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Starlings [Simon Allen, UK, 2021]

Since the creation of cinema, filmmakers, critics, and even audiences have often favoured the visual aspect of filmmaking. This focus on cinematography, editing, and anything seen on the screen has unduly diminished the importance of sound. But film is an audiovisual art form, after all. So what would happen if the aural aspect were placed in the foreground?

Simon Allen, with his directorial debut, Starlings, takes on the challenge and creates an almost poetic depiction of isolation and loneliness. This short film follows an older man, Jack (brought to life by Carl Welch), who struggles with impaired hearing. He leads a secluded and monotonous life ruled by routine and habit. Surrounded by overwhelming emptiness, he finds purpose in taking care of his beloved vegetable patch, which gives his life meaning. When a flock of starlings begin to ruin his garden, disturbing his carefully crafted little haven, he won't stop until peace is restored. To what extremes will Jack go to before realising that the birds are only a mere symbol of his real distress?

This 8-minute short opens with a mix of slightly muffled sounds, followed by one of the few moving shots that introduces the main character and sets the film's tone. The sound of chirping birds is placed at the very back of the sound mix, making it extremely elusive, almost too subtle to notice. When Jack puts on his hearing aid, the audio becomes vibrant and resonant. This clever sonic choice draws attention to the character instead of the outside world, inviting the audience to witness Jack's everyday life.

Throughout the film, the sound design becomes more and more noticeable. The loud ticking of a clock, the weirdly paper-like rustling sound of sewing thread, and the occasional muffled soundscapes are exaggerated and distracting. However, those unnatural noises act as reminders of Jack's hearing struggles, creating a compelling juxtaposition of his world with and without his hearing aid.

What takes away from the Starlings' overall positive impression is undoubtedly the use of serene music, which clumsily marks the film's turning point. It diverts the audiences' attention from the emotional performance of Carl Welch. Despite the occasional cacophony of unnecessary sounds, Starlings successfully creates an intimate and moving portrayal of isolation. It proves that, in this case, not silence, but the sound design itself, speaks louder than any words.


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