The Essay Film Festival, now in its sixth edition, presents a global range of contemporary and restored essayistic works, each exploring the critical and creative zone of possibilities that lies between experimental and documentary modes of filmmaking.

This year’s programme features several key themes and strands:

New work by the Otolith Group and restored essay films by Ruchir Joshi and the Yugantar Collective engage with the cultural history and politics of India, providing imaginative and insightful perspectives on the educational projects of Rabindranath Tagore, the wandering Baul musicians, the changing cities of Ahmedabad and Kolkata, and the political struggles of Indian women. A symposium on the work of author and filmmaker Joshi will take place during the festival with guests from India, France and the USA, while Yugantar member Deepa Dhanraj will join researchers from Berlin Arsenal and Goldsmiths to discuss the restoration of the collective’s films.

From Argentina, France, UK and the Philippines come challenging found footage experiments by Leandro Listorti, Frank Beauvais, Sarah Wood and John Torres, which critically examine the status and uses of images today while transforming them into moving and fascinating new creations. A student-led research workshop with guest filmmakers will analyse the theory and practice of found footage in the digital age.

US artists Garrett Bradley and Cauleen Smith investigate and celebrate the depth and diversity of African-American lives, past and present, with works that, like all good essays, both question the viewer and invite us into an ongoing conversation. Both Bradley and Smith will give lecture-workshops about their practice alongside the screenings of their films.

Developing the theme of ‘the living archive’, a series of events will address the cultural politics of film restoration, featuring works by Jocelyne Saab, Mostafa Derkaoui, Ingemo Engström and Gerhard Theuring, in addition to the restored films of Ruchir Joshi and the Yugantar Collective.

Finally, Israeli filmmaker Tamar Rachovsky will join the festival to present and discuss Home in E Major, which looks at complex questions of identity and belonging through the deceptively simple lens of the diary film.

Simple and complex, contingent and reflective, hybrid and critical, the essay film that we celebrate at our festival is a constantly renewed invitation to engage with the world and to see it in new ways.

Michael Temple (Director), on behalf of the Essay Film Festival group: Matthew Barrington (Manager), Kieron Corless, Nicolas Freeman (CHASE intern), Catherine Grant, Ricardo Matos Cabo, Janet McCabe, Raquel Morais, and Laura Mulvey. 

The Essay Film Festival is a collaboration between the ICA and Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image, with support from the CHASE Doctoral Training Partnership.


Saturday 4 April, 14:30-19:30, Goethe-Institut London

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UK premiere of restoration of Escape Route to Marseille adapted from the novel Transit

Film: Escape Route to Marseille (Fluchtweg nach Marseille), Ingemo Engström and Gerhard Theuring (1977), Germany, 1977, DCP, German with English subtitles, 210 minutes (part one: 90 minutes, part two: 120 minutes)

With the support of CHASE Doctoral Training Partnership, Goethe-Institut London, and Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art (Berlin).

Following last year’s presentation of Film Emigration from Nazi Germany (1975) by Günter Peter Straschek, the Essay Film Festival and the Goethe-Institut will now screen the restoration of Escape Route to Marseille (1977), directed by Ingemo Engström and Gerhard Theuring, which is based on the exile novel Transit by Anna Seghers. In 1977, Engström and Theuring embarked on a journey through France, making a ‘working journal with images’, as they described it. Their essayistic approach to film adaptation follows the escape route of German emigration from Nazi Germany (and Seghers’s own route), documenting the places, talking to witnesses, layering the past and the present. The result is a film in two parts, mixing fictional and documentary elements, and performing a thorough investigation of exile and cultural resistance against fascism during World War Two. 

In preparation for this screening, the Essay Film Festival and Goethe-Institut are organising a Reading Group around Anna Seghers’s Transit, the final session of which will take place at the Goethe-Institut, Saturday 4 April, before the screening. More information available from the Essay Film Festival website.


Friday 3 April, 8.15, French Institute

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UK premiere of restored Moroccan essay film banned forty years ago

Film: About Some Meaningless Events (De quelques événements sans signification), Mostafa Derkaoui, Morocco, 1974, DCP, Arabic with English subtitles, 76 minutes, UK premiere

The screening will be preceded by a presentation by curator and independent researcher Léa Morin, whose work explores archives, history and film heritage from North Africa, seeking to trace possible historiographies based on the absent, disappeared or forgotten.

With the support of CHASE Doctoral Training Partnership and Institut Français London.

In 1974, in Morocco, Mostafa Derkaoui filmed About Some Meaningless Events (De quelques événements sans signification), an essayistic inquiry into the social role of an independent national cinema that is being born and the political aspirations of a new generation. The film was banned under the country’s censorship laws and remained practically invisible until this restoration made it available. Today the film retains an energy, a curiosity, and a sense of urgency that will surprise and challenge contemporary audiences.As curator Rasha Salti has written: ‘Around the port’s streets and popular bars of Casablanca, a group of filmmakers conduct discussions with people about their expectations of, and aspirations for, the emerging Moroccan national cinema. When a disgruntled worker kills his superior accidentally, their inquest shifts focus, and they begin to probe the context and motives of the killing. At the heart of About Some Meaningless Events (De quelques événements sans signification) is an interrogation on the role of cinema (and art) in society, documentary and the Real, and what constitutes an urgency for a national cinema that is being born. This unique filmic experience was conceived as an independent and collective effort of militant filmmakers, actors, musicians, poets and journalists at a time of heightened repression on freedom of expression in Morocco and was funded by the sale of paintings by several contemporary painters. The film was first screened in Paris in 1975 but was immediately taxed with censorship and forbidden from exhibition and export. It was forgotten until a negative print was found in the archives of the Filmoteca de Catalunya in 2016 and restored there. Forty-five years after its completion, the film will finally be released.’ (Rasha Salti, Courtisane Festival, 2019)


Friday 3 April, 14:00-17:00, Birkbeck Cinema

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A tribute to the work of Jocelyne Saab presented by Mathilde Rouxel

Films: Children of War (Les Enfants de la guerre), Lebanon, 1976, 16mm/digital, Arabic with English subtitles, 10 minutes

The Ship of Exile (Le Bateau de l’exil), Lebanon, 1982, 16mm/digital, Arabic with English subtitles, 12 minutes

Egypt, City of the Dead (Égypte: cité des morts), Egypt, 1977, 16mm/digital, Arabic with English subtitles, 37 minutes

The Ghosts of Alexandria (Les Fantômes d’Alexandrie), France, 1986, 16mm/digital, Arabic and French with English subtitles, 18 minutes

With the support of CHASE Doctoral Training Partnership and Open City Documentary Festival.

In 2017 the Essay Film Festival invited Jocelyne Saab to present her extraordinary trilogy of films about Beirut shot between 1976 and 1982. These are personal and political film essays in which the filmmaker tries to come to terms with her experience of the civil war in Lebanon. Initially a journalist and war reporter, Saab became a central figure in Arab cinema, documenting intrepidly the transformations brought over by the war and multiple social and political conflicts in the Middle East in the late 1970s and 1980s. Saab’s commitment to those mauled by the war and to those that resist, to the exiles, the dispossessed, and the poor, was manifested throughout her vast filmography of over thirty films. Her curiosity and relentless enthusiasm for the culture and the people of the countries where she filmed extended to the fiction films she directed after the 1980s, and to the photographic works she did as well as the installations she created in the later years, before her death in 2018. The Essay Film Festival celebrates Saab’s work once again with a selection of her films and a presentation by researcher Mathilde Rouxel, author of the first monograph dedicated to the filmmaker and the person responsible for the preservation and distribution of Saab’s films. 


Thursday 2 April, 21:00-23:00, ICA 

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Cauleen Smith: short film programme and conversation

Films: Sojourner, Cauleen Smith, USA, 2018, DCP, 22 minutes

Three Songs About Liberation, Cauleen Smith, USA, 2017, DCP, 10 minutes

Pilgrim, Cauleen Smith, USA, 2016, DCP, 11 minutes

Crow Requiem, Cauleen Smith, USA, 2015, DCP, 11 minutes

H-E-L-L-O, Cauleen Smith, USA, 2014, DCP, 11 minutes

Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band, Cauleen Smith, USA, 2011, DCP, 10 minutes

Following the screening, Cauleen Smith will be in conversation with Matthew Barrington, Essay Film Festival.

With the support of Arts Council England.

In this session, we present a programme of recent shorts by the artist and filmmaker Cauleen Smith. An interdisciplinary artist, Smith’s work has a strong connection to afro-futurist traditions in jazz music, Third Cinema and structuralist film, and since her debut feature film, Drylongso (recently restored by the Academy Film Archive), Smith has worked primarily within the spaces of the gallery and experimental film. This programme highlights Smith’s interpretations and re-imaginings of the music of Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra, her interests in science fiction interwoven with African-American history, and the ways in which the historical and contemporary can be brought into dialogue through artistic practice. Pilgrim, H-E-L-L-O and Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band all bring together musical performance with significant local sites. Three Songs About Liberation and Crow Requiem both continue Smith’s interest in local history through metaphor and staged performances. The programme concludes with Smith’s most recent film, Sojourner, which sees Smith repurpose the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum in Joshua Tree, California as a radical feminist utopia, incorporating a homage to the feminist abolitionist and human rights activist Sojourner Truth.