"As diverse as all these works are, they all have the same aim: to visualize thoughts on screen."
When I was studying film as a first-year student in the mid-90s we saw films almost every weekday, but I could not tell you what we watched. Most films I had already seen, and those I had not seen before were still usually similar to those I had seen. The ones I still remember watching are therefore those that were different from anything I had seen before, films like Le sang des bêtes (Georges Franju 1949), La jetee (Chris Marker 1962) and Passageraren (Eric M. Nilsson 1966). These were films of a more unconventional character, not fiction feature films but not conventional documentaries either. I do not think the term "essay film" was used by the teachers, even though it was an established term then, but today I think they probably would be called that. At least by some.
For one reason or another, it is in the last decade or so that "essay film" has become a popular and widely used term, and there have been several books published on the subject the last couple of years. But the concept and the term has been around since at least the 1930s. The oldest article on the subject that I know of is from 1940, and by Hans Richter. The quote above is from that article. He further says:
Even that which cannot be seen has to be made visible. The staged scene as well as the reproduced facts are points in a line of argument that has as its aim to make problems, thoughts, and even ideas comprehensible to everyone. Therefore, I consider the term 'essay' appropriate for this type of form, as even in literature the word 'essay' is used for the treatment of difficult subjects and themes to render them into a generally comprehensible form.The films he was considering where British films made by John Grierson and Humphrey Jennings, among others, He was also thinking of films by Jacques Brunius, Henri Storck, and his own films, such as Inflation (1928). He did not mention Joris Ivens, but he might have.
Images d'Ostende (Henri Storck 1929)
One thing that is immediately obvious if you read some of the recent books on essay films is the popular idea that it is closely associated with crisis. "More important, however, as both Laura Rascaroli (2017: 5) and Nora Alter (2018: 15) have argued, is the tendency of the essay film to proliferate in times of crisis." is an example of this, from World Cinema and the Essay Film (2019: 1). Since it clearly is not the case that there is any connection between crisis and essay films, I do not understand why this has become a truth. References are often made to the war in Vietnam as an example of such a crisis, which would only make sense, if at all, if it was Vietnamese essay films that became especially prolific but in the insular world of writings on essay films, it is an inordinate focus on French and German films. That would mean that, according to these books, the war in Vietnam constituted a crisis for Germany. That idea is, at best, Eurocentric. But even if the war in Vietnam was an example of a crisis in Europe, when was there not a crisis? The First World War was followed by the depression and rise of Fascism in the late 1920s and early 1930s, followed by the Second World War, the breakup (partition) of India, the Korean war, the Suez crisis, the Algerian war for independence, the Hungarian uprising, the Prague Spring. 20th century history is just a perpetual state of crisis, and the war in Vietnam itself was more or less continuous from the 1950s to 1975. If the essay film proliferated in a time of global crisis, it would always be proliferating.
Another thing that is recurring are efforts to specify and define the essay films. Philip Lopate for example, in his article "In Search of the Centaur" (1992), is particularly specific about what he believes an essay film must and must not do, providing a list of five points covering clarity, consistency, subject-matter and level of quality. Neither of these are helpful or necessarily relevant, and primarily leads to a lot of essay films being exclude for no particular reason.
Nora Alter, in The Essay Film - After Fact and Fiction, claims that the essay film is "a genre of nonfiction filmmaking that is neither purely fiction, nor documentary, nor art film, but incorporates aspects of all of these modes." (2018: 4) and while I mostly agree with the second half of her statement, I disagree about it being a genre, as it has no norms and conventions at all. A few pages later, Alter says that "the essay film functions as a genre of sociopolitical critique that uses sounds and images in unpredictable ways to produce theory." (2018: 10) This strikes me as plain wrong. It is not the case that all essay films engage with "sociopolitical critique" and "produce theory", whatever that might mean. And I am not sure what the difference is between being a genre and "functions as a genre" but that is perhaps just a turn of phrase. For a counter-argument, the essay film is "not a genre, as it strives to be beyond formal, conceptual, and social constraints/.../the essay film disrespects traditional boundaries, is transgressive both structurally and conceptually, it is self-reflective and self-reflexive."
That was claimed with clear conviction but, unexpectedly, also by Nora Alter, in an earlier essay called "The Political Im/perceptible in the Essay Film" (1996). Here I agree with the sentiment, with the exception that those who make essay films are not necessarily consciously aiming to be disrespectful and self-reflexive.
I do not begrudge Alter to change her opinion from one opposite to the other, but I think it is relevant in the sense that if you can have opposite views of the same thing from one year to the next, the thing itself, here the essay film, must be difficult to grasp and define; maybe imponderable.
Michael Chanan has said that the "essay film is documentary at its freest, favouring symbolic and associative thinking over narrative." (2012: 27) and that is close to my own idea. For me, essay films are close to documentary films, while being more abstract and imaginative than a conventional documentary, and they can have elements of fiction in them as well. I am tempted to call it a poetic exploration of reality, told with a special concept in mind, where the relationship between the film and the viewer is a key aspect. A.O. Scott once asked Matt Zoller Seitz about what he considered to be the difference between a film and a TV-series, and Zoller Seitz said that with film the text is the film itself but with a TV-series it is the relationship between the series and you, as the series changes over time, and so do you. It is not set or stable but an ongoing process. I think there is something similar with regards to the essay film. It demands more from the viewer, who have to think and feel in order to put it together. We do this whenever we experience art of course, but essay films are explicitly demanding of the viewer. There might not be a clear narrative or message; we have to create that ourselves. This is probably one reason why surrealists and avant-garde artists are often drawn to the essay film.
Beyond this vague description, I do not think there is anything in general you can say about essay films that are not immediately contradicted by several films you yourself consider essay films. This is part of the appeal of the essay film, that it is an object that escapes descriptions and definitions.
Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami 1990)
For some reason, the examples that people use when writing about essay films come from a small pool. Agnès Varda, Chris Marker, Harun Farocki, Jean-Luc Godard, John Akomfrah, Orson Welles, Trinh T. Minh-ha and a few others. Always the same few filmmakers and the same few films. I do not mind these filmmakers, and Welles's F for Fake (1973) is among the greatest of all films, but I am wondering about how little interest there seems to be to expand the canon. But there are those that are more expansive. Timothy Corrigan, in The Essay Film - From Montaigne, After Marker (2011), discusses Kiarostami's Close-Up as "a documentary essay" (199) and as being of the "essayistic mode, the portrait film" (204). He also mentions Terrence Malick as a fiction feature filmmaker who "incorporate the essayistic within the narrative structure" (205, n4).
That is a good distinction to make, between an essay film and an essayistic film. Of the films I mentioned in the first paragraph, La jetee is better seen as an essayistic film than an essay film, as it has no documentary value. Passageraren likewise, although it and many others of Eric M. Nilsson's films are almost their own category. Close-Up, and other films by Kiarostami, and Jafar Panahi and other Iranians too, can fruitfully be seen as essayistic. The difference between the essay film and a film that is essayistic, is the essay film's stronger connection to documentary. But the loose form and associative narrative, the hybrid between fiction and documentary, can also be found in films that are commonly referred to as fiction feature films, and there we can use the word "essayistic" to emphasise that quality. Besides the Iranian examples, the later films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan would qualify, and Claire Denis is another possible, and interesting, example. There are several others too.
The essay films that Hans Richter described in 1940 are different from the kind of essay films that have been seen the last decades. But I think the 1930s were an interesting time for essay films, and the 1940s too. Humphrey Jennings in Britain is a particular favourite. He was a poet, a surrealist painter and art activist before he began making films, hired by John Grierson to the GPO Film Unit in 1934. There he made several films of great beauty and rhythm, especially from Spare Time (1939) and onwards. Listen to Britain (1943) and A Diary for Timothy (1945) are two excellent examples. I think we can call them essay films.
--------------------------Alter, Nora (2018) The Essay Film - After Fact and Fiction
Alter, Nora (1996) "The Political Im/perceptible in the Essay Film"
Alter, Nora (1996) "The Political Im/perceptible in the Essay Film"
Bazin, André (1958) "Letter from Siberia", reprinted in Film Comment 2003 as "André Bazin on Chris Marker"
Burch, Noël (1973) Theory of Film Practice
Chanan, Michael (2012) "The Role of History in the Individual: Working Notes for a Film" in The Cinema of Me, editor Alisa Lebow
Corrigan, Timothy (2011) The Essay Film - From Montaigne, After Marker
Richter, Hans (1940) "The Film Essay: A New Kind of Documentary Film"
World Cinema and the Essay Film (2019), editors Brenda Hollweg and Igor Krstić
Scott and Zoller Seitz had their discussion on Film Comment's podcast in 2016. A link.
Link to my piece on the GPO Film Unit.
A Diary for Timothy