Review by Sean Boelman
Made by one of his former assistants, the new documentary Elliott Erwitt - Silence Sounds Good takes a look at the work and style of the eponymous photographer. Thanks to a personal and compassionate lens, this film offers an interesting glimpse into Erwitt’s artistic process, even if it is a bit too adulatory in nature.
The movie offers an unorthodox biography of photographer Elliott Erwitt from the perspective of someone who worked with him. In the film Erwitt and director Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu make the case for photography as the most silent of artforms. There are plenty of famous photographs, but not so many famous photographers, creating a larger disconnect between the art and the artists than exists in different mediums.
As such, a large portion of the movie is spent convincing the audience of Erwitt’s importance. Yet even though viewers may not be familiar with his name, his work is clearly extraordinary enough to explain the level of respect he has gained within the field. Because of this, much of the first half of the film feels pointless and wasted.
The much more compelling portion of the movie is the second half, which features Erwitt and Sanfeliu as they are invited to travel to Cuba soon after the restrictions were lifted for a project. Although this snapshot of their culture is understandably brief, as it isn’t really the film’s focus, it offers something unique that few other movies have managed to achieve.
Some of the most interesting questions posed by the film explore what it means to create art. The movie opens with Erwitt taking a portrait of a family. What makes this different from a person casually taking a family photo? Is there something about the way in which Erwitt conducts the process of photography that makes it “art”, or is it the intention with which the image was captured? There’s no easy answer, but the movie will make you think about it.
There is also a bit of a self-aware nature to the film. The title of the movie comes from an interview that Sanfeliu conducts with her subject in which “no one talks”. Sanfeliu’s experimentation with the conventions of documentary filmmaking is predictable given her background, but with such a short runtime, it never quite pays off.
Furthermore, the film is quite busy in its presentation. Sanfeliu is a first-time filmmaker, so she is obviously still trying to find her footing, but it often feels like she threw a bunch of ideas to the wall to see what sticks. Unfortunately, it seems that her use of more traditional storytelling methods was more effective than blurring the lines in this case.
Elliott Erwitt - Silence Sounds Good is a mostly enjoyable documentary, and while it almost certainly would have benefitted from being longer, it has some interesting information. This will be a particularly worthwhile watch for anyone with a passion for the art or hobby of photography.
Elliott Erwitt - Silence Sounds Good streams online in partnership with indie theaters beginning July 3. It is accompanied by the short One Thousand Stories: The Making of a Mural. A list of participating locations can be found here.