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.
Alan Fountain encouraged innovation and experiment in the form and content of programmes at Channel 4
My colleague Alan Fountain, who has died unexpectedly aged 69, played a leading role in developing independent film in the UK, and the workshop movement that formed part of it. In 1981 he joined the infant Channel 4, and for 13 years, as commissioning editor for independent film and video, brought into being two strands of programming, The Eleventh Hour and People to People, which added an entirely new dimension to what viewers saw on television.
Channel 4 was tasked by parliament with encouraging innovation and experiment in the form and content of programmes. Alan did that, and more.
Born in Chelmsford, to Bim (nee Browne) and Harold Fountain, who were teachers, he wrote about horses for Sporting Life and took a degree in philosophy and film studies at Nottingham University.
In Birmingham, the Black Audio Film Collective showed, in Handsworth Songs, race and racism as black Brummies experienced it. In Newcastle, Amber, now a photographic collective, made Seacoal, about impoverished men and women scouring coal from the seashore. It won a Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival.
People to People offered access for community programme-making, often dealing with working lives, in factories, hospitals and on the land. In Yellow Bellies we met agricultural labourers working on Lincolnshire clay.
Season after season, The Eleventh Hour on Monday evenings at 11 o’clock presented an unpredictable melange: British independent film-makers Malcolm Le Grice or Margaret Tait, the new cinema of Latin America, film-making from Africa, Nicaragua, the emergent world, and long runs of Jean-Luc Godard. Ideas were traded and alliances formed, including one in Germany with Eckart Stein’s Das Kleine Fernsehspiel, licensed to experiment by ZDF.
Parochialism went out of the window; the world was our oyster.
When Alan left Channel 4 he went international: teaching, advising, consulting. He formed Mondial, with Sylvia Stevens, in 1994, developing a digital platform to connect independent film-making internationally – way ahead of its time.
In his last years, Alan surprised us again; he studied and practised psychotherapy, making further use of the empathy he had with people’s minds and hearts. He made a lasting mark on everything he touched.
He is survived by his wife, Tess (nee Woodcraft), whom he met in 1970, his children, Jack and Billie, and grandson, Rudi.
by Jeremy Isaacs. Via The Guardian
The themes of political cinema and the essay film will be explored in the next instalment of the Coutisane festival running from 23-27 March 2016. Pieter-Paul Mortier and Stoffel Debuysere have curated a vital selection of films over the weekend 25-27 March, including Poster Collective, Cinema Action, Black Audio Film Collective, Berwick Street Film Collective and Marc Karlin. Below are some beautifully crafted extracts from the programme.
There is a traffic of images, he wrote, with controllers qualifying and quantifying and giving these images permission to arrive, telling them where to arrive. These controllers then turn themselves into custom officers – Art Cinema this way – Commercial Art that way – Author Cinema straight ahead – Popular Cinema over here – Genre this and Genre that. You can declare your preferences. Experimental Cinema, may we open your bags, please?
And yet, he continued, there not only exists a welcome space for surprise, but there is also a real need for a cinema that will leave its designated niche; a cinema where the tension between a world that is being illustrated and a world that is being illuminated can make us live again in that dream-state so necessary to our very breathing; a cinema, therefore, that will hurt itself against that current order of things, a cinema that will deliver once again that wonderful surprise – that which is still possible.
An echo from far away, yet so close. These thoughts were formulated just over two decades ago by Marc Karlin, who is one of the key figures in this year’s festival programme. Never really at ease amongst the mourning choir of those grieving the irrevocable demise of cinema, he chose to keep on tirelessly searching for a cinema of the possible, one that sets out to keep discovering the world we are living in. This festival is dedicated to the work of reluctant heroes such as Karlin and countless others who today continue to embark on the path of cinematic discovery. Oftentimes ignoring guidelines and sidestepping roadmaps, regularly haunted by uncertainty and confronted with precarity, time and again forced to be on the defensive and pushed towards the margins, but always driven by a single stubborn belief: that cinema continues to offer us possibilities of life.
A few years ago, a six-year-old girl accompanied her father to one of the screenings at the festival and she asked him: “When I blink my eyes, don’t I interrupt the image for the other people here in this theatre?” With this 15th jubilee edition, Courtisane hopes to stay young, to create a meeting space where this question is at home.
“Wanting to believe has taken over from believing,” a filmmaker observed. But the uncertainty did not stop filmmakers from making films, just as it didn’t stop movements from occupying the spaces that the traditional counter-forces had excluded and abandoned. Instead of holding on to the plots of historical necessity and lures of an imagined unity, they chose to explore twilight worlds between multiple temporalities and realms of experience, situated in the wrinkles that join and disjoin past futures and future presents, memories of struggle and struggles for memory.
Special thanks to Andy Robson / Marc Karlin Archive.
“The film was about the distance between us and the nightcleaners, between the women and the nightcleaners, and was choreographing a situation in which communication was absolutely near enough impossible. I mean, there were these women who were in the offices at night who would wave, or sign or whatever, and sometimes we had to get into offices through very, very subterfuge-like means. The women’s movement came mainly from a kind of middle-class background, and I got in terrible trouble for even saying there were distances, or making a film about distances, and that is what I wanted to do, by and large… The nightcleaners haven’t changed, and it always comes back to this idea, you know, of W.H. Auden and all those people who say: “Well, you know, a poem won’t stop a tank.” Maybe not, but a poem can actually reveal a tank and… I think with Nightcleaners what we did was we revealed the situation of the nightcleaners on the one hand and on the other, the impossibility of capturing those lives.” (Marc Karlin)
“To me ‘36 to ’77 is very important for the way it changes the understanding of how you live with representations. The normal film or television experience leaves you without any trace. It doesn’t hurt you at all to look at it. With ’36 to ’77 I realised how people desperately desire a certain normality for film. It’s such an obsessive need, and when for instance political people see the idea of rendering their politics visible, it completely breaks them apart. A film does test how real your politics are, to the extent of confronting you with something that breaks the very boundaries in your writing. Film acts as a sort of dislocating lever. There’s a lot of left rhetoric about personal politics which is actually a refusal to take personal politics seriously – it’s a refusal to dismember yourself, to re-think, re-phrase, re-constitute yourself in the light of your actions and the things in front of you. It’s a refusal to see age, to see change, to see distances, always taking the same photograph of yourself, wherever you are…The representation of workers on film is normalised because it’s always surrounded by and held in the situating of them as workers in a recognisable political situation, and which a lot of people might not be sharing. The idea that they might have other things that would contradict your idea of them never obviously comes into play now.” (Marc Karlin)
Produced between 1977 and 1982, this film remained on the shelves until the BBC finally broadcast it in a sleepy afternoon slot in March of 1986. For Memory is a contemplation on cultural amnesia, written as a reaction to Hollywood’s Holocaust films, a serialisation of the genocide. Karlin asks: how could a documentary image die so soon and be taken over by a fiction? Seeing that an enormous amount of documentation exists, why did it take a soap opera to have the effect that it did?
“The film came out of a showing of a Hollywood series on the Holocaust. I was deeply shocked by it because of its vulgarity and stupidity… And yet, and yet…! In a sort of Auden-tank sense, it had an enormous effect! In Germany, for instance, where children saw it and were given history books or packages to do with the camps, and so on. I was really disturbed that something like this Hollywood series established some kind of truth, and I just wondered where another kind of truth had disappeared, which was that of the documents. The documents had died to the point where, much later on, in Shoah, Lanzmann would not use a single document. So, I was interested in kind of pursuing them. That led me to think out how, in the future, an imaginary city would remember – because it was the very convenient thing to say that modern times are totally to do with amnesia.” (MK)
So That You Can Live developed from a project called The Social Contract, which the Cinema Action collective began in the mid-1970s. When filming in Treforest, South Wales, the filmmakers met Shirley Butts, a union convenor who was leading a strike by women demanding equal pay. In the subsequent five years, they documented the impact that global economic changes had on her and her family. As Marc Karlin remarked, So That You Can Live is “a film of and in transit – from city to countryside, from employment to the dole, from generation to generation, from power to powerlessness”.
“The most important British independent film since Berwick Street Film Collective’s Nightcleaners, Cinema Action’s So that you can live (For Shirley) is in many ways a very simple film, about a family in a South Wales valley community which has been struck down in the last five years – the period over which the film was made – by the socially destructive consequences of pit and factory closures and the resulting unemployment… Slow and beautifully controlled, a poetry unfolds in this film of enormous depth of feeling and lucid intelligence, and in this way it becomes a passionate plea for the voice of conscience to be heard again in the labour movement. For the word and the idea to become once again part of our vocabulary, as it was for previous generations. For us all to look around and see, in the shapes and forms of our environment, what parents and grandparents tell to those who ask of what is only recently past, the history of Living memory.” (Michael Chanan)
The Year of the Beaver documents the strike at the Grunwick film processing factory in North London in 1976-‘78, which was then described as “a central battleground between the classes and between the parties”. The film, which incorporates a lot of the material from the reporting that was being produced at the time, is not only a documentary of a strike, but a portrait of an historical period, as it underwent transition to the modern ‘civilized’ state under Thatcherism.
“It wasn’t until the early eighties that a film called The Year of the Beaver emerged and I first really met Marc Karlin as he hugged me on seeing it. A film which had, for all the efforts of the inexperienced people who had worked on it, managed to create layers of meaning and make connections between the myriad of things it had had to take on board. It showed what had come to be viewed as the seeds of Thatcherism developing long before her reign. This mammoth work had been years in the making, years in editing rooms struggling for ways and means to illuminate a story that needed to be told, to find an adequate form in which to tell its tale.” (Steve Sprung)
Followed by a DISSENT! talk with Ann Guedes (Cinema Action) and Steve Sprung (Cinema Action, Poster Collective).
DISSENT! is an initiative of Courtisane, Auguste Orts and Argos, in the framework of the research project “Figures of Dissent” (KASK/Hogent).
1985, UK, 16mm to video, English spoken, 42’
The first film in Marc Karlin’s four-part series on the Nicaraguan revolution that brought down President Somoza’s regime in 1979, Voyages is composed of five tracking shots, gliding over blown-up photographs that Susan Meiselas took during the insurrection. The film takes the form of an imagined correspondence, which interrogates the responsibilities of the war photographer, the line between observer and participant, and the political significance of the photographic image.
“Photographs are in a way far ahead of our ability to deal with them – we have not yet found a way of dealing, living with them. We have appropriated them in a channel – ‘language’, ‘papers’, ‘magazines’, ‘books’ – all of which seem the only tools by which we can give them an earthbound gravity. We brush past them, flick them, demand of them things they cannot give… Liberate photographs from its priests and jujumen – including myself. We do not need interpreters. We need looks – and thus the task is up to the photographer to renew his or her contract i.e. what can photographs and their arrangement do to defy the prison house interpretation à la John Berger – and make us think of ourselves in relationship to Nicaragua.” (MK)
Black Audio Film Collective / Auguiste Reece
1989, UK, 16mm to video, English spoken, 52’
“The film presents an imaginary epistolary narration of a young woman’s thoughts as she writes to her mother in Domenica about the changing face of London, then in the throes of the new Docklands development. She fears it is a city that her mother would not now recognise should she return. The film cuts between this narrative voice and interviewees bearing witness to their youthful experience of the city as a territory mapped by racial, cultural, sexual, gender and class boundaries, a place ‘of people existing in close proximity yet living in different worlds.’ This polyvocal narrative moves restlessly back between past and present, reflecting on the loss of roots and erasure of history caused by the demolition of old established neighbourhoods. The further displacement of already marginalised communities falls under the shadow of the films’s recurrent motif of the public monument to a heroic British imperial history notable for its effacement of its disruptive descendants.” (Jean Fisher)
Revisiting material of his earlier four-part series, Marc Karlin returns to Nicaragua to examine the history of the Sandinista government, to consider its achievements and assess the prospects for democracy following its defeat in the 1990 general election.
“For ten years, the Sandinistas had tried to make democracy mean access to education, health, nationhood, and the sense of collective responsibility. Now in one swift move Nicaragua found itself suddenly transplanted to the political events of Eastern Europe. It was as if differences, identities, separate histories, could all be electronically and democratically jammed. But then in this day and age, anyone and everyone could speak the word democracy. What it meant, what it felt like, what it could be as opposed to what it was not no-one would dare say. As if a democracy to really work had to be by definition valueless, orderless, heard but not seen. As if democracy could be about nothing else but the right to be left alone… For ten years Nicaragua had been out of the headlines. Now that it was officially declared a democratic nation, it was hardly ever heard of. As if democracy instead of making voices heard was there to silence them, a confirmation after all that history and all its wrongdoings had officially ended. But these images, so often seen in films on the third world, to the point of invisibility, were the product of a bitter poverty which had not been erased.” (MK)
From over two years ago now – as part of the Iniva’s Keywords exhibition and programmed by The Otolith Collective – the Militant Image presents Penny Stempel’s rarely screened film In the National Interest? (1986). (16/05/2013)
Penny Stempel’s seminal film, co-directed by Chris Rushton, looks at those sections of British society targeted by the government, the judicial system and the police in the name of the national interest in Britain in the 1980s. The film assesses the legitimation crisis of the British state by exploring the connections between trade union struggles, racial attacks and processes of criminalisation.
In the National Interest? was produced by Cardiff based Chapter Video Workshop, co-founded by Stempel and Rushton, a franchised workshop under the ACTT Workshop Declaration – an act that facilitated the funding of film and video workshops to produce work for television. This allowed the groups, already working on directly politically and socially engaged film-making, to consolidate their activities. During the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85, Stempel had worked closely with Wales’ mining community, recording testimonies that contributed to the widely distributed Miners Campaign Tapes. Upon viewing this, Alan Fountain, the Commissioning Editor of Channel 4’s Independent Film and Video Department (IFVD), approached Chapter to make a film for Channel 4’s People to People strand.
In the National Interest? was made in a unique and unprecedented cooperation with other independent film and video workshops including ABSC Film and Video, Activision Studios, Albany Video, Another View, Belfast Independent Video, Biased Tapes, Black Audio Film Collective, Derry Film & Video Collective, Faction Films, Films at Work,Open Eye, Sankofa, Sheffield Asian Film and Video, Trade Films, TUTV and Women in Sync. Seemingly galvanised by the Miner’s Strike, these workshops donated film and video material from their own campaigns to Chapter for integration within In the National Interest?
In the discussion that follows, Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar of The Otolith Collective, remark on this ‘cinema of coalition’ that links up other struggles within Britain’s ‘geography of resistance’ at the time. The discussion also explores the complex and controversial production history of In the National Interest?, the formation of the workshop movement in 1980s Britain, the struggles of the workshops to invent a new language for television, the role played by the Independent Film and Television Department at Channel 4 and the legacies of oppositional film in Britain in the present.
This was a Militant Image event, an ongoing programme in which Iniva investigates radical film practice in association with the Otolith Group and with the support of the Department of Art at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
A seminal figure of activist and ‘engaged’ cinema, British filmmaker John Akomfrah has been leading the charge for over 30 years. As one of the founders of the Black Audio Film Collective, which sought to use documentary to explore questions of black identity in Britain, Akomfrah has continually pushed boundaries in both form and content. In this session he discussed his remarkable career with Francine Stock, the presenter of The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. From Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015.
John Akomfrah’s essay on Marc Karlin, Illumination and the Tyranny of Memory, can be seen in Marc Karlin – Look Again, edited by Holly Aylett, published by Liverpool University Press. Available now at the BFI shop.
John Akomfrah talks to TateShots about his practice as a filmmaker. The artist discusses how he navigates between the gallery and cinema, what compelled him to make his 2015 work Vertigo Sea, and the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky.
After a tour of his work space at Smoking Dogs, he responds to subjects such as, ‘the border of cinema’, whether he prefers working in film, TV or the gallery, the philosophy of montage, why history matters, and archive and documentary…
…the thing I have spoken a lot about is the how much the archive is a sort of memory bank, which connects it with questions of mortality. Usually at archives you can’t watch stuff without realising that it is also watching people who have gone. That recognition is on it’s own is not very much unless it is married with a second recognition which is that the image is one of the ways in which immortality is enshrined in our pysche and in our lives, you know? And documentaries do that. You make a documentary to both capture something that’s going to die unless it’s captured, but you are also trying to capture something because you want it to live…
John Akomfrah’s essay on Marc Karlin, Illumination and the Tyranny of Memory, can be seen in Marc Karlin – Look Again, edited by Holly Aylett, published by Liverpool University Press. Available now at the BFI shop.
Freedom and possibility … a still from Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) from 2011
by Sukhdev Sandhu. The Guardian, Saturday 3 August 2013
For years the essay film has been a neglected form, but now its unorthodox approach to constructing reality is winning over a younger, tech-savvy crowd.
For a brief, almost unreal couple of hours last July, in amid the kittens and One Direction-mania trending on Twitter, there appeared a very surprising name – that of semi-reclusive French film-maker Chris Marker, whose innovative short feature La Jetée (1962) was remade in 1995 as Twelve Monkeys by Terry Gilliam. A few months earlier, art journal e-flux staged The Desperate Edge of Now, a retrospective of Adam Curtis‘s TV films, to large audiences on New York’s Lower East Side. The previous summer, Handsworth Songs (1986), an experimental feature by the Black Audio Film Collective Salman Rushdie had once attacked as obscurantist and politically irrelevant, attracted a huge crowd at Tate Modern when it was screened shortly after the London riots.
Marker, Curtis, Black Audio: all have made significant contributions to the development of an increasingly powerful and popular kind of moving-image production: the essay film. Currently being celebrated in a BFI Southbank season entitled The Art of the Essay Film – curated by Kieron Corless of Sight and Sound magazine – it’s an elusive form with an equally elusive and speculative history. Early examples proposed by scholars include DW Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909), Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Jean Vigo‘s A Propos de Nice(1930), but some of its animating principles were identified in a key text, “The Film Essay” (1940) by the German artist Hans Richter, which called for documentaries “to find a representation for intellectual content” rather than merely “beautiful vistas”.
Essay films, unlike conventional documentaries, are only partly defined by their subject matter. They tend not to follow linear structures, far less to buttonhole viewers in the style of a PowerPoint presentation or a bullet-pointed memo; rather, in the spirit of Montaigne or even Hazlitt, they are often digressive, associative, self-reflexive. Just as the word essay has its etymological roots in the French “essai” – to try – essay film-makers commonly foreground the process of thought and the labour of constructing a narrative rather than aiming for seamless artefacts that conceal the conceptual questions that went into their making. Incompletion, loose ends, directorial inadequacy: these are acknowledged rather than brushed over.
Aldous Huxley once claimed an essay was “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything”. Essay films exploit this freedom and possibility, exulting in the opportunity to avoid the hermetic specialisation that characterises much academic scholarship, and to draw on ethnography, autobiography, philosophy and art history. A case in point is Otolith I (2003) by the Turner prize-nominated Otolith Group, whose co-founder Kodwo Eshun will deliver a keynote speech at BFI Southbank: it uses the mass demonstrations against the second Iraq conflict in London as an occasion to think about political collectivity, and deploys an elusive, eerily compelling compound of science fiction, travelogue, epistolary writing and leftist history to do so.
This roaming or tentacular approach to structure can be seen as a kind of territorial raid. Or perhaps essay film-makers are aesthetic refugees fleeing the austerities and repressions of dominant forms of cinema. It’s certainly striking how many essay films grapple with landscape and cartography: Patrick Keiller‘s London (1994) uses a fixed camera, a droll fictional narrator named Robinson and near-forensic socio-economic analysis to explore the “problem” of England’s capital; Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) is an extraordinary montage film by Thom Andersen in which, sampling almost exclusively (unlicensed) clips from 20th-century cinema and with drily damning commentary, he critiques representations of his home city.
Essay films sometimes exhibit a quality of vagrancy and drift, as if they are not wholly sure of what they want to say or of the language they need to say it, which may stem from their desire to let subject matter determine – or strongly influence – filmic form. Here, as in the frequent willingness to blur the distinction between documentation and fabulation, the essay film has much in common with “creative non-fiction”. The literary equivalents of Hartmut Bitomsky, director of a mysterious investigation of dust, and Patricio Guzmán whose Nostalgia for the Light (2010) draws on astronomy to chart the poisonous legacies of Pinochet‘s coup d’etat in Chile, are writers such as Sven Lindqvist, Eduardo Galeano and Geoff Dyer. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that one of the most celebrated modern creative non-fiction authors was the subject of an equally ruminative, resonant essay film – Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) (2011).
Essay film-makers – among them the Dziga Vertov Group (whose members included Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin) or the brilliant Santiago Álvarez – are often motivated by political concerns, but their work is never couched in the language of social realism or the journalistic dispatch. It is never purely utilitarian and is more likely to offer invitations to thought than clarion calls for action: Godard and Gorin’s Letter to Jane (1972) decodes at length a single still photograph of Jane Fonda on a trip to Vietnam; Black Audio Film Collective’sHandsworth Songs proposes that behind the blaring headlines of riot footage in the British media there lie the “ghosts of other stories”; Harun Farocki‘s Images of the World and Inscription of War (1988) explores the interplay of technology, war and surveillance. Essay films can be playful, but even when they are serious – as these three are – their approaches, at once rigorous and open-ended, are thrilling rather than pedagogic.
Just as literary critics used to lament that critical theory was taken more seriously in France than in the UK, the renown of essayists such as Marker, Godard and Agnès Varda (whose The Gleaners and I, a witty and moving meditation on personal, technological and socio-political obsolescence is a masterpiece) has served to obscure the range and history of British contributions to the genre: the sonically exploratory, surrealism-tinged likes of Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon (1934) and Humphrey Jennings’s Listen to Britain (1942); Mike Dibb and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972), which bears the imprint of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin; BS Johnson’s self-deconstructing Fat Man on a Beach (1973); Derek Jarman‘s exquisitely crepuscular Blue (1992), in which the director talks about and through his fading eyesight; and Marc Karlin’s resonant disquisition about cultural amnesia in For Memory (1986).
Some of these films started life on television, but these days it is the gallery sector that is more likely to commission or screen essay films, which are attracting ever more sizable audiences, especially younger people who have been weaned on cheap editing software, platforms such as Tumblr and the archival riches at YouTube and UbuWeb. Visually literate and semiotically savvy, they have tools – conceptual as well as technological – not only to critique and curate (moving) images, but to capture and assemble them. Having grown up in the era of LiveJournal and Facebook, they are also used to experimenting with personal identity in public; RSS feeds and news filters have brought them to a point where the essay film’s fascination with investigating social mediation and the construction of reality is second nature. It could well be that the essay film – for so long a bastard form, an unclassifiable and barely studied hybrid, opaque even to cinephiles – is ready to come into its own.