Last week, we hipped you to the illustrious roster of Film Independent Members with projects premiering at this week’s SXSW Film Festival—including producer and documentarian Brandon Vedder, whose In Pursuit of Silence premiered this week as part of SXSW’s “Visions” section.
Silence—an abstract, feature-length meditation on humans’ too-often neglected need for auditory stillness—is Vedder’s latest collaboration with director Patrick Shen, whose previous film La Source documented Haitian-born humanitarian Josue Ljeunesse’s attempts to erect clean-water wells in his native country following the devastating earthquakes of 2010.
As director, Vedder also created the 2015 nonfiction short A Certain Kind of Light, which chronicled the therapeutic practice of “whole person” healthcare via the radically empathetic career of maverick physician Dr. Wil Alexander.
Throughout his filmography, Vedder has demonstrated a consistent interest in the use of filmmaking as an instrument of social change, no matter whether that change is rooted in the personal, political or spiritual.
Film Independent Digital Content Manager Matt Warren recently chatted with Vedder—speaking from a busy airport en route to Austin—about his career, In Pursuit of Silence and the filmmaker’s experience translating his abilities as cinematic storyteller into the language of humanitarianism, and the limits thereof.
How has your filmmaking career been shaped by the desire to do something socially impactful?
Starting with my first feature-length project, La Source, really set me up in such a good way to understand the power of cinema and how sharp of a sword it can be. Through the making of that film we ended up [creating] over 50 new wells in Haiti. To be honest, the film was much more of a humanitarian success than it was a financial success, because we just made a bunch of amateur business mistakes.
But I never set out to be a humanitarian or social-issues focused filmmaker. It’s just been the kind of projects that have come to me. I guess my interest lays in humanity, like all documentarians. There’s a little bit of discomfort, because [as a filmmaker] you’re really putting yourself in these people’s places in what could feel like an exploitative way.
Yeah, it’s not always the most comfortable thing to be the subject of a documentary.
Totally. [The subjects of La Source] don’t know what your intentions are. They can’t see into the future that this film is going to fund 50 wells. And we were there just weeks after the earthquake, so we’re another piece of press that all of these people in their lowest moments have to deal with, so that was tough. That really made me sharpen what I was okay with and I wasn’t okay with as a documentarian.
What do you think the responsibility of a filmmaker is to provide viewers with tangible resources for follow-up after they’ve seen an issues-driven film?
That’s a great question, and it’s definitely something I deal with on a project-to-project basis. It’s our responsibility if we bring something into people’s lives that could potentially change their life and make them very passionate about this thing. It would be irresponsible to dump them off the ride without any outlet to actually get involved. It’s a waste of energy. We spent so much energy to make these films and expose these issues, and to not give people an opportunity to get involved is really counterpoint to what we’re doing.
But recently, I’ve wondered the same question for myself, because it’s so hard to move on as a filmmaker to another project when you have to launch this year-long social media campaign and really engage the audience and try and enact this change. But [with La Source] I sort of learned that I was a filmmaker, and that that was important. Like, there are these humanitarians and then there are these filmmakers, and it’s kind of dangerous for us [the filmmakers] to do the thing we’re not gifted at.
How do you and Patrick balance the need to be socially conscious with the need to make sure that the product you’re making is cinematic?
When Patrick and I came together on La Source I came from more of a narrative background. He had made two other feature documentaries at that point, so he was very much into the doc space. We sort of created a formula on that first film where we’re kind of smashing narrative and documentary together.
How did In Pursuit of Silence come together?
When Patrick and I were editing La Source we were able to work with this brilliant silent filmmaker named Nathaniel Dorsky—this amazing San Francisco artist who came up with all of the beat poets and was part of Stan Brakhage’s team. His films are completely silent, which is really novel at first, and then becomes uncomfortable and then it becomes annoying. Ten or 15 minutes in your brain is able to create these spaces, and it just becomes so much more interactive. We were blown away.
There was also a film called Into Great Silence, which was a big influence on Patrick. Patrick and I are both spiritual dudes, and we’ve always been able to have great spiritual conversations. We kept going forward on these conversations, and before you knew it we were making a film about silence in a more general sense.
The trailer makes the film look almost like a film essay.
Totally. We ended up going to eight different countries. It’s a film about humans’ relationship with sound. If there’s a social issues side to the film, it’s that the world is noisier than it ever has been. The World Health Organization now says that noise pollution is second only to air pollution.
We’re in a world with so many problems—it’s a weird thing to pick to make a film about. But we didn’t come to it as a social issue; we just kept meeting people with these incredible stories.
Moving through La Source, A Certain Kind of Light and In Pursuit of Silence the themes at the core of your films seem to be getting progressively more spiritual rather than political—is that intentional?
I think that’s absolutely true. I’d never really thought about it like that. The film I’m halfway through making right now [about indie rock musician Dave Bazan] is about the importance of questioning, and the role of faith in people’s lives. And yeah, faith is definitely the realm that’s most interesting to me.
There are so few resources that really push us into this [spiritual] mindset that aren’t marred with tradition and our parents’ bullshit and all that gross stuff. That [kind of] storytelling really just gets me excited about communicating and pushing people into a world that’s not just lived moment to moment.