Moments of Silence

At certain times, dates, and places, pedestrians halt, traffic stops, and silence briefly reigns. For a moment—generally just a few minutes—that realm becomes a frozen needle aimed at the thought of something important, so important that it should never be forgotten. The film Moments of Silence is a collage of archival footage depicting people gathering in mute testimony. Edited into a sequence, the silent minutes from different eras and geographical places are stitched together to create a unified moment of silence.

The first widely observed national moment of silence took place in England on November 11, 1919, to commemorate Armistice Day—the end of World War I. For two minutes, transportation halted, factories broke off production, telephone exchanges ceased connecting calls. The power of such a ritual was immediately recognized and it now takes place across the globe. Today, as parts of the world are afflicted by intense violence and an unfathomable refugee crisis, the ritual of observing a moment of silence is one of the few acts that can bring people together no matter their differences.

Illustration by Johan Mets

stills from the film

11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Washington, 11 September 2012. ©White House Gov
State funeral of Konstantin Chernenko, 1985. ©Framepool
W-day Warsaw, 2013. ©Warsaw Uprising Museum
A minute of silence after the murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme, Sweden, 1986. ©SVT


"Moments of Silence" poster

International premier: CPH: DOX – Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, 6–16 November 2014

International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA) Amsterdam, Paradocs section, 19–30 November, 2014

SITAC XII: Arte, Justamente | Just Art, Centro Cultural del Bosque, Teatro Julio Castillo, Mexico City, 22–24 January 2015

Swedish premiere: Göteborgs Film Festival, 23 January– 2 February 2015

Docpoint, Helsinki, 27 January – 1 February 2015

TEMPO Documentary Film Festival, Stockholm, 2-8 March 2015

Cabinet, New York, 23 April 2015

Vera List Center for Art and Politics, New York, 25 April 2015

The Swedish Film Institute, Stockholm, 27 April 2015

Busan Short Film Festival, Korea, 24-28 April 2015

DocumentaMadrid, International Film Festival, Madrid, 30 April-10 May 2015

61. International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (with Filmform), 2 May 2015

Docville International Documentary Film Festival, Leuven, 1-9 May 2015

34th Uppsala International Short Film Festival, 19-25 October 2015

19th Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival, Praha, 27 October-1 November 2015

32nd Kassel Documentary Film and Video Festival, 10-15 November 2015

3rd Festival of Film and Urbanism, Slavutych, 6-9 May 2016

SNAFU (“Situation Normal: All _Filmed_ Up”) – Film series events: Hypnos Theatre, Malmö, 4 September 2021; Gylleboverket (FolketsBio), Simrishamn, 18 September 2021; Hypnos; Theatre, Malmö, 2 October 2021; Kiviks bio, Kivik, 23 October 2021; Biografteatern Scala, Ystad, 5 November2021; Kino, Lund, 11 November 2021; Hypnos Theatre, Malmö, 4 December 2021

George Prochnik’s thoughts (2015)

The film begins neither in peace, nor stillness, but with a frantic percussive assault. The moment two soldiers open twin doors on President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, we hear the shutters start falling, like the angry beating of electronic wings trapped in a jar of silence. The noise amplifies, grows denser and more desperate as the couple walk toward us, (punctuated for a moment by the reports of the flag-bearing officers’ heels as they march into place behind the pair). It’s a kind of sonic battle scene that ends only when the pair freezes on the grass and the screen goes black, before the appearance of the title, Moments of Silence. Why begin this film this way—with martial movement and a dry, techno crepitation?

One response to the opening scene of Bigert and Bergström’s poignant, subtle meditation on silence and commemoration might be to view it as a microcosmic vision of the predicament we find ourselves in today, when the encroaching technological meditation of experience threatens to erase all prospect of shared time and space. The Obamas seem caught in a moment of the silencing of silence. Their walk toward the firing squad of cameras appears emblematic of a larger showdown between our deep need to be present to the world and the desire to be insulated from all those mortal thoughts we become prey to when there’s nothing mediating that exposure—no ear-bud; no screen; no chip; no feed; no stream; no external speaker soundtrack even—nothing but our selves and the thoughts of nothingness that begin free-falling through us when the cord to our personal device-capsule is cut, when we can no longer scream our omnipresence across multiple synchronized platforms. But if Moments of Silence begins by evoking the gravity of the challenge we confront today, it proceeds to show how close the antidote still lies to hand—how easily we can yet tether ourselves together, if only we will make the time.

It’s not coincidental that the film’s next scenes consist of a line of soldiers taking off their helmets; followed by a cluster of miners repeating this action of uncovering. Removing their individual protection in unison, they create another kind of refuge from the void, one which consists precisely in concentrated exposure to communal togetherness. Anthropologists have observed wild elephants gathering in silence by the bodies of dead members of their herd, and remaining motionless before their fallen companion. Groups of horses have been seen forming a ring around the turned-over earth where one of their pack lies buried; ceasing to graze, lowering their heads and staring down at the ground without moving for long periods of time. It’s surprisingly difficult to pinpoint when the first official moment of silence was observed; but the gesture is clearly ancestral, instinctual even. In the first strike of grief we might wail and keen. But the second movement of mourning is reflective, entailing a withdrawal of our individual selves before some vast recognition that quiets forms of expression other than a purposeful retraction of individual ego from the economy of everyday being. The roots of the English word “silence” seem resonant in this context. Among its etymological antecedents are the Gothic verb anasilan, which refers to the wind dying down, and the Latin désinere, which means “stop.” Both terms link the idea of silence to interrupted action.

When we look at the spectrum of scenes captured in this film, we see how they might just as easily have been designated “moments of stillness.” It’s of course correct to note, as the filmmakers do, that these formally observed moment of silence represent acts of collective memory. But perhaps, constellating their stillness with selflessness, we might also consider the possibility of a mimetic element in this practice.
Through the abnegation of individual presence, the eclipse of individuality as such that is integral to these moments, we stand in for the dead—and in the process may find ourselves sharing an intimation of our own disappearance. In this way, the ceremony appears prophetic, as well as mnemonic. Yet because the moment of silence is sharply time-bound, the end result of this stance emulating the eternal rest to come is often a curious revivification of our engagement with the world. (Bigert and Bergström capture this aspect beautifully in extending their subject to the moment after the moment of silence, when the same routines that were carried on before are resumed, but with a palpably heightened awareness.)

The first widely observed national moment of silence occurred in England in 1919, in the context of the commemoration of Armistice Day. Transportation halted. Factories broke off production. Telephone exchanges ceased to connect calls. The power of the ritual was immediately recognized and incorporated into the annual ceremony of observance. In the ensuing years, the popularity of the moment of silence swept the country to such an extent that the BBC petitioned to broadcast the event from the cenotaph in London, rather than just switching off at that moment as they’d done hitherto. In 1929 they began doing so, and these broadcasts became a phenomenon in their own right. Explaining how it could be that the transmission of silence would captivate the nation, one BBC representative noted that the impressiveness was “intensified by the fact that the silence is not a dead silence, for Big Ben strikes the hour, and then the bickering of sparrows, the crisp rustle of falling leaves, the creasing of pigeon wings as they take flight, uneasy at this strange hush, contrast with the traffic din of London some minutes before.” The BBC’s role, he concluded, was to allow the silence to be heard for what it really was, “a solvent which destroys personality and gives us leave to be great and universal.”

This solvent is made strikingly visible in Bigert and Bergström’s film. Over and over, we watch people surrender their isolate selves in ways that echo one another and yet remain utterly distinctive, gaining cumulative power in the revelation that, while the act of falling still has its own diverse cultural and personal shades, these all lead to a transnational human state. How remarkable it seems that the only two actions large numbers of people engage in all at once, all together, in myriad societies around the world are waging war and standing still in
silent communion. The moment of silence is catastrophe seen through the looking-glass.

Further to the BBC spokesperson’s observations, one of the sources of the film’s strength is the way that so far from hearing nothing, the moments of silence assembled here make audible a vast panoply of noises that are often obscured in the bustle of everyday being: that richly varied sonic tapestry of the environment released for a minute or two from the infrastructure’s roar and the shrieking “come-hither” of commercial enterprise. The soundscape to which we’re exposed in the moment of silence is not always the sound of the natural world, though birds and wind are often audible; but it is always a sonic anchor to the here-and-now. In this way, what we hear in the moment of silence is the opposite of that everywhere-nowhere land din in which we are now ever more engulfed, whether by choice (our personal play-list) or default (the acoustical neglect that transforms our public spaces into sonic dumping grounds).

And this returns us to the opening scene. Let’s imagine for a moment that frenzied noise of electric shutters to be the sound of the technology itself feeling threatened by the observation of silence. Just when our machines were on the verge of completing the digital perimeter that would seal us off altogether from contact with the immediate living world, under the Orwellian pretext of providing total connectivity, a breach of quiet dissonance occurs. The moment of silence disrupts our self-enclosure, and those electronic shutters can’t stand it. This first moment seems perfectly counterbalanced then by the final montage, which traces the resumption of everyday routine—the redonning of headware, the recovery of motion, the scuffling of chairs, but all with a renewed appreciation for the tactile, human dimensions and complex sonic textures of these simple actions. In the closing scene we watch and listen to honking traffic on a busy road. Yet underneath the barrage, if our ears have become sufficiently attuned by the moments of silence we’ve passed through, we’ll realize that the manmade cacophony has not quite managed to drown out the barking of a solitary unseen dog. We’re given a last moment to listen to this lonely animal call, before it too falls silent.

"Moments of Silence," the film

Archival footage used in the film


"Moments of Silence," 2014
Digital video, 14 min.

Written and directed by
Bigert & Bergström

Dino Jonsäter

Sound design
David Österberg

Graphic design
Björn Kusoffsky

Oscar Larsson

Archive research
Annelie Bergman

Jennifer Evans

Moments of Silence is produced by Bigert & Bergström
In co-production with SVT/ Kortfilm, Andrea Östlund
With the support of Swedish Film Institute, Cecilia Lidin

© Bigert & Bergström 2014