Essay films?! Twelve of them?!

I love films. Cinema and all the rest. Weird films, films which aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, I will watch them gladly and there are chances to like them, but I have to admit that I had a few problems wrapping my mind around what an essay film is.

Descriptive, but not literal. Metaphoric, but not too cryptic. With a narrative line, but not a narrative story. Based on theory, but with an artistic effect. Experimental, but still understandable. Words, Image, Moving Image Sound, Music, Silence, Voice all combined in a powerful representation of theoretical ideas with a solid factional base. Half documentary, half art piece, with a bit of dada madness the essay film is not something we see on our TVs but is a genre in itself, and it has been out there for quite a while now.

BFI 12 best essay films:

  • essay films as a genre seem to take shape in the context of the WW2.
  1. À propos de Nice, Jean Vigo, 1930- as early as my beloved expressionist films, the difference is visible at a first sight. The realism specific to the french cinema, which Andre Bazin regarded as “the true” cinema due to the break of the cinema from the theatrical methods is present in the short fragment, depicting life on the Côte d’Azur. It does convey a sense relaxation, a festive feeling, a carnivalesque joy. The music sets the pace and is in total harmony with the vibrant images. It does have the specific awkwardness of old films, even though it is realistic in comparison to expressionist films, the movement is still somewhat either rushed or a bit theatrical, which gives diminish the naturalism. There is no language except for that of images and music. Being a part of the silent films era, the lack of words does not come as surprise.
  2. A Diary for Timothy, Humphrey Jennings, 1945
    – a story within a story, a double screen, which is an inventive way of transmitting the message and show the reaction of a public in the same time. It sets an educative tone, by addressing children in regards to the war an imminent danger. By having a narrator the narrative is better structured. The sounds are naturalistic, interposed with moments of silence wich enhance the atmosphere and at times even create suspense.
  3. Toute la mémoire du monde, Alain Resnais, 195- the iconic image of the library used in other essay films as well. The naturalism is diminished here, not because there is a painted background or the movement is exaggerated, but because of the shots, which work with the sound effects to create a feeling, following a book in its journey through the shelves. And this is exactly what it is, a journey, a sense of grandeur, but lacking luxurious features, the feeling of a long road in an overwhelming space under the gaze of the books.
  4.  The House is Black, Forough Farrokhzad, 1963- a film from far away. Poetry combined with shocking visuals of crippled people, and a pace wich gives the whole experience a sense of anxiety, the viewer ending by identifying himself with the little girl, in an attempt to cover his eyes from the reality and
  5. Letter to Jane: An Investigation About a StillJean-Luc Godard & Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972
    – the images are on a second plan. Even though the photograph is the topic of discussion, there is no movement, only the zooming in and out of the camera. This film is not about images is about words, and the lack of visual distraction is exactly what makes the viewer more attentive to the words, and the ideas they shape, the events they appeal.
  6.  F for Fake, Orson Welles, 1973

    – words, image, footage, narrative, montage, Picasso, this film has it all. It combines personal footage with others’ footage, with painting, and with storytelling. The repetitive images, the pace, Picasso’s black and white gaze gives the film an ambiguous feeling of uneasiness and curiosity.

  7. How to Live in the German Federal Republic, Harun Farocki, 1990 – a satire of the German Federal Republic, executed by an Eastern German director, just after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The style is austere, simple. A camera more or less in a fixed point, filming nothing more than exactly what is in front of it. It has an amateur feeling, which actually gives the impression of being a witness, an unseen witness to some everyday life scenes. The scenes have an absurdity, enhanced especially through the dialogue sequences. This, accompanied by the camera’s minimal moving shapes a feeling of anxiety, even claustrophobic.
  8. One Man’s War,  Edgardo Cozarinsky, 1982- a hard film to find. Images with no words, talking for themselves, a proof that visuals do have a voice and a “language”
  9. Sans soleil, Chris Marker, 1982- a dissonance between word and images. They both go parallel ways, but don’t seem to really ever encounter one another. This space between the 2 ways of conveying ideas and emotions is the space of the viewer, the link between the mediums is his choice, according to his own imagination, knowledge, and experiences. His mind can wander through the images and discourse, even appropriating parts which are spoken in the first person.
  10. Handsworth Songs, Black Audio Film Collective, 1986- it starts as a documentary, with raw footage, explained by the voiceover, which points out dates and events (the riots in Birmingham), but which then gains a poetic dimension, by asking some rhetorical questions, and enacting a dialogue which makes it seem as if the voice is directly addressing the viewer, engaging him/her in the film’s narrative. The camera movement is in slow motion allowing the viewer enough time to see the outcomes of the events.
  11. Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen, 2003
    –  modern architecture vs gangsters. The film explains in a documentary way the relationship between L.A.’s modern architecture and its depiction in famous films. The modern houses become the settlements of the most infamous villains and are absorbed in the common conscience as being a characteristic of these type of characters. The film juxtaposes the vocal commentary with shots from films.
  12.  La Morte RougeVíctor Erice, 2006
    – still images transitioning between themselves.  The lack of moving regarding the images makes the viewer focus on the voiceover, which comes in harmony with the black and white photos and newspaper extracts. The narrator’s voice is monotone, thus contrasting to its actual discourse which is about fear.


Leave a Reply