Tagged: essay film

The Essay Film as an Activist Gesture – A Q&A with filmmaker Kevin B. Lee


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.

via ICA – The Essay Film as an Activist Gesture – A Q&A with filmmaker Kevin B. Lee

Thought in Action: The Art of the Essay Film – Elements of the Essay Film #essayfilm

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”.

(Event) Essay Film Now @_TheWhitechapel Sat 21 Jan 2017, 2–6pm


Join a special event dedicated to the art of the Essay Film, featuring the work of four diverse filmmakers shortlisted for the Arts Foundation Essay Film Award and a discussion with writer Sophie Mayer.

The shortlist, comprising Charlie Lyne, Marianna Simnett, Sam Stevens and Sarah Wood each approach the genre of the Essay Film from diverse perspectives in their practice.

Charlie Lyne’s films use existing footage cleverly pieced together to reveal disconcerting undertones such as in Beyond Clueless (2014). Sam Stevens‘ centres on ecological, social and political realities in Europe in his film Atlantropa (2009), which imagines a bridge across the straits of Gibraltar. Marianna Simnett uses surrealist techniques in her work to blend real and imagined events into magic-realist morality tales where she often plays protagonist undergoing significant physical duress such as The Needle and the Larynx (2016).  Sarah Wood’s practice has been dominated by language. The 2014 work I Am A Spy focuses on archives, evidence and meaning.

Sophie Mayer concludes the event with a discussion on the rich history of the essay film, and its contemporary diversity as seen in the work of the featured artists.

Book tickets (£12.50/£10.50 concs)

Courtisane Festival 2016, 23-27 March!


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.

“I believe people accept there is no real alternative.” Thus spoke the Iron Lady. After the freezing Winter of Discontent came the long-awaited “winter of common sense”. An era is drawing to a close, she claimed, meaning that the time for foolish dreams and misguided actions was over. There were to be no more diversions from the one and only course worth pursuing: that leading to the triumph of global capitalism and liberal democracy. While those in power started to pursue vigorous reform programs of neoliberal economic policy and regressive social agendas, some of those who lost their bearings blamed the “bloody-minded” commoners for having invited and brought such ravages upon the dreams of another future. As the memories of struggle faded, counter-forces retreated to a defensive position, where they could merely see fit to protect the freedoms and entitlements that had been acquired with so much grit.

“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.

This program presents a selection of British films that has documented and reflected on the changing political landscape in a period that stretched from the mid-1970s to the beginning of the 1990s. At its core is the work of a filmmaker who was pivotal within Britain’s independent film community: Marc Karlin (1943-1999). He was a member of Cinema Action, one of the founders of the Berwick Street Film Collective, director of Lusia Films, and a creative force behind the group that published the film magazine Vertigo. He also made a major contribution to shaping Channel 4 into a platform for experiment and discovery. Described by some as “Britain’s Chris Marker”, with whom he became friends, he filmed his way through three decades of sea change, wrestling with the challenges of Thatcherism, the demise of industrial manufacturing, the diffusion of media and memory, the crisis of the Left and the extinguishing of revolutionary hopes.
The resonant work by Marc Karlin and the other filmmakers assembled in this program allows us to feel the pulse of an era of transition, whose challenges and transformations are still with us today. At the same time that the Iron Lady is being immortalized as “a force of nature”, while the arguments for the austerity policies that she championed are crumbling before our eyes, a time when the present is declared to be the only possible horizon, it may be worth our while to revisit this era, if only to discover that history is not past – only its telling.

Special thanks to Andy Robson / Marc Karlin Archive.


KASKcinema, Don/Thu 24 maart 12:30
Berwick Street Film Collective
1975, UK, 16mm to video, English spoken, 90’
Nightcleaners was originally conceived by members of the Berwick Street Collective as a campaign film about attempts to unionize women working at night as contract cleaners in large office blocks. But in the process of making the film, it became, as Marc Karlin observed, a film “about distances”.

“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)


Sphinx, Don/Thu 24 maart 22:30
‘36 to ‘77
Marc Karlin, Jon Sanders, James Scott, Humphrey Trevelyan
1978, UK, 16mm to video, English spoken, 85’
Nightcleaners was originally conceived as the first of an ongoing series. Material subsequently shot for Part 2 eventually became ’36 to ’77, in which Myrtle Wardally, one of the cleaners in the earlier film, reflects on the strike and on her life, then and afterwards.

“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)

KASKcinema, Vri/Fri 25 maart 13:00
For Memory
Marc Karlin
1982, UK, 16mm to video, English spoken, 104’

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)


KASKcinema, Vri/Fri 25 maart 15:30
So That You Can Live (For Shirley)
Cinema Action
1981, UK, 16mm to video, English spoken, 83’

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)


KASKcinema, Vri/Fri 25 maart 17:00
The Year of the Beaver
Poster Collective
1985, UK, 16mm to video, English spoken, 78’

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).


Paddenhoek, Zat/Sat 26 maart 13:00
Nicaragua: Voyages
Marc Karlin
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

Twilight City

1989, UK, 16mm to video, English spoken, 52’

“A love story about the city and its undesirables,” this third film by the Black Audio Film Collective evokes the New London – in the filmmakers’ words “a fading world of being and unbelonging, invisible communities, the displaced and the rise of redevelopment.”

“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)


Paddenhoek, Zon/Sun 27 maart 17:00
Scenes for a Revolution
Marc Karlin
1991, UK, 16mm to video, Spanish spoken, English subtitles, 110’

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)

Q&A with Joshua Oppenheimer hosted by filmmaker Adam Curtis, ICA

Q&A with Joshua Oppenheimer hosted by filmmaker Adam Curtis.

The Look of Silence is Joshua Oppenheimer’s powerful companion piece to the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killingwhich was screened at the ICA for 52 weeks. Through Oppenheimer’s work filming perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide, a family of survivors discover how their son was murdered and the identity of the men who killed him.

The documentary focuses on the youngest son, an optometrist named Adi, who decides to break the suffocating spell of submission and terror by doing something unimaginable in a society where the murderers remain in power: he confronts the men who killed his brother and, while testing their eyesight, asks them to accept responsibility for their actions. This unprecedented film initiates and bears witness to the collapse of fifty years of silence.

Via ICA and Dogwoof

Agnès Varda on Coming to California

Agnès Varda stopped by the Criterion offices to talk about the films she made in California in the sixties and eighties. They are all collected in the new Eclipse series Agnès Varda in California, available now!

The legendary French filmmaker Agnès Varda, whose remarkable career began in the 1950s and has continued into the twenty-first century, produced some of her most provocative works in the United States. After temporarily relocating to California in the late sixties with her husband, Jacques Demy, Varda, inspired by the politics, youth culture, and sunshine of the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas, created three works that use documentary and fiction in various ways. She returned a decade later, and made two other fascinating portraits of outsiderness. Her five revealing, entertaining California films, encompassing shorts and features, are collected in this set, which demonstrates that Varda was as deft an artist in unfamiliar terrain as she was on her own turf.

‘World Cinema and the Essay Film’ Conference: Keynote by Prof Timothy Corrigan

Organised by the University of Reading’s Centre for Film Aesthetics and Cultures (CFAC), the ‘World Cinema and the Essay Film’ conference (30 April – 2 May 2015) featured Prof Timothy Corrigan’s (University of Pennsylvania) keynote address on ‘Essayism and Contemporary Film Narrative’, in which he describes how the mode of essayist becomes more and more frequently a disruptive force in narrative films such as Tree of Life (Malick 2011) or The Mill and the Cross (Majewski 2011).

Timothy Corrigan is a Professor of English and Cinema Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He received a B.A. from the University of Notre Dame, and completed graduate work at the University of Leeds, Emory University, and the University of Paris III. Books include The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History (Routledge), A Cinema without Walls: Movies and Culture after Vietnam (Routledge), New German Film: The Displaced Image (Indiana UP), Film and Literature: An Introduction and Reader (Routledge), The Film Experience (Bedford/St. Martin’s), Critical Visions: Readings in Classic and Contemporary Film Theory (Bedford/St. Martin’s, both co-authored with Patricia White), American Cinema of the 2000s (Rutgers UP), and The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker (Oxford UP), winner of the 2012 Katherine Singer Kovács Award for the outstanding book in film and media studies.

Prof Corrigan’s keynote speech abstract ‘Essayism in Contemporary Film Narrative

The essay, the essayistic, and essayism represent three related modes that, at their core, test and explore subjectivity as it encounters a public life and subsequently generates and monitors the possibilities of thought and thinking. The first is a semi-generic product, the second an intervention, and the third a kind of knowledge. The relation of each to other practices, such as narrative, is largely a question of ratios: as assimilative, as inflective, or as disruptive. My title obviously draws on the third mode, and aims to describe and argue a way in which the heritage and distinctions of the essay take a different form than those described more essentially by the essay film. Here, essayism becomes more and more frequently a disruptive force and presence within the presiding shape of a film narrative, a disruption that questions, at its heart, the limits and possibilities of film narrative itself. Specifically and too schematically, essayism questions the interiority of film narrative 1) through the disintegration of narrative agency as a singular and coherent figure, 2) through the exploration of the margins of temporality and history (as a realism) in a movement into unsheltered and “improbable” places, and 3) through the questioning of the knowledges that have conventionally sustained narrative. My two examples will be Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross, both released in 2011, both engaged with and questioning–not coincidently I think–a dominant Judeo-Christian narrative as the foundation of knowledge, and both operating on the edges of conventional narrative form.

Timothy Corrigan University of Pennsylvania

Date: 30 April – 2 May 2015
Venue: Minghella Building, Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading
Conference convenor: Dr Igor Krstic


Vagrancy and drift: the rise of the roaming essay film

A still from Grant Gee's Patience (After Sebald) from 2011

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 LindqvistEduardo 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.