Despite constantly escaping definitions and refusing conclusions, essay films show no sign of losing traction among practitioners, academics, and the general public.

The upcoming Essay Film Festival at Birkbeck is now in its third year, and there have been articles, symposiums and podcasts focusing on the subject in the UK. The latest of these was the Essay Film Now event at the Whitechapel Gallery this Saturday (21st Jan 2017), where Gareth Evans and Sophie Mayer led four artists (Marianna Simnett, Sam Stevens, Charlie Lyne and Sarah Wood) in discussion about their different film-making practices. So different, in fact, that it highlighted the way in which the term ‘essay film’ can sometimes act as an umbrella for undefineable works, and also demonstrated some of the tensions in the way they are consumed today (be it via the internet, a gallery space, or a cinema screen).


The release of The Essay Film: Dialogue | Politics | Utopia edited by Elizabeth A. Papazian & Caroline Eades, and published by Wallflower Press, sees a well-timed opportunity to update and collate some of the seminal views on these topics. The oft-cited queen and king of essay film theory, Laura Rascaroli and Timothy Corrigan, book-end the collection of essays with new work, and their productive difference in thought is weighed up in Luka Arsenjuk’s chapter (12) ‘to speak, to hold, to live by the image’: Notes in the Margins of the New Videographic Tendency. This chapter also explores the online journal [in]Transition and the work of Catherine Grant, whose trail-blazing in the film studies/online publishing field deserves to form the basis of a whole separate book one day.

Oliver Gaycken’s excellent chapter (10) ‘American Essays in How to Build a Home: Thoreau, Mekas, Proenneke‘ looks at the ‘diaristic’ forms of film-making that stretch the ever-wide parameters of the essay film, with the highlight being the close analysis of Jonas Mekas discovering rabbit shit in Diaries, Notes and Sketches (Also Known as Walden) (1962). The fact that this chapter can sit comfortably alongside works on Cinéma-vérité and Kino-pravda, and Mohamed Soueid’s Cinema of Immanence, resonates with the characteristics of the essay form, showing a “quality of digression, of interruption, of circling around an idea without bringing it to a scientifically rigorous conclusion” (Papazian and Eades).

The Essay Film arrives with us during a tumultuous political landscape, and a so-called ‘post-truth’ era, where media literacy is more important than ever. The exercise of discussing and creating essay films goes some way to providing an antidote, wherein the authority of the creator is equated to “accountability rather than authority” (Sophie Mayer). As art, the task of the essay film “is to separate, to transform the continuum of image-meaning into a series of fragments, postcards, lessons” (Jacques Rancière). Part two of the book provides an effective guide to navigating the form in this way. The Essay Film as Politics concerns itself with the ideologies and limits of the genre with regards to the work of Pasolini, Chris Marker, Chantal Akerman and Nanni Moretti. Anne Eakin Moss’s Chapter 7 ‘A Woman with a Movie Camera: Chantal Akerman’s Essay Films‘ even proposes that “the essay film, born of a cinema of rupture and critique, would seem to be the most feminist of filmmaking modes” despite the fact that in addressing the gender of filmmakers, “essay film theorists have mostly obeyed the immortal admonition of Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka: ‘Don’t make an issue of my femininity.’” It is an interesting assertion considering the ‘reluctant’ feminist status of Akerman, but one worth exploring in all its complicated contradictions. As Sophie Mayer suggests, the essay form encourages us “to take in complexity because we are capable of it.” In this book, we consider its impact, across borders and cultures, “as a form of potential subversion, protest and assertion of the self into the polis.” (Papazian and Eades)

Reeling The Real is a website dedicated to the discussion of all kinds of moving image including documentary, film essays, archive re-use, artists' moving image and more.

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