3 Short Films that Prove You Don't Always Need Dialogue

What would cinema have been "had it not gone down the word road?"

Driving your film with your images.

The language of film is a visual one.

In fact, for the first stretch of cinema history, there was no sound to accompany the image at all. Although the silent film fell out of favor when “talkies” took off, there’s still something special about moments without dialogue. Whether it’s a knowing look between characters, an intimate Closeup, expressive production design or some other element of mise-en-scène, visuals can speak without words, instilling meaning and packing a powerful punch.

Here are 3 examples of wordless short films to inspire you to create your own stories around moving pictures, without relying on dialogue to inform the audience.

In the words of director Jonathan Glazer, what would cinema have been “had it not gone down the word road?”

1. Over | Dir. Jörn Threlfall, 2015

During the course of nine Wide Shots told in reverse order, we watch an intriguing story unfold. What has happened in this quiet neighborhood? A murder, a hit-and-run, an accident? The reality is both profound and deeply unexpected.

Over embodies the adage “show, don’t tell”, forcing the audience to play detective as they watch a crime scene unfold in reverse order. Told through a series of static Wide Shots, the film demands patience, affording the audience time to search each frame for clues.

Threlfall’s film challenges the conventions of the mystery genre. Instead of filling us in with chronologically presented dialogue-driven reveals, the film actually deprives us of information such that we’re left to our own devices to piece together the story. By inviting us into the sleuthing process, Over engages us immediately. It sinks its claws into our desire to understand; we wait and watch without knowing quite what we’re seeing until the very end.

Over also makes brilliant use of the camera-as-voyeur. There’s no sense of urgency, no in-your-face editing, only stoic, well-orchestrated shots during which life goes on in the neighborhood while the police work to solve the same mystery as the audience. It’s the sort of beautifully spare storytelling at which the medium of film excels: visually driven, open to the audience, with a payoff that’s as powerful as the shot compositions are restrained.

2. Tierra Y Pan (Land and Bread) | Dir. Carlos Armella, 2008

A quiet journey to a forsaken land where hunger turns the heart into a desert landscape.

Like Over, Tierra Y Pan (Land and Bread) embraces minimalism. Not only does it have no dialogue or music until the end credits, but it also uses just a single zoom out that suggests the passage of the day. A family’s story of loss unfolds as we’re transported further and further away from the scene by that single, time-spanning shot.

Photographed on film, Tierra Y Pan is visual poetry. The setting externalizes the internal states of the characters: a harsh, forsaken landscape indifferent to its residents’ plight. Again, like Over, Armella’s film shows rather than tells. Most of the plot points happen offscreen so that the audience is trusted to fill in the blanks, building on carefully-placed context clues.

Tierra Y Pan’s artful restraint, breathtaking cinematography, and smart choreography of characters were recognized with several awards, including a Golden Lion at The Venice Film Festival. It’s proof that simplicity can leave a lasting impression.

3. Looking Glass | Dir. Celia Rowlson-Hall, 2016

A break up. A woman stands alone in an empty apartment. She dances with abandon and is reborn in the joy of the moment.

In less than five minutes, director Celia Rowlson-Hall, who also stars in this spin on a music video, expresses the gamut of emotions that accompanies a breakup.

Looking Glass begins at the end of a relationship, with the boyfriend moving out. We don’t need to know the details to empathize with the woman, now alone in her apartment – we’ve all been there. She dances her way through feelings of sorrow, rage, and finally joy, covered in camera movements that sweep us away and editing that intensifies the pacing.

As in Tierra Y PanLooking Glass uses its setting to externalize its character’s feelings. The barren apartment becomes a playground for the woman’s dance, manifesting her emotional journey. Fog pumps into the room, the colors change, flower petals swirl around her as she dances with increasing abandon. No dialogue is necessary to communicate what she’s feeling. The visuals, together with the woman’s expressive movements, do so on their own.

Looking Glass | Dir. Celia Rowlson-Hall

Looking Glass | Dir. Celia Rowlson-Hall

These three films tell tales of loss in vastly different ways: Over uses a series of patient Wide Shots that invite the audience to become detectives, Tierra Y Pan literally drags us away from the scene in an unblinking gaze, and Looking Glass uses active movement and editing in sync with music to express its angst.

They transport us, rendering the familiar new and unfamiliar familiar, all at the same time – and all without dialogue.

 Courtney Hope Thérond, with

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