Friday 31 January 2020

Essay films

"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)

It is more usual though to claim that it was in the 1950s that the essay film properly emerged. Three key films are Night and Fog (Alain Resnais 1956), Letter from Siberia (Chris Marker 1958), which André Bazin called "an essay documented by film," and The Lovely Month of May/Le joli mai (Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme 1963). Noël Burch is often quoted here because he gives the impression he thinks it began with Franju's Le sang des bêtes: "the only cinematographer to have successfully created from pre-existing material films that are truly essays" (1973: 160-161) However, Burch had a few pages earlier provided a number of caveats to that claim: "For the contemporary observer, the first significant examples of an essay-type film are Georges Franju's short works." (158) According to this convoluted sentence, it seems Burch is saying that there were essay films before 1949 but he, speaking on behalf of all "contemporary observers", do not consider them significant enough. It is a peculiar way of looking at film history, basing it on what you yourself consider "significant", whatever that means.

As usual, I prefer not to refer to any film as being the first of anything, especially since I have not seen enough to know with any certainty. Neither has Burch.


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 (1996) "The Political Im/perceptible in the Essay Film"
Alter, Nora (2018) The Essay Film - After Fact and Fiction
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

Friday 17 January 2020


Two significant things happened to me in the mid-1980s. One was my discovery of cinema, or film history, and the other was my discovery of Australia. They both became passions of a certain kind, both of which have stayed with me and never weakened their appeal. As you know, film is what I devoted my life to, professionally and privately, but Australia is never far from my mind.

There were two sources for this interest with Australia, two TV experiences. One was an interview on Swedish television with a Swedish family from Hässelby (a suburb to Stockholm) which had sold everything they had and moved to Coober Pedy in South Australia to begin a new life, looking for opals. Watching that as an impressionable boy of maybe ten, I felt strongly that this must be what I too will do when I grow up. (I did not; I have not even visited Coober Pedy on either of my visits to Australia. But it is a peculiar place.)

The other experience was an Australian TV-series called Five Mile Creek (1983-1985) that was set during the gold rush in Victoria in the 1860s, and this series, of which I watched all episodes, made a strong impression on me. While other Swedes watched (re-runs of) the American Western series like Bonanza (1959-1973) or The Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983) or How the West Was Won aka The Macahans (1976-1979), Five Mile Creek was how I got my idea of frontier lives and stagecoach rides. I still have vivid memories of it, although do not remember that Nicole Kidman acted in it.

There was another Australian TV-series at the time, also set in the past, All the Rivers Run (1983) but I was not old enough to watch that, or maybe I was old enough but somehow just did not do so. Either way, I was aware of it, and had caught glimpses of it. Those glimpses were enough to make a big impression too, and making me eager to one day watch the whole thing. It is slightly bizarre that it took me until Christmas of 2019 before I did so. It was exactly as I had expected it to be, during those 35 years of imagining it. I had put a small part of my childhood on hold for decades and now I finally completed it.

On both Five Mile Creek and All the River Runs, George Miller was setting director, and I even think they begin with the same opening shot of a ship in a storm outside the coast. It is however not the same George Miller that made the Mad Max films. This Miller mainly did TV-series but also one famous film: the mountain horseback riding classic The Man from Snowy River (1982), based on a poem by "Banjo" Paterson.

The Man from Snowy River

It is rare that Australian films travel abroad, and when they do it is often some kind of international production like Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller 2015) or The Water Diviner (Russell Crowe 2014) or something by Baz Luhrmann. And Australia's home-grown cinema has usually struggled and has often been underwhelming. But there are plenty of good things there, much of which is unnecessarily unknown.

Before the early 1970s, when what is often called the Australian New Wave got started (I am not convinced it is a relevant term), most of the landmarks of Australian cinema were made by visiting European directors. Harry Watt made the cattle epic The Overlanders (1946); Michael Powell made two fine films, They're a Weird Mob (1966, with Emeric Pressburger) and Age of Consent (1969); Fred Zinnemann made the wonderful The Sundowners (1960) and later Nicolas Roeg made a great one, Walkabout (1971). Even Lasse Hallström flew down to make ABBA: The Movie (1977), which is quite lovely, although I would not call that an Australian film.

There had been homegrown talents such as Charles Chauvel, who, for example, made In the Wake of the Bounty (1933) where Errol Flynn played Fletcher Christian, Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940) and Jedda (1955), which was the first Australian feature film that was in colour, and the first Australian film to be in competition for a Palme d'Or in Cannes, and it also had Aboriginal characters, played by Aboriginals, in the leads. This too was new. Two other Australian filmmakers were Raymond Langford, in the silent era, and later Ken G. Hall. Hall made around 18 films in the 1930s and 1940s and was the first Australian filmmaker to win an Academy Award. That was for the documentary Kokoda Front Line! (1942), about a key battle between Australians and Japanese soldiers in New Guinea. Hall was producer and director and the camerawork was by newsreel photographer Damien Parer. It is a film to make sure the Australians at home, far from the front, do not forget the important fighting the Australian soldiers do in the mud and rain of the jungles. It is short on artistic merit but as a propaganda film in the midst of war I can imagine it being effective.

But these films, and many others, are almost without exception unknown or unseen outside Australia, even though many of them, especially Hall's films, were great successes at home. It remained the case that it was the foreigners who made the few Australian films that travelled abroad. It was a combination of political and creative changes in the late 1960s and early 1970s that changed things dramatically. Partly because the Labor government under Gough Whitlam (1972-1975) was particularly keen on supporting cinema, but the previous government had done so too. These changes (financial support, schools, institutions, infrastructure) led to a number of homegrown filmmakers suddenly appearing and they would make Australian cinema something to be reckoned with, regularly and globally. If we discount Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff 1971) and Walkabout, for being international productions made my foreign directors, in the same year (1971) there was the low budget film Stork, directed by local Tim Burstall and written by local David Williamson. The latter was a significant creative force in the renaissance, having written for example Don's Party (Bruce Beresford 1976), Gallipoli (Peter Weir 1981) and the superb The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir 1983). Bruce Beresford's first film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) was another key film, and, like Burstall's early film(s), a crude and vulgar affair, what is known in Australia as "ocker" comedies. Another eccentricity is Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), a truly bonkers film. He followed it with the magnificent Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).

But there were too many good and/or fascinating films made then to name them all here. That was part of the change. While very few Australian fiction feature films were made in the 1950s and 1960s (some years only one, other years none), the 1970s saw a dramatic increase where some 30 to 40 films could be made in one year alone.

I want to write more about Australian cinema, and I want to watch more of it too, including such TV-series as Whiplash (1960-1961) and Homicide (1964-1977). This is one of the things I will focus on in 2020, and possibly beyond. For now though I want to focus on something else…


There is one episode of All the Rivers Run where the heroine Philadelphia Gordon, affectionately played by Sigrid Thornton, and her partners on the paddle steamer Philadelphia are caught on a sandbank because a dry spell has depleted the river and made it too shallow for boats and ships. For months they are stranded in a dry, barren landscape, making brief visits to the house of two settlers, man and wife, who has seen their crops, animals, and two children die of starvation and dehydration. The episode has an almost post-apocalyptic feeling, with the empty eyes if the grieving wife taking on a depth and horror that the rest of the episodes do not come close to reaching.

Seeing that episode now, while following the raging bushfires that are destroying large parts of New South Wales and Victoria, gave it an extra level of resonance. The news are full of not post-apocalyptic but present-apocalyptic images, of forests, towns and farms turned into ashes.

The rivers on which All the Rivers Run take place, Campaspe and Murray, are even more depleted and un-useable today, thanks to us humans. We build dams, we water golf courses and we pollute the environment with coal and other greenhouse gases, and thereby destroy the earth. Global warming is our slow-moving apocalypse, that it may or may not be possible to stop or reverse. Doing so will take a lot more from us than it seems we are currently capable of, but if we do not want to end up like the wife and her dead children, we have to wise up. Australia might be the country on fire right now, but it will get worse and it will get more common and it will happen in many other countries.

back when all the rivers did run

Friday 3 January 2020

closed for vacation

It is a new year and we can all hope it will be better than the last. Alas blog wise it comes up short since I am on vacation and refuse to write anything. See you all in two weeks, January 17, 2020.

Charulata (Satyajit Ray 1964)