERVE MORE THAN wildlife and epic views—they also protect natural soundscapes. Birdcalls, wind, and running water echo the patterns of a landscape. Introduce the manmade din of motors and machines, and our relationship to the natural world is altered.
Davyd Betchkal, a Denali National Park–based soundscape technician who inventories ecosystems' noises, says silence protects humans' relationship with nature. Partway through In Pursuit of Silence, Betchkal explains, "In a really still environment, you've got this situation where . . . you can detect these very minute sounds . . . and it gives you this incredible sense of space." This capaciousness allows humans to enjoy landscapes as our primitive forebears did—with subconscious assurance that we'll detect small sounds from far off.
We're built to register unwanted noises as intrusions. In Pursuit of Silence makes a powerful case that industrial society's constant traffic, its chatter, its incessant social media pings, are reaching a fever pitch—one damaging to our physical, mental, and emotional health. In a cacophonous world, we're losing our capacity for deep listening, and with it, our sensory connection to the natural world.
The World Health Organization describes noise pollution as an environmental health burden "second only to air pollution." European Union data shows that 40 percent of the EU's population is exposed to unhealthy noise levels. As the world becomes louder, the film posits, we don't get used to the racket. Humans might cope, but our evolutionary biology hasn't kept pace with technological innovation; the constant noise leaves us physically and existentially unmoored.
Taking viewers into soundless audio-testing chambers, clamorous subway stations, and Japanese woodlands, In Pursuit of Silence artfully examines the many facets of quiet and our ever-widening sonic footprint. Filmmakers interview theorists, environmentalists, and one scraggly recent college graduate observing a yearlong vow of silence while walking across the continental United States—a lofty attempt to escape noise, so as to better hone his powers of introspection, he says.
This real-world Forrest Gump argues (via notepad) that silence should be "explored, not explained." In that same spirit, the film examines the role of silence in religious meditation, and its effect on our decision-making and learning capabilities. We also get a look at the budding "quiet movement," illustrated by the advent of no-loud-talking bars and the explosion of noise-abatement technology.
In the age of Trump, noise pollution probably isn't the most pressing environmental concern. But the film tackles the issue's inherent preciousness by pointing out the social injustice of chronic overexposure to noise. Low-income children, for example, attend louder schools. Patients are misdiagnosed more often in dangerously noisy hospitals. Silence is at risk of becoming a rich person's plaything.
The film's sources pause often and speak softly, treating silence as a valuable commodity. The cinematography is stunning yet calming. Despite some indulgent flourishes—sweeping nature panoramas, plaintive sounds of gongs and crickets, and a worshipful depiction of shamanic practices—the film quietly makes the case that society would be better off if we each pursued silence, even if just for a few minutes every day. As Pico Iyer, author of The Art of Stillness, states, "The pursuit of silence is about stepping further toward, not away from, the world."
By recultivating the silence our ancestors enjoyed, the film suggests, perhaps we'll hear something deeper than our own chatter. We could even develop the ability to speak something deeper, beyond our own words.
Go behind the scenes with In Pursuit of Silence director Patrick Shen and producer/co-cinematographer Brandon Vedder: sc.org/silence.
This article appeared in the May/June 2017 edition with the headline "Code of Silence."