Documentary Film Essay

Documentary Film Essay-18
At least that’s how much of what lately is termed ‘video essay’ strikes me: an onslaught of supercuts, list-based montages and fan videos that do less to shed critical insight into their source material than offer a new way for the pop culture snake to eat its long tail.

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But over the last 30 years, the centrality of the essay film voice over has been thoroughly complicated (cf.

the Black Audio Film Collective’s masterfully polyphonal To Tracy’s credit, he links the use of voice over to a purpose that he and I both consider essential to essay filmmaking – in his words, “to interrogate the image, to dispel the illusion of its sovereignty.” This discontentedness with the cinema, and all that it has promised us over the past century (total entertainment, total art, total Bazinian reality), is one of the profoundest subtexts to Tracy’s piece, a drop-kick through the looking glass of the screen into the world around it, a world it has done as much to distort or distract us from as it has revealed and connected back to us.

He once described his practice as “images commenting on images”, an analytic technique that, through its resourcefulness and simplicity, frequently yields eloquence.

He is represented in the BFI series by , a perversely inspired selection, given how much more overtly essayistic some of Farocki’s other films are compared to this Wiseman-esque observational chronicle of behavioural training sessions (birthing lessons, police drills, a striptease rehearsal).

On this score the cause célèbre is Chris Marker, who figures prominently in the theorising done to date by essay film scholars such as Rascaroli, Nora Alter and Timothy Corrigan, as well as in Andrew Tracy’s feature article on the subject in the August 2013 issue of .

Tracy’s essay gives a compelling account of the evolution of what in hindsight came to be known as the essay-film form, which, according to his telling, seems to culminate with the Left Bank triumvirate (amply represented in the BFI series) of Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda, with their interrogations of a world of images – and of the power of the moving image itself – characteristically set to literate voice overs of wilful indeterminacy.

This gives a firmer delineation against a more general conception of experimental or documentary film practices, while also entertaining other films that one might otherwise neglect as ‘essay films’. To pose a more critical question than “are they or aren’t they?

”, I wonder if the habitual exclusion of the aforementioned titles from the essay film conversation has to do with an urge to reserve the distinction for films and filmmakers who more thoroughly occupy a fringe area existing outside of conventional film genres.

My own entrance into this field was an organic synthesis of my backgrounds as a film critic and a filmmaker, two modes that had competed with each other in my mind until I started to pursue the possibilities of critically exploring cinema through the medium itself.

This practice is readily possible in an age when digital technology enables virtually anyone with a computer (not even a video camera, as images are overly abundant and accessible) to produce media with nearly as much ease as it is to consume it.


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