I think one crucial element of the essayistic mode is how it positions us outside the space of the screen to see how that space operates. In doing so, it redirects our attention back to the material world, to physical spaces, to the forces that govern and shape them, and to our own possibilities to act amidst these forces. We are no longer just eyes glued to a screen; we become minds and bodies reacquainted with our reality.
This rearrangement of our relationship between screens and reality is crucial to realising the potential of the video essay as a mode of activist expression. The rise of video essays proposes a new wave of democratisation of the audiovisual, where everyone can articulate themselves and mobilise others through their self-made media. Key to the realisation of this possibility is developing a collective mindset that can engage this mode in a manner worthy of our best aspirations, both for our screen culture and our social realities.
Thursday 30 March 2017
Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London, SW1Y 5AH
8:45–11:00 | Cinema 1 | [Book here]
The current social and political environment demands a moment of urgent reckoning for the audiovisual essay, whether it is practiced by artists, scholars, or everyday video-makers: How can or should it address the current crises facing the world? Kevin B. Lee’s work has pondered this question, in the past, through video essays on filmic forms of social protest and dissent. But at what point do audiovisual studies of works of activism become activist works in their own right? How do criticism and activism co-exist, and possibly inform and nurture the other? In this special lecture-performance, Lee will explore these questions by showing and discussing a range of recent audiovisual essays that engage with a social and political consciousness, including Steven Boone’s Snake Oil for N—–town Fever, which uses Roger Corman’s The Intruder as a blueprint for diagnosing the prevailing logic of Trumpism; Kiera Sandusky’s Problems with the Gendered POV Shot in Lilya 4-Ever, which examines the problematic outcome when a mainstream film is used for social education purposes; and extracts from Lee and filmmaker-scholar Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s ongoing research project about videos produced and circulated by the Islamic State.
With the support of the Department of Film, Theatre & Television, University of Reading, and the Goethe-Institut, London
Sight & Sound Film Poll: Nicole Brenez on La hora de los hornos / The Hour of the Furnaces, Kevin B. Lee, 2012, digital video, 8 minutes
Produced for Sight & Sound magazine’s international poll of the greatest films ever made, this video adapts Nicole Brenez’ argument for the poll to give greater consideration to political films, as well as to the politics of filmmaking.
Real Film Radicals, Kevin B. Lee, 2013, digital video, 6 minutes
A recontextualization of “radical” cinema, this video critiques how the use of the term “radical” has been applied to certain contemporary films. It then pays tribute to films, many of which have been neglected or marginalized from film history, that attest to a legacy of radical resistance filmmaking.
State of Emergence: The Wall, Anti Banality Union, 2016, digital video, 3 minutes
Who is the enemy, exactly? Dozens of clips from Hollywood zombie films are interwoven into a single sequence depicting how societal paranoia is propagated by mainstream entertainment. An excerpt from State of Emergence, a work-in-progress feature by Anti-Banality Union, a New York based media activist collective
Snake Oil for N—–town Fever, Steven Boone, 2016, digital video, 10 minutes
The 1960s Roger Corman B-movie The Intruder is used as a blueprint for diagnosing the prevailing logic of 21st century Trumpism and the enduring racial dynamics of the United States.
Problems with the Gendered POV Shot in Lilya 4-Ever, Kiera Sandusky, 2017, digital video, 6 minutes
The 2004 Swedish film Lilya 4-Ever depicted the problem of sex trafficking so powerfully that it was used by governments, NGOs and educators as an awareness raising tool. This video examines the aesthetic choices that make the film so powerful, as well as the problematic outcomes when it was used for social education purposes.
My Crush Was a Superstar, Chloé Galibert-Laîné, 2017, digital video, 10 minutes.
This desktop documentary follows a single image of an ISIS fighter through a trail of messages, videos and postings to uncover his existence in both social media and reality. An excerpt from an ongoing research project by Galibert-Laîné and Kevin B. Lee investigating videos produced and circulated by the Islamic State.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker and critic who has made over 300 video essays exploring film and media. His award-winning Transformers: The Premake was named one of the best documentaries of 2014 by Sight & Sound Magazine and played in several festivals including the Berlin Film Festival Critics Week. In 2017 he is the first-ever Artist in Residence of the Harun Farocki Institute in Berlin.
I’ve only just discovered this program of Black British Film and Video currently screening at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles named ‘The Workshop Years’. I’ve reposted the schedule and essay below. See more at the Hammer Museum
Independent black British filmmaking saw an increased urgency and viability in the aftermath of South London’s Brixton Rising in 1981. In many respects this event—part of a series of responses to police brutality, corruption, and racist policies aimed at undermining the rights of Britain’s black population—was the first of its kind to unfold within the context of the BBC’s nightly news.1 At an early moment in British television history, over the course of three days in April 1981, audiences were routinely exposed to images of dissenting blackness through the mediating lens of mainstream journalism; these images became inextricably linked to a series of representational codes that further underscored aspects of British society that had inherited and internalized systematic racial inequities. The depiction of black identity occasioned by the Brixton Rising was one of disorder, lawlessness, and rage—characterizations that continued in the months that followed with subsequent confrontations between protestors and police taking place in Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, and other cities.2
In November 1982, Channel 4 debuted on British television. Conceived, in part, in response to the narratives that had played out in mainstream news outlets, this new channel sought to provide innovative content and give voice to those marginalized in British society, with a greater emphasis on the needs of minority audiences.3 As part of this demand, Channel 4, along with the Greater London Council, dedicated production funds and helped to establish workshops to facilitate the making of film and video from and by these communities. Through new avenues of institutional support and the formation of “publisher-broadcaster” stations like Channel 4, filmmaking collectives and workshops such as Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa Film and Video Collective, and Ceddo Film and Video Workshop were founded in the early part of the decade as alternatives to the dominant modes of representation in the UK. These groups, alongside others like Retake Film and Video that focused on Asian identity, addressed conditions of race and class that had otherwise been told from outsider perspectives.
Writing on the occasion of a program she organized at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in 1988, the artist and writer Coco Fusco argued, “The newly established workshops provided the infrastructure that, combined with racially sensitive cultural polices, created conditions […] to explore and question theoretical issues.”4 Films like John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs (Black Audio Film Collective, 1986) and Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien’s The Passion of Remembrance (Sankofa Film and Video Collective, 1986) positioned themselves at “the center of polemical debates in the mainstream and Black popular press that often do little more than bespeak critical assumptions about which filmic strategies are ‘appropriate’ for Blacks.”5 At the heart of these experimental approaches to filmmaking was a negotiation of so-called dominant images and an attempt to reconcile these with a newfound birth of visibility.
Though united by experimental approaches to narrative, the films produced by Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa Film and Video Collective, and Ceddo Film and Video Workshop in the 1980s and 1990s reflect diverse and divergent concerns, forms, and aesthetics. Kobena Mercer has appropriately referred to this generation of “cinematic activists” as being engaged with the cultural struggle that takes place within the “domain of image-making” through self conscious cinematic strategies.6 In each instance, the individual filmmakers and voices that make up the collectives, workshops, and groups that formed in this tumultuous period in Britain’s cultural history give shape to an image of race otherwise mediated by outside entities. The films produced at the time, as part of Channel 4 and the race-relations industry it came to represent, offer insight into the real conditions, imaginary futures, and contested pasts that come to define race as a lived experience.
1. Sarita Malik, Representing Black Britain: Black and Asian Images on Television (London: Sage, 2001), 85.
2. Ibid., 86.
3. Laura Mayne, “The Channel 4 Films of the 1980s: ‘A Worrying New Category,’” British Universities Film and Video Council, November 9, 2010, http://bufvc.ac.uk/2010/11/09/
4. Coco Fusco, “A Black Avant-Garde? Notes on Black Audio Film Collective and Sankofa,” in Young British and Black: A Monograph on the Work of Sankofa Film/Video Collective and Black Audio Film Collective (Buffalo, NY: Hallwalls, 1988), 9.
5. Ibid., 8.
6. Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1994), 53.
January 3–7: Sankofa Film and Video Collective
Noon: Isaac Julien, Who Killed Colin Roach?, 1983. Super-8 video transfer, color, sound. 37 min. Courtesy of the artist.
12:45 p.m.: Martina Attille, Dreaming Rivers, 1988. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 33 min. Courtesy of the artist and Women Make Movies, New York.
1:30 p.m.: Isaac Julien, Territories, 1984. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 26 min. Courtesy of the artist.
2 p.m.: Maureen Blackwood, Perfect Image?, 1988. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 31 min. Courtesy of the artist and Women Make Movies, New York.
2:45 p.m.: Maureen Blackwood and Isaac Julien, The Passion of Remembrance, 1986. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound 78 min. Courtesy of the artists.
January 10–14: Ceddo Film and Video Workshop
Noon: Menelik Shabazz, Time and Judgement – A Diary of a 400 Year Exile, 1988. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 87 min. Courtesy of the artist.
1:30 p.m.: Milton Bryan, The People’s Account, 1986. Digital Betacam, color, sound. 52 min. Courtesy of the artist and Menelik Shabazz.
2:30 p.m.: Glenn Ujebe Masokoane, We Are the Elephant, 1987. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 52 min. Courtesy of the artist and Menelik Shabazz.
3:30 p.m.: D. Elmina Davis, Omega Rising: Woman of Rastafari, 1988. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 52 min. Courtesy of the artist and Menelik Shabazz.
January 17–25: Black Audio Film Collective
Noon: John Akomfrah, Handsworth Songs, 1986. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 58:33 min. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.
1 p.m.: Reece Auguiste, Mysteries of July, 1991. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 54 min. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.
2 p.m.: John Akomfrah, The Last Angel of History, 1995. Digital Betacam, color, sound. 45:07 min. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.
3 p.m.: Trevor Mathison and Edward George, Three Songs on Pain, Light and Time, 1995. Digital Betacam, color, sound. 22:11 min. Courtesy of the artists and Lisson Gallery.
3:30 p.m.: John Akomfrah, Seven Songs for Malcolm X, 1993. 16mm film transferred to video, color, sound. 52:45 min. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.
The Cinematologists Podcast – Essay Film Now
For this episode, The Cinematologists were invited to cover the Arts Foundations Essay Film prize and an event they are hosting entitled Essay Film Now. Dario interviews the shortlisted filmmakers Charlie Lyne, Marianna Simnett, Samuel Stevens and Sarah Wood about their work and their thoughts on essay film as a cinematic and artistic practice. Dario also talks to the Art Foundation director Shelly Warren and with Sophie Mayer, a writer, poet and film critic about the history, political and philosophy underpinning the essay film as a form.
- For details of the Arts Foundation Prize visit their website
This video essay from Fandor was made for the Thought in Action: The Art of the Essay Film season at the BFI in August 2013. It’s creator Kevin B Lee was commissioned by the BFI to explore the somewhat indefinable genre essay film. Lee says “I spent several weeks reflecting on what the essay film is. This led to a video essay and text published via the BFI’s magazine Sight & Sound that aimed to argue for what true value this as-yet loosely-defined mode of filmmaking could bring to a world that is already drowning in media. Using the video essay to take a polemical stance was a galvanizing experience for me, as it clarified a great deal of my own sense of purpose in being a film critic in a landscape where critical opinions are abundantly available. This video features the work of Santiago Alvarez, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and many others”.
Channel 4’s weekly press packs (1982-2002) ‘were the most comprehensive digest of programme information that any UK broadcaster supplied to the press’ and they offer an unique insight into Marc Karlin’s creative approach towards his ‘Nicaragua’ series. The films were broadcast on consecutive Monday nights at 10pm from 14th October 1985, in Channel 4’s The Eleventh Hour slot. Early promotion of Nicaragua lists working titles to each of the films and from these titles its clear that Karlin purposefully staggered the mode of address for the television audience. Karlin’s believed that for a new and foreign audience to discover post-revolutionary Nicaragua in 1985, they would have to sift through the existing filters imposed by mainstream broadcasters that had left Nicaragua and its history entirely obscured.
First on the production schedule was Voyages From Far Away. It was a studio shoot, filmed in London. Displays bearing blown stills of Susan Meiselas’ photography depicting the two insurrections in Nicaragua 1978/79 were erected to allow Jonathan Bloom’s (the cinematographer on the series) camerawork to glide around them. Karlin believed that before geographically going to Nicaragua you had to interrogate the images coming out of the country first. This rule applied not just to the audience, but also to the film crew who would then travel to Nicaragua after the studio shot. From then on, with each segment, the camera and the audience would get closer to Nicaragua. The second film is an ‘establishing shot’ concentrating on the wide-ranging efforts of Sandinistas to recover their buried history. Then, there is ‘medium close up’ documenting the daily process of a Nicaragua newspaper. Finally, ‘a close up’, with a portrait of farmers in one of the most reactionary regions of Nicaragua, voicing their memories and their future fears.
The first film, Voyages From Far Away, this programme captures the inherent contradictions which inevitably result from being an outside in the middle of somebody else’s political struggle.
The second film, Nearer – The Making of a Nation examines how the Nicaraguans are recovering a sense of their own history, and through that a sense of their own nationhood, after half a century of being ruled as if they were a private limited company owned by the Somoza family.
The third film, Medium Close Up – In Their Time documents the way the Sandinsita newspaper, Barricada represents Nicaragua to its readers through several different reports on the war, the economy, the prison system and the political process leading up to the elections.
The final film, Portrait of a Region, is a more ethnographic film on the daily life of a village during the elections.
A booklet, New Independents on Four, produced by the Channel 4’s Independent Film and Video Department in 1983, comments,
…Karlin goes behind familiar Third World imagery to explore the deeper hidden feeling of what is at stake in a country like Nicaragua, developing for itself a new identity, nationhood and memory. What tensions and strains twist and contort that process in a country that builds itself between the conflicting claims of the USA (the heroic socialist struggle) and the Catholic church (the divine hand of God). Marc Karlin’s work through films like The Nightcleaners and 36 to 77 has been crucial to the development of new documentary forms adequate to the complexities of contemporary reality; in an invaluable combination of analysis, reflexivity and feeling his work points towards a truly politically responsive cinema…
Indeed, Karlin had received criticism from some quarters, notably The Nicaragua Solidarity Committee, for not producing a tubthumping portrayal of this new socialist utopia. But as Karlin’s partner Hermione Harris, who was in Nicaragua at the time of the revolution, points out Karlin’s films are not triumphalist works,
…The Sandinistas often referred to the revolution as ‘el processo’. In spite of all the written accounts, it is the moving image that can most clearly represent the process of social, political and economic change… it was also uneven and messy, contending with inexperience, inefficiency and apathy. Revolutions are made by people, not just philosophies and political slogans, and it is the ordinary Nicaraguan that Marc made visible – there is hardly a comandante, an FSLN leader, in sight… This focus on real lives leaves space for contradiction and opposition…
It is for this reason that Karlin stated his frustration of the scheduling of Werner Herzog’s film Ballad of the Little Soldier in a letter to Alan Fountain, the commissioning editor of the Channel 4’s Independent Film and Video Department. Herzog’s film focuses on the Miskito Indians, a group located in north Nicaragua who had formed anti-Sandinista guerrilla style organisations. The channel broadcast the film in between Karlin’s Nicaragua series on the basis of ‘bringing balance’ to the debate, something that Karlin thought he had already delivered upon.
Fountain, Alan. (1982) New Independents On Four. London: Channel Four.
Sandino Vive – Marc Karlin’s Nicaragua Series By Hermione Harris, Vertigo Volume 2 | Issue 7 | Autumn-Winter 2004
Marc Karlin – Look Again. Edited by Holly Aylett. Available here
Marker Studio Front Door, 2008 © Adam Bartos
It was early 2002 and people still used answering machines rather than mobile phones. The recording clicked in and an extraordinary voice that sounded as if it had been mechanically produced asked the caller to leave a message “if you have something interesting or amusing to say”. I was already nervous that I was cold calling Chris Marker, legendary recluse and indeed general artistic legend. My anxiety intensified and I started to stutter out my message. “I am in Paris and I have a VHS copy of a film called The Magic Face and…” The receiver was picked up (I learned later that Chris screened all his calls) and a very human voice said, “You are the Messiah”. I have never been more startled by any single sentence addressed to me.
If I was the Messiah then John the Baptist was Tom Luddy. It was a few days earlier that I had seen Tom in Berkeley and asked him if he could get me an introduction to Marker. “I have the perfect calling card”, he said. “Chris has been looking for a copy of a film called The Magic Face for 50 years and I have just found a poor VHS copy. Here – deliver it.” And deliver it I now did. Marker said that he would be in the Latin Quarter, where I was living, the next Tuesday but his enthusiasm for the film was so overpowering that I insisted that I would bring it immediately to him. His instructions were both precise and disorienting. I had to go to a Metro station I had never heard of, cross under a disused railway I had never seen, walk down a narrow street, the rue Courat, find a huge house with an array of bells and names. Then I was to choose the bell without any name and ring three times.
The Metro was Maraichers and over the next decade I was to come to know it and that part of the 20th arrondissement well. No tourist has ever set foot there and it corresponds to none of the conventional pictures of Paris but with its completely mixed and relatively poor population it is as good an image of contemporary France profonde as you can find. But that first day it was terra incognita. As I stood at the door of the house I wondered if I had wandered into a parallel universe.
Of course I had and in time I would feel at home there. But, for now, I felt extremely uncomfortable and slightly terrified as I waited for the door to open. Everybody knew Marker’s name (although Marker wasn’t his real name) but unlike almost any other twentieth century name there was no accompanying image. I had no idea what to expect. Suddenly, bounding down the steps came what at very first impression was a huge and agile monkey. Indeed I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been a long and bushy tail to go with the completely bald head. Certainly he bounded back up the stairs with long agile leaps leaving me, thirty years his junior, toiling in his wake.
And then we were in his studio …
Colin MacCabe, http://www.orbooks.com
While the video essay form, in regards to its practice of exploring the visual themes in cinematic discourse, has seen a recent surge in popularity with viewers (thanks to invaluable online resources like indieWIRE’s Press Play, Fandor’s Keyframe and the academic peer-reviewed journal [in]Transition), its historical role as a significant filmmaking genre has long been prominent among film scholars and cinephiles.
From the start, the essay film—more affectionately referred to as the “cine-essay”—was a fusion of documentary filmmaking and avant-garde filmmaking by way of appropriation art; it also tended to employ fluid, experimental editing schemes. The first cine-essays were shot and edited on physical film. Significant works like Agnès Varda’s “Salut les Cubains” (1963) and Marc Karlin’s “The Nightcleaners” (1975), which he made in collaboration with the Berwick Street Film Collective, function like normal documentaries: original footage coupled with a voiceover of the filmmaker and an agenda at hand. But if you look closer and begin to study the aesthetics of the work (e.g. the prolific use of still photos in “Cubains,” the transparency of the “filmmaking” at hand in “Nightcleaners”), these films transcend the singular genre that is the documentary form; they became about the process of filmmaking and they aspired to speak to both a past and future state of mind. What the cine-essay began to stand for was our understanding of memory and how we process the images we see everyday. And in a modern technological age of over-content-creation, by way of democratized filmmaking tools (i.e. the video you take on your cell phone), the revitalization of the cine-essayists is ever so crucial and instrumental to the continued curation of the moving images that we manifest.
The leading figure of the cine-essay form, the iconic Chris Marker, really put the politico-stamp of vitality into the cine-essay film with his magnum-opus “Grin Without A Cat” (1977). Running at three hours in length, Marker’s “Grin” took the appropriation art form to the next level, culling countless hours of newsreel and documentary footage that he himself did not shoot, into a seamless, haunting global cross-section of war, social upheaval and political revolution. Yet, what’s miraculous about Marker’s work is that his cine-essays never fell victim to a dependency on the persuasive argument—that was something traditional documentaries hung their hats on. Instead, Marker was much more interested in the reflexive nature of the moving image. If we see newsreel footage of a street riot spliced together with footage from a fictional war film, does that lessen our reaction to the horrific reality of the riot? How do we associate the moving image once it is juxtaposed against something that we once thought to be safe or familiar? At the start of Marker’s “Sans Soleil” (1983), the narrator says, “The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: one day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.” It’s essentially the perfect script for deciphering the cine-essay form in general. It demands that we search and create our own new realities, even if we’re forced to stare at a black screen to conjure up a feeling or memory.
Flash forward to 1995: Harun Farocki creates “Arbeiter verlassen die Fabrik,” a video essay that foils the Lumière brothers’ “Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory” (1895) with countless other film clips of workers in the workplace throughout the century. It’s a significant work: exactly 100 years later, a cine-essayist is speaking to the ideas of filmmakers from 1895 and then those ideas are repurposed to show a historical evolution of employer-employee relations throughout time. What’s also significant about Farocki’s film is the technological aspect. Note how his title at this point in time is a “video essayist.” The advent of video, along with the streamlined workflow to acquiring digital assets of moving images, gave essayist filmmakers like Farocki the opportunity for creating innovative works with faster turnaround times. Not only was it less cumbersome to edit footage digitally, the ways for the works to be presented were altered; Farocki would later repurpose his own video essay into a 12-monitor video installation for exhibition.
Consider Thom Andersen’s epic 2003 video essay “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” In it, Andersen appropriates clips from films set in Los Angeles from over the decades and then criticizes the cinema’s depiction of his beloved city. It’s the most meta of essay films because by the end, Andersen himself has constructed the latest Los Angeles-based film. And although Andersen has more of an obvious thesis at hand than, say something as equally lyrical and dense as Marker’s “Sans Soleil,” both films exist in the same train of thought: the exploration of the way we as viewers embrace the moving image and then how we communicate that feeling to each other. Andersen may be frustrated with the way Hollywood conveys his city but he even he has moments of inspired introspection towards those films. The same could be said of Marker’s work; just as Marker can remain a perplexed and often inquisitive spectator of the moving images of poverty and genocide that surround him, he functions as a gracious, patient guide for the viewer, since it is his essay text that the narrator reads from.
Watching an essay film requires you to fire on all cylinders, even if you watch one with an audience. It’s a different kind of collective viewing because the images and ideas spring from an artifact that is real; that artifact can be newsreel footage or a completed, a released motion picture that is up for deeper examination or anything else that exists as a completed work. In that sense, the cine-essay (or video essay), remains the most potent form of cinematic storytelling because it invites you to challenge its ideas and images and then in turn, it challenges your own ideas by daring you to reevaluate your own memory of those same moving images. It aims for a deeper truth and it dares to repurpose the cinema less as escapist entertainment and more as an instrument to confront our own truths and how we create them.
via Balder & Dash
“The Dockworker’s Dream” a film by Bill Morrison featuring “The Hustle” music by Lambchop co-written by Ryan Norris and Kurt Wagner.
“The Dockworker’s Dream developed from the idea that the archive is a port of call, a place where goods are loaded and unloaded and held until a dockworker carries them off. In some ways, the imagery is a metaphor for our process. As a film researcher and editor, I find myself seeking out hidden or elusive film material. In the film, there is the voyage, the expedition—and the hunt: we hunt these rare films in order to bring them back alive so that they can live, for awhile longer, on the screen.” – Bill Morrison.