How to silence the cinema

How do you silence a film audience? That, in a nutshell, is the premise for the film programme Say No More. Unsurprisingly, programmer Edwin Carels’ inspiration came in a screening room.

“I was attending a screening of Video Home System, a medium-length documentary in which the filmmaker Guusje America follows her father around the house. At the start of the screening the crowd was a bit boisterous, but suddenly a hush descended when they started to realise what this movie was actually about.” (Hint: it’s not about a woman watching her father doing chores).

This collective silence in which an entire audience sits quietly, attentively, is something that is very peculiar to cinema, says Carels. And it’s something we don’t do enough of in our daily lives. “We’re all so busy talking, while we should be taking the time to listen. It’s a peculiar quality of the cinema experience that I really wanted to explore. What is silence? How do you manufacture silence?”

Ways of creating silence

Video Home System highlights one way of creating silence: the audience can be silenced by the film’s subject matter. There’s also a more straightforward approach i.e. picking movies with little to no dialogue. “I’ve tried to take the speech out of the equation. The less on-screen talking, the more attentive the audience has to be.”

The most literal example is one of the two exhibits by Mika Taanila (which you can visit for free during the festival) called My Silence (On Paper) in which Taanila has excised all dialogue from the script of My Dinner with André(1981) by Louis Malle. But it’s also omnipresent in the four feature films of the programme. The lead of In My Room, an incompetent cameraman with a conspicuous preoccupation with dental hygiene, has little use for small talk after an undefined apocalyptic event has wiped out the rest of the human race.

Walden and The Harvest don’t need much verbal commentary either. The first follows the final voyage of a pile of Austrian timber to the Brazilian rainforest. The latter shows us the changing landscape of Kakheti, a Georgian region known for its wine, its meats and its flourishing bitcoin industry. The two composers in La lucarne des rêves (The Window of Dreams) turn familiar, everyday sounds into mesmerising, otherworldly music.

Silence in film and setting

The most far-reaching experiments with sound and silence can be found in the four short film compilations. Each compilation has its own theme. In Say: no more domestic silence – which also includes Video Home System – homes become echo chambers that reveal the innermost thoughts of their inhabitants. In Say: no more darkness we find ourselves, like the woman in Blue (by Apichatpong Weerasethakul), in a state of semi-consciousness, somewhere between dreaming and waking, somewhere between past, present and future. Say: no more straight lines is a study in contrasts between images and sound (Touching Sound), between light and dark (Edges: Waves), between control and chaos (JThe Modernist). Say: no more distance is about finding wordless connections, be it between a plant and a computer (The Mirrored Message) or between a severely autistic boy and the rest of the world (Kev).

But with each of these compilations it’s not just the films themselves, but the whole setting that will be precisely calibrated for the right, hushed, atmosphere. Instead of an introductory talk, each screening will be preceded by music played by students from Codarts Rotterdam. Carels: “Their challenge: how to silence a room using as little sound as possible”. Even the post-screening talks will be quieter than usual. “We won’t be using microphones, so the audience will have to pay close attention.”

Photo in header: Still: Works on Paper