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Neither Documentary or Plot Driven Movie, an Essay Film is something else

This article was based on the information found within a David Winks Gray essay. He is currently attending the San Francisco State University. An “essay film” seems to have a shifting definition. It has been around since the 1950s and throughout its short life it has been mostly used to explain history and historic events. The Pacific Film Archive’s current series of "essay films” is a diverse collection of work that allows a viewer the chance to acclimatize to the way the film works, as essay films will often have a questioning/searching tone to them, which is different to the narrative seen in movies and documentaries.

Within the Pacific Film Archive’s current series you may find “The Way of the Termite: The Essay in Cinema.” This is a curation put together by Jean-Pierre Gorin in the early 1970s. In the film, Jean-Pierre notes how a film essayist is like a termite artist in how they eat through the boundaries that would otherwise contain them.

It is different to place essay films as either documentaries or movie. They are more their own genre or type, though you could fit an essay film in both documentary and movie genre superficially, but then you could easily make a documentary into a movie and vice versa. An example of an essay film that may also be considered a movie or documentary is “A Diary for Timothy” by Humphrey Jennings. A “Perfumed Nightmare” by Kidlat Tahimik’s may also be considered a movie and documentary. Both of these films may be discussed as movies or documentaries, and we can learn more if we consider it an essay film too. Both of these essay films show how different the political and rhetorical ends an essay film may attain.

What makes an essay film? By definition, it is a film that marries what the creator says and thinks with what other people say and think. This may involve including the voices of other people in the film (literally) or may mean commenting on what others have said and done. A written essay may tackle multiple issues or introduce multiple voices/opinions/facts in a fragmented way. An essay film may do the same, and it may probe number of ideas and real events but without an overarching “plot” or narrative voice. There is no dominant narrative voice, which is why essay films are so good for working with history.

The Pacific Film Archive is good for the fact it shows a number of essay films with no set rules or tendencies. There are plenty of examples of people taking a traditional narrative tone and people going a different way. There are many parts that move and act like a documentary and yet remain essay films, and there are some that contain an overarching plot and voice that you still essay films in a very real way.

A Few Recommendations

Try Chris Marker’s “traveling meditation on mortality and memory.” and there is Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera.” You could try “Tout Va Bien,” as it starred Jane Fonda. You can try “Letter to Jane,” which was made by Godard and Gorin, and is a rather nasty letter to Jane Fonda in which they analyze a photo of here with North Vietnamese soldiers.

“Chief!” is a movie by Jean-Marie Teno and goes over the effect that colonization had on Africa and how they still linger today, though the essay film was made in 1999. It contains an episodic consideration of what we may call a fetishistic treatment of their “chiefs” within a Cameroonian society. Teno shows a sense of outrage and humor when dealing with the subject matter.

There is also “Les Maitres Fous,” which is an essay film by Jean Rouch, the creator of cinema veritéa. He is a French cine-ethnographer and rather famous for his work. The “Perfumed Nightmare” is worth a look. It was created in 1977 by Kidlat Tahimik. It is a relevant and funny critique of neocolonialism. The essay film has a plot similar to a movie, where one person suffers a series of events that lead to his disillusionment with American and European-style capitalism. There is an amateur aesthetic, but that is supposedly on purpose. The essay film attacks neocolonial capitalism with humor but also rather viciously.

“The House is Black” is another you may wish to try. It was by Forough Farrokhzad and made in the 1962. This is rather close to a documentary. It has a male voice as a narrator that shows an Iranian leper colony and within the movie there is a plea for better medical care for the people and to help prevent leprosy. He also portrays the ill people as beautiful.

There is also Abbas Kiarostami‘s poem in “The Wind Will Carry Us.” The essay film “Trial” is good. It is by Moslem Mansouri and shows the films made illegally by a group of underground workers at the end of their working day.

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