White Noise

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

White Noise
"Wilson is superb. Brilliant sound design and editing layers the noise we hear so that most viewers will be able to understand its effects without having to suffer to that degree themselves. Her performance does the rest."

Ava (Bahia Watson) is sitting in a lecture room. Most students would find it a quiet place and have no difficulty following what the lecturer is saying. For Ava, it is anything but. As we observe her, we hear tiny noises building up: the scratch of writing implements, the sound of breathing and whispers, of people shuffling in their seats. We see the growing distress on her face. When it all becomes too much, she is forced to flee the room, and people stare after her as if she’s the problem.

Ava – like Christina Saliba, who co-wrote and produced this film – suffers from misophonia, a form of hyperacusis. In other words, she is acutely sensitive to noise, to the point where it causes her physical pain. Her doctor has told her that she may be able to overcome it, to recondition herself by going without her noise-cancelling headphones in public places, hence the effort she has made in the lecture room. It doesn’t seem to be helping, and the experience is torture. She goes to see him, begging to be allowed to try something different. She has heard of an experiment which is using an anechoic chamber – a room specially designed to be as quiet as possible. It might be the start of a cure, or at least a precious hour of relief. Then again, who knows what might happen?

This unabashedly angry short, which screened as part of the 2023 Fantasia International Film Festival and provides the foundation for a planned feature, has a specificity which makes it intriguing (and may help to raise awareness of a little-known condition) but also speaks to the much more widespread experience of living with invisible illnesses in a society in which most healthy people imagine that everybody navigates the world in pretty much the same way that they do. There’s a particular point in there about women’s experience of pain, which, numerous studies have shown, is frequently treated by doctors as trivial or psychosomatic, even when that’s measurably not the case.

“Don’t you want to have a normal life?” Ava’s doctor asks her. The film helps viewers to recognise how absurd that question is. Sure, a normal life might be nice, but that’s a lot less important to her than making the pain stop. Wilson is superb. Brilliant sound design and editing layers the noise we hear so that most viewers will be able to understand its effects without having to suffer to that degree themselves. Her performance does the rest.

The anechoic chamber itself – the filmmakers got access to a real one – is a fascinating place, its walls covered in fuzzy folds as if carpeted by MC Escher. It not only defies sound but confuses vision, its labyrinthine textures offering no obvious point of focus. Showing Ava in, the young technician overseeing the experiment is smiling, a little flirtatious. Ava can’t connect with this, remaining separate and brittle, another way in which she is cut off from the world by her condition. He is absent minded; she does not have that luxury. He goes to get coffee and all she wants is the opportunity to relax. In the end, finding peace is not so easy, or perhaps it was always the easiest thing in the world. It’s a defiant and provocative conclusion which, in spite of the noise, underlines Ava’s right to be heard.

Reviewed on: 26 Jul 2023
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A doctor refers a woman with an acute and painful sensitivity to sound to an experiment in therapy involving the world's quietest room.

Director: Tamara Scherbak

Writer: Tamara Scherbak, Christina Saliba

Starring: Bahia Watson, Ryan Hollyman, Guifre Bantjes-Rafols

Year: 2023

Runtime: 17 minutes

Country: Canada

Festivals:

Fantasia 2023

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The Sound Of Silence