what is an essay film
To further my point on the elusive nature of objectivity, I screened Alain Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1956), Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008.) Yet at this point I began to wonder if I was still teaching documentary or if I had ventured into some other territory. I was aware that Koyaanisqatsi had also been classified as an experimental film by notable scholars such as David Bordwell. On the other hand, Nuit et brouillard is labeled a documentary film but poses more questions than answers, since it is “unable to adequately document the reality it seeks.” (Alter/Corrigan p. 210.) Resnais’s short film interweaves black and white archival footage with colour film of Auschwitz and other camps. The colour sequences were shot in 1955, when the camps had already been deserted for ten years. Nuit et brouillard scrutinises the brutality of the Holocaust while contemplating the social, political and ethical responsibilities of the Nazis. Yet it also questions the more abstract role of knowledge and memory, both individual and communal, within the context of such horrific circumstances. The students did not challenge Night and Fog’s classification as a documentary, but they wondered if Waltz with Bashir and especially Sans Soleil had entirely different objectives since they seemed to do more than present factual information. The students also noted that these films seemed to merge with other genres, and wondered if there was a different classification for them aside from poetic, observational, participatory, et al. Although it is animated, Waltz with Bashir is classified as a documentary since it is based on Folman’s own experiences during the 1982 Lebanon War. Also, as Roger Ebert notes, animation is “the best way to reconstruct memories, fantasies, hallucinations, possibilities, past and present.” 2 However, it is not solely a document of Folman’s experiences or of the war itself. It is also a subjective meditation on the nature of human perception. As Folman attempts to reconstruct past events through the memories of his fellow soldiers, Waltz with Bashir investigates the very nature of truth itself. These films definitely challenged the idea of documentary as a strict genre, but the students noticed that they each had interesting similarities. Aside from educating, informing and persuading, they also used non-fiction sounds and images to visualise abstract concepts and ideas.
Alter and Corrigan’s volume implies that the essay can inhabit many forms, styles or genres. More importantly is the idea that it should be recognised for its intentions and capabilities. Whatever form it takes, the essay is an attempt to seek, explore, understand, visualise and question, without necessarily providing clearly defined answers. The essay film also places considerable value on the intellect and opinion of the viewer, since it is an invitation to reflect on the thoughts, experiences, emotions and perceptions that are being conveyed. “Essays on the Essay Film” sensibly concludes with the chapter entitled “Filmmakers on the Essayistic”. Notable filmmakers, such as Lynn Sachs and Ross McElwee provide valuable insight into their own practices. The featured filmmakers, documentarians and video artists in this chapter do not focus specifically on what form their work takes, but what they are trying to achieve. For instance, in her article “On Writing the Film Essay,” Lynn Sachs proclaims that “My job is not to educate but rather to spark a curiosity in my viewer that moves from the inside out.” (p. 287.) Admittedly, Sachs’s statement contradicts the idea that documentary films seek to educate, inform and persuade, which I taught in my own classes. Yet Sachs’s insights, as well as those of the many other filmmakers in “Essays on the Essay Film” demonstrate how the camera is as versatile as the pen when communicating thoughts, emotions and ideas.
or a brief, almost unreal couple of hours last July, in amid the kittens and One Direction-mania trending on Twitter, there appeared a very surprising name – that of semi-reclusive French film-maker Chris Marker, whose innovative short feature La Jetée (1962) was remade in 1995 as Twelve Monkeys by Terry Gilliam. A few months earlier, art journal e-flux staged The Desperate Edge of Now, a retrospective of Adam Curtis’s TV films, to large audiences on New York’s Lower East Side. The previous summer, Handsworth Songs (1986), an experimental feature by the Black Audio Film Collective Salman Rushdie had once attacked as obscurantist and politically irrelevant, attracted a huge crowd at Tate Modern when it was screened shortly after the London riots.
Freedom and possibility … a still from Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) from 2011
In the opening credits of Toute la mémoire du monde, alongside the director’s name and that of producer Pierre Braunberger, one reads the mysterious designation “Groupe des XXX”. This Group of Thirty was an assembly of filmmakers who mobilised in the early 1950s to defend the “style, quality and ambitious subject matter” of short films in post-war France; the signatories of its 1953 ‘Declaration’ included Resnais, Chris Marker and Agnès Varda. The success of the campaign contributed to a golden age of short filmmaking that would last a decade and form the crucible of the French essay film.
Chris Marker, 1982
7. News From Home (1977) dir. Chantal Akerman
The portrait of Juliette is a composite sketch of the modern citizen, replaceable, replicable to the extent that Godard introduces Juliette first as Marina Vlady, the actress who plays her, before acknowledging her as a fictional creation; a less subtle evocation of the resignation to role playing in post-war France, watching death in Vietnam while decided whether or not to go and wash the car.
But even in articulating a personal philosophy towards media and criticism (and how the essay film combines the two), I still wanted to understand how the essay film works on a more nuts-and-bolts level. A lot of critical and scholarly writing on the essay film seemed to lack much of a formalist appreciation of how the essayistic mode uses sounds, images, words and editing differently than other forms of cinema. The video essay tries to isolate these elements of the essay film and demonstrate how they work in various combinations.
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