Inspired by a true story
Wow – Just wow! “Silence” is a powerful queer short film that draws you in and keeps you on edge all the way till the end. Written and directed by Hamish Downie and inspired by personal events from his own life, this is a film that will NOT remain silent; it’s power speaks volumes on the poignant topic – even though not a single word is uttered in the five minute short! So what makes this queer short film such a powerhouse? It’s all in how the film succinctly deals with the dark and oft unspoken topic of partner abuse. Let me break it down.
Synopsis of “Silence”
Starting off with title cards that echo an early cinema film, the viewer is quickly introduced to a lesbian couple standing under an umbrella. While the initial impression is of a happy couple enjoying their time together, things start to become a bit darker as we head into the couples home. Instead of a nice, neat family home, this Japanese couple live in ruins. Despite appearing like an abandoned home, the victim (Tomoko Hayakawa) tries to create a home for the two of them by taking care of the chores such as cooking and doing the laundry. Caressing a baby doll, her maternal instincts are evident as well. But underneath all of this, a darkness lingers. Seemingly out of nowhere, she starts to pack her clothes with plans of leaving.
However, her wife (Qyoko Kudo) arrives home. While sitting down for tea, things appear calm and reserved; normal. Until our abuser suddenly lashes out and slaps her wife’s face! As soon as it’s over, she realises her mistake and starts to beg and plead for understanding. However things are clearly not right as her hands rise up to enclose her around her wife’s neck! Thankfully, she realises that she’s hurting her lover and stops – but things are never the same between the two of them. Later on, they’re both laying in bed. However, it’s anything but romantic. Our abuser is practically laying atop her partner, and our victim is now wearing a white Noh mask while laying utterly still. Intercut are scenes of our victim dancing joyfully, despite the abandoned and run down setting around her – albeit continually wearing the white Noh mask. At one point, our abuser even watches from the side.
Eventually our abuser finally rolls over and falls asleep. After a moment, our victim slowly starts to sit up and move. Removing her Noh mask, she confirms that her abuser is sound asleep. Before she can awake, our victim grabs the baby doll and her belongings and runs. A bit later, our abuser wakes up and realises her victim has left. The last shot we see is our victim running down a tunnel, headed towards the light.
Where do I begin? This queer short film might only be five minutes long, but there is a ton of things to unpack! For starters, the film is chock full of metaphors. First, the mask that our victim wears, which is not only a cultural connection to the Japanese setting of the film, but a literal representation of the mask that victims of partnership abuse put on. Not only towards others as they try to hide away the abuse, often out of shame, but also hiding it from themselves. Often feeling like they cannot escape, they mask it all away behind a solid, unchanging and oft emotionless mask. Next up is the baby doll. While not a literal child, it’s clear that writer/director Hamish Downie intends this to be a metaphor for an actual child. Unfortunately, the children are often present and bear witness to spousal abuse. By showing our victim cradling the baby doll, we get a clear vision of her motherly nature; she’s trying to make everything all better. Yet by also showing the doll within the frame of the abuse, we get the obvious impression that the children see everything. In fact, the baby doll’s blank stare more eerily represents that wide open face of shock – yet unable to look away. When our victim finally is able to escape, she takes the baby doll just like a mother would take her child along as they both escape towards freedom.
Cinematically, there is little to critique. By shooting the film in black and white, it actually highlights the abuse. Yet it equally creates an eerie feeling, a bit of unease if you will, as victims of abuse often can feel. Instead of viewing the world through rose-coloured glasses, they cannot see any colour of joy; it’s all just black and white, dreary and lifeless. And I cannot overlook how powerful a statement the actual sets evoke! The juxtaposition between the run down, ruined and abandoned home to what initially appears to be a happy home is powerful. For victims, this is what they live in; their lives feel ruined and pieced together. The broken dishes after an argument. The stains on the carpet from the figurative bloodshed of their abuse. Added into the overall feel of this film is the use of old-school vintage film reel effects. This rather simple effect provides an additionally haunting level to “Silence”, even though it gets used a tad too much. But paired with the vintage title cards, the effect is oddly beautiful.
But perhaps the most impressive element to “Silence” is the score. What a score! Given that there is no actual dialogue in the entire film, the underlying score plays a crucial part to evoke the subtext of what we view on screen. In fact, after you watch the film once through, I encourage you to watch it a second time – but turn on the closed captioning and focus on the strong unspoken musical dialogue. With an orchestral feel, the score swells at just the right moment to create a moment of suspense equal to a Hitchcock film! Yet at other moments, the score is serene and light, such as while our victim dances in her Noh mask.
The unfortunately part is that because there is no actual dialogue, it’s difficult to grant a full score for the plot & script. I cannot review what is not present, even though it is non-existent for a specific reason. However, with that noted – the subtext comes through loud and clear! Both of our leading ladies are exceptionally strong and talented, for it’s what isn’t said that stands out in “Silence”. In fact, the subtext is often where a talented actor gets defined from a subpar actor. Anyone can read and act out lines, but it takes true talent to do so without even words to speak. And even though there is a clear line of victim and abuser in this short film, I feel that Hamish has created a realistic portrayal of an abuser: someone who can be loving one moment, yet abusive the next, and then playing the victim themselves as a means of further manipulation.
So despite raving about the various elements of “Silence” above, how can I only grant half a star rating for my overall opinion? I honestly was torn because while I enjoyed watching this short film, I felt I couldn’t give a full mark. Perhaps the metaphors were a bit too much? Perhaps it’s the nature of the subject itself, as spousal abuse is nothing something anyone should rave about. Yet don’t let my uncertainty hold you back from watching this incredible queer short film! “Silence” beautifully, and silently, shows the horrors of spousal abuse while also giving our victim that spark of hope as she escapes to her freedom.
Queer Relevance of “Silence”
For obvious reasons, “Silence” is a queer film because it highlights a lesbian relationship. While it’s never noted or shown how long, the metaphorical implication of the baby doll being their child could indicate a long-term relationship. Yet it’s unfortunately an abusive partnership. A sad reality is that many victims of abuse know their abuser, and quite often it’s their spouse. Unfortunately it’s not talked about as much as it should be, under the guise of misunderstanding and flawed thinking such as “all couples fight now and then”. Or the abuse may not be directly physical but rather emotional, still controlling albeit in a different way. I specifically enjoy that the abuser in “Silence” is female, for while male to female abuse is the most thought of, the female partner can just as easily be the abusive on in a relationship. And perhaps the most important message here is that queer folks are not exempt from spousal abuse.