A Still Small Voice
(USA, 93 min.)
Dir. Luke Lorentzen
Programme: U.S. Documentary Competition (World Premiere)
Meet Margaret “Mati” Engel. Mati undertakes her yearlong residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in her journey towards becoming a chaplain. She is kind, empathetic, and patient (most of the time) as she offers spiritual guidance. Mati can also be pointed and abrasive when needed. Sometimes people need emotional support and sometimes Mati knows that the truth, bitter as it may be, can prove healing. She carries her own baggage, though, and processes her emotions in an environment full of triggers. As director Luke Lorentzen observes Mati’s growth during her residency, A Still Small Voice delivers one of the most rewarding character studies audiences will see this year.
Lorentzen observes Mati by shooting in an intimate verité style. Much like his breakthrough documentary Midnight Family, which took audiences inside a family’s for-profit ambulance service in Mexico City, A Still Small Voice captures the stories of people in the most vulnerable moments of their lives. The film observes, for example, as Mati offers guidance to a woman reeling from sudden loss. She asks Mati her opinion of the afterlife. Mati offers a delicately worded response that provides reassurance without imposing her beliefs. Alternatively, she bolsters a visitor grappling with the imminent death of a parent. “We cannot save our parents,” she advises them with authority. It’s a telling moment in which the aspiring chaplain is also reassuring herself of her own strength.
Learning to Listen
The film draws its title from a meeting that Mati has with one of her patients early in the story. She meets with a woman who’s been dealing with one thing after another since being admitted. When Mati asks her what she’s proudest of, the woman replies, “My strength.” She tells Mati that she has no regrets about her life, having never compromised and having always stayed true to herself. The motivation, she explains, comes from a still, small voice within her. It’s a moral compass that guides her own path. Mati, meanwhile, nods empathetically. The film observes how Mati learns from her patients during her residency. She demonstrates that spiritual growth is an exchange. Mati often listens more than she talks, and the value of active listening becomes a thread that Lorentzen considers while documenting the residency.
A Still Small Voice demonstrates how the aspiring chaplains process the emotional toll of their mission. In group sessions with their advisor, Reverend David Fleenor, Mati and classmates Fumiko, Jessica, and Michele share their feelings. Mati offers accounts of being triggered by patients in whom she saw the death of her father. Having lost him a few years prior, she knows the all-consuming grief of sudden loss. Rev. Fleenor reminds her of the necessity of self-care, a task with which Mati often struggles.
Their exchanges task them with respond to one another with reassuring phrases like, “I hear you.” The conversation isn’t an exercise in flowery jargon, but rather a practice in navigating their emotional responses to patients without overwhelming their concerns, or being burned out by bottling everything up. A Still Small Voice rhythmically courses through the year as Rev. Fleenor and his residents talk things out. The conversations, however, do not go in the direction one anticipates.
Practicing vs. Preaching
The film finds unexpected drama when Mati increasingly clashes with her supervisor. These conversations escalate from open feedback loops to terse altercations. Lorentzen observes as Mati and her supervisor struggle to practice what they preach. Rev. Fleenor evidently doesn’t listen to her, while her response doesn’t default to compassion.
Where other films cut, though, this one holds. Lorentzen favours fewer scenes that play in full. From seeing Mati baptise the body of a deceased newborn with care to passionately reprimanding her mentor for failing to provide a safe environment, the film gives viewers time to process and respond emotionally to the crises at hand.
Leading with Care
In capturing moments between the chaplains that are equally vulnerable as the encounters between the spiritual advisors and their patients, A Still Small Voice provides a candid look at the burden that caregivers carry, particularly during the pandemic. The toll of COVID-19 is everywhere in A Still Small Voice as Mati, her patients, and fellow residents soldier on. The film doesn’t dwell on COVID-19 and has a timelessness that exists beyond the masks worn by residents and patients. Instead, it captures the challenge of being on high alert and emotionally responsive 24/7 while meeting the needs of others during a period of collective trauma. The emotional intelligence on display is remarkable.
A title card in the end credits notes that the production drew upon conversations between Lorentzen and Engel regarding ethics. It adds that all patients featured in the film had until picture lock to opt-out. One sees this duty of care in every frame of the film. Lorentzen generally keeps the camera on Mati. Sometimes filming through doorways or peering around curtains, there’s a clear line of respect for the difficulty of the situation. In doing so, the approach, much like Mati’s healthy administration of tough love, perfectly captures the delicacy of administering spiritual care. The sensitively told A Still Small Voice is therapeutically moving and a work of radical empathy for turbulent times.