Patrick Shen on Meditative Cinema


This article first appeared online for Quench in 2016. Lumin co-editor Sadia Pineda Hameed interviewed filmmaker Patrick Shen about his documentary In Pursuit of Silence, meditation in film, and the works of avant-garde filmmaker & author of Devotional Cinema Nathaniel Dorsky. 

Sadia Pineda Hameed:  So just to start, could you describe what the documentary [In Pursuit of Silence] is about, and why the subject of pursuing silence interested you in the first place?

Patrick Shen: So the film is about our relation with silence and sound, and the impact of noise. And I guess what initially inspired me to make the film is a more difficult question to answer because I think it goes back to my sort of existential yearnings as a teenager [laughs] and kind of just wanting to know more about the unspoken nature of our existence on the planet; and so I’ve always been drawn towards that thing. It wasn’t until I saw Into Great Silence, which is a beautiful three and half hour meditation on the life on monks – then the seed, I think, was firmly planted. Then I started to see silence as a property on its own, as a thing in itself. And then as I got more and more obsessed with the subject, and came across the writings and the works of John Cage, and then the work of Nathaniel Dorsky [filmmaker and author of Devotional Cinema], whose work of course is all silent, I started to create this framework in my mind about how I might approach making a film about silence.

I think that I realised I didn’t have any access to silence in my own life; or not enough of it anyway. I understood that silence as a property and as a tool can give us a window into who we are, where we are at the moment. And then I realised that I needed more, I wanted more in my life I suppose. But I found that amidst my busy life in the modern world we all live in that I didn’t really have any access to it, opportunity to access it, and I didn’t really know how to access that part of myself; and realised that I hadn’t in a long time. So in part, the film came from my own curiosities about the subject matter and was my own exploration of the topic.

S: I think a lot of people, as they grow up, seem to look for something like that, they seem to look for something more…

P: Right. That seems to be happening a lot more these days. I think people are accepting that something is amiss in modern life!

S: So when making In Pursuit of Silence, you had to in a sense represent the ideas of silence and sound through a visual medium; how did you decide on the visual aspect of the film, for instance the montages, the static shots and long takes?

P: You know, that’s a good question. We had many, many conversations about how to visually portray silence and early on I knew that much of the film would not have any camera movements in it – in a way to mirror or mimic our own experiences of the world when we’re still. And so you won’t find the big camera moves, we don’t even zoom the camera in, and it’s there to be more of a mirroring of our own experiences of silence.

You know, Nathaniel Dorsky talks a lot about a film having an effect on our metabolism. There are films that are kind of inhuman in terms of how our body responds to them and they’re very loud and fast cutting; and they’re very exciting to watch and there’s a place and time for those. I think that we were very interested to make a film that was easy for our bodies to watch and it felt quiet, you know? And so that required a whole different approach – much longer takes, often, and these locked down camera shots.

S: Yeah, it did feel like you were almost trying to recreate the experience of being in silence for the watcher…

P: Exactly, yeah.

S: Why do you think it was important for your documentary film to have this dimension to it, and this effect on the audience?

P: Another thing I grappled with early on before we had shot a single frame was how to structure a film about silence, how to make a film about silence without screwing it all up. You know, It’s a very sacred topic, and it deserves a different approach. Historically documentaries are educational or are there to demystify something, and with a subject with silence there was a huge risk in doing that, that we might strip away all the cool stuff and everything that’s interesting about silence. And going back to Nathaniel Dorsky, who is a huge inspiration to me, he often talks about his own films  as being ‘of’ something rather than about something. That really struck me, and that’s when the lightbulb went off in my head and I understood that there would be parts of this film that would simply be ‘of’ silence and would not be of anything and not reflect my own ego; but simply a moment to experience [silence].

S: And Nathaniel Dorsky was the editing consultant on your film?

P: Yeah, so on my last film we got connected with this organisation in San Francisco and they really liked my last film and said, ‘you know, you should just have this guy look at it, he’s a buddy of ours’ and I was really put off by this idea of having someone take look at my edit, I was protective over it obviously. But I went along with it, they said they’d pay for it, and it turns out it was Nathaniel Dorsky! [laughs]. I didn’t know who he was at the time, but I mean the guy is brilliant. He took one quick look at the film and knew exactly what needed to happen, what needed to change about it, he really streamlined the film in a way that I never could have because I was just simply too close to it, I’d spent too much time on it. But his understanding of film as a language was probably most impressive to me. He just understood how to navigate that world in a way that I’ve never been able to achieve on my own.

And so anyway, it came around to have someone look at the edit for In Pursuit of Silence and of course Nathaniel Dorsky was always in my mind to be our editing consultant. He spent two days with me in my office and took a look at, I think it was a 95 minute cut of the film, and right off the bat he was like, ‘well you need to lose this, this, this, this’, and all of a sudden we had an 80 minute film, and it was just beautiful. He just spent two days on the film and I think it vastly improved.

S: So he did have quite a substantial influence on how the final edit of the film turned out?

P: I think so, yeah. I ended up doing some additional editing after our time together but I think what he brought to the process helped me refocus the film on silence. I think the film in earlier veered a little too much away from the real conversation. So yeah, he was very helpful.

S: You interviewed quite a lot of subjects that touch on wide-ranging yet benefits of silence. But I’d love to know how you gained access to Greg Hindy, the interviewee that was under a vow of silence and walking across America, and what you think about his individual pursuit of silence?

P: He’s an amazing guy. We had found him online, we had just found an article about him that someone had written up when he was maybe halfway through his journey. And of course it peaked our interest to say the least, and we immediately tried to track him down. We eventually found contact information for his dad who was tracking his journey through his credit card swipes and online bank statements, and so he had no contact with him through any communication device, there was no way to reach out to him. The only way was to look at his bank statements to understand where he was and generally understand which direction he was headed. So based on that we navigated our way to Northern California where he had been a day’s prior. We called his father when we landed and said okay, where did he swipe his card last? And he said, ‘well, he bought a bottle of water at some convenience store in a town called Novato, California which is like an hour and a half north of San Francisco. And we just drove straight there from the airport, went to that convenience store, talked to the staff just to make sure he was tracked there, and then drove south along this bike path and eventually it took an hour and a half or so until we ran into him. It was amazing.

Then we met up with him one more time a couple weeks later, he was further south in California, and we did it the same way. It’s crazy. And it was nice to know that it seemed he was staying on this particular highway which goes north and south all the way down the coast of California so at one point it was east to track him down. It was fun.

S: I liked him as a subject especially because, whilst a lot of the subjects were looking for silent environments, he imposed silence on himself. I found that interesting as I can imagine it would open yourself up to much more watching of what’s around you, and to yourself.

P: Yeah, that can be a curse and a blessing! You start noticing everything and it can become quite annoying actually [laughs]. But I would rather be aware of my surroundings than not, so [for me] it’s been mostly a blessing but initially you become very sensitive to it and that can be hard to deal with.

S: Through your explorations – both privately and through the making of In Pursuit of Silence – do you think you’ve now discovered ways of accessing silence amidst your busy life in the modern world? 

P: I think I have discovered some ways to access silence amidst the busyness but it’s most certainly a work in progress. After working in offices in relatively loud urban areas for about 11 years, I decided a year ago to build a small room in my backyard and start working in solitude, in silence. I’ve always been drawn to the monastic way of life and I thought I’d take a more monastic approach to life and work by, in a sense, fusing them together. In monastic traditions, particularly Zen, you find no separation between daily activity and the spiritual aspects of life, no separation between work and meditation. The dualities we live in – home and work life, creative and non-creative work, etc – are illusory of course; there is only the life we are living. So, for me, every moment is an opportunity to access “silence”, which I define as a mode of being that opens us up to the world. It’s the opposite mode of being that we find ourselves in when immersed in noisy environments which is a lot more like a state of recoil; we shrink from our surroundings and even intentionally close off our attention to the world in order to navigate it easier.